“What CEOs Can Learn from Uber” – Elsie Maio
Why was the ousting of Travis Kalanick at Uber inevitable?
According to the official report from former US attorney general Eric Holder and Covington, the law firm he represents, Uber’s problems are linked to its cultural values. One of their recommendations is as follows:
Reformulate Uber’s 14 Cultural Values. Uber should reformulate its written cultural values because it is vital that they reflect more inclusive and positive behaviors. To achieve this reformulation of the values, there are several steps Uber should undertake: work with an established and respected organization that is experienced in organizational change to restate the values with significant input from employees; consider further defining the values in a manner more accessible to and more easily understood by employees; adopt values that are more inclusive and contribute to a collaborative environment, including emphasizing teamwork and mutual respect, and incorporating diversity and inclusiveness as a key cultural value, not just as an end in itself, but as a fundamental aspect of doing good business; reduce the overall number of values, and eliminate those values which have been identified as redundant or as having been used to justify poor behavior, including Let Builders Build, Always Be Hustlin’, Meritocracy and Toe-Stepping, and Principled Confrontation; and encourage senior leaders to exhibit the values on a daily basis and to model a more collaborative and inclusive Uber culture. Leaders who embody these values should be part of the process of redefining Uber’s values and should be role models for other leaders within the company. All of Uber’s senior leaders should be responsible for embracing and communicating the reformulated values to employees.
The process they are recommending is part of the process I developed called SoulBranding℠. Let’s take a step back, and try to understand the broader picture.
In his seminal HBR article, What Only The CEO Can Do, Procter and Gamble’s A.G. Lafley taught us that there is one critical job that only the CEO can do – which is to link the outside (society, economy, technology, customers, stakeholders) with the inside world (the organization).
From our perspective, that elegantly simple frame is still a useful context for the CEO committed to creating sustained value now. But the growing complexity of what constitutes ‘inside’ and ‘outside’ over the past decade, and how to link them, adds new tasks to the CEO’s to-do list.
For Lafley, there were four tasks that a CEO had to focus on to achieve this linkage:
- Define the external stakeholder that matters most
- Decide what business to be in
- Balance the future and the present
- Define company values and standards to encourage the right behaviors
So what went wrong with Uber?
Today’s company is challenged by volatile economic trends and many more challenging stakeholders, inside and outside, than when Lafley wrote that article. In that swirl, Uber’s fatal mistake was being out of balance with the zeitgeist. Its myopic intent to grow, and bravado as an ‘extreme disruptor’ blinded it to culturally acceptable “right behaviors” as a member of human society.
Other, innovation-aggressive firms would be well advised to take note of their own balance.
Now, as then, the CEO is the only one who can knit the crucial linkages that ensure trust and relevance within the company, and between the company’s inside and outside worlds. And today, they can only do that by empowering others using their unique set of relational SoulValues℠.
Soul Values and the CEO
Are values really that important? Yes, they are. And if you doubt that, you just might be the problem.
Independent surveys and our own client practice show that one of the main barriers to corporate performance is a lack of clarity of how corporate goals and corporate strategy translate into employees’ roles – and more to the point, their consistent actions.
How can the CEO manage the dynamics of a complex organization using personal principles such as values?
The answer is twofold: one, by embodying the relevant values, and two, by aligning operations with values. This empowers employees to find their own expression of those values aligned with corporate purpose and objectives. CEOs who pay attention to values-alignment in their organizations feed a virtuous cycle of outstanding creativity and business performance.
Such a CEO demonstrates three behaviors:
- radiates the personal values aligned with contemporary values
- empowers every employee to create freely, and wisely
- aligns the critical systems inside the company
The SoulBranding℠ process draws a direct line from values to behaviors.
Alignment and The Values Turnaround
Previously, in an article describing SoulBranding℠ we stated:
“Organizations will make a quantum leap in trust and creative collaborations when they legitimize, and even celebrate, their motivating social values. These are the deeply held human and social impulses that move people to act in their own and their communities’ best interests.”
The SoulBranding process aligns values and their hallmark behaviors, as employees and key stakeholders themselves define them.
It is systems thinking applied to management and leadership.
As the celebrated corporate leader, Gordon Bethune told me recently, “You can’t do it through rules-based management, Elsie.” And his observation is supported not only by his own sustained track record in turning the performance of an airline around 360degrees, “From Worst to First,” but in the dominant management theories and success stories today.
The turnaround that was led by Bethune is still a benchmark for business performance. Continental Airlines went from being ranked last in every measurable performance category to winning more J.D. Power and Associates awards for Customer Satisfaction than any other airline in the world. Gordon’s wisdom in leading more than 50,000 employees to the highest levels of satisfaction and market performance is rooted in his astute understanding of human nature, and empowering those people through values. “Dignity and respect, D and R,” is his shorthand for creating sustained winning partnership.
Now that transparency is the rule, any incongruity between what the company says it stands for and what it does (either in the person of the CEO, or others) translates as a breach in credibility, trust and depending on the nature of the gap, rejection.
Uber and companies like Uber would do well to learn from Bethune. Values-based, vibrant organizations lead by policy that speaks to their higher angels, not rules that try to force compliance.
And this is why the brand is only as valid as the authenticity of the CEO.
Elsie Maio has guided leaders in the Fortune 100 for over 25 years to achieve specific business goals by managing their brands strategically. She is an alumna of McKinsey & Company as well as strategy-practice leader at premier corporate identity firms. Since 1997 her own firm has helped CEOs prepare for what she then identified as “the coming tsunami of corporate accountability.”
Her firm – Humanity, Inc is the successor company to Maio & Co, which emerged in 1994, born from three consulting disciplines: business strategy, brand strategy and values-led operations.
Humanity, Inc., SoulBrandSM, SoulBrandingSM, Being the BrandSM are service marks of Humanity, Inc. 1997-2017.