Uber’s Leadership Crisis Demonstrates How Values Impact Brand

Travis Kalanick, founder-CEO of Uber, at the 2014 Launch Festival.

By Tyler Wagner

It appears that Uber’s chickens have come home to roost.

A steady drip of negative stories over the past several weeks has snowballed into a full communications crisis — one that peaked recently, as CEO Travis Kalanick fought through tears to admit that the time has come to “grow up” and that he needs “leadership help.”

Widely hailed as the world’s most valuable startup, the company has been in the headlines lately for all the wrong reasons.

In case you haven’t been following, the most recent installment of “Uber’s Toxic Culture Exposed” featured a dashboard video of Kalanick having a less-than-cordial exchange with an Uber driver. This on the heels of allegations that, among other things, the company was permissive of sexual harassment, stole a competitor’s designs for an autonomous vehicle, and has actively employed technology to circumvent law enforcement.

Reading even one of the aforementioned stories might lead one to reasonably suspect, as I did, that Uber’s “win at all costs” culture — the same culture that led to the company’s meteoric rise — might have its downside.

And then this nugget from a Feb. 22 article in the New York Times:

When new employees join Uber, they are asked to subscribe to 14 core company values, including making bold bets, being “obsessed” with the customer, and “always be hustlin’.” The ride-hailing service particularly emphasizes “meritocracy,” the idea that the best and brightest will rise to the top based on their efforts, even if it means stepping on toes to get there, the Times reported.

Those values have helped propel Uber to one of Silicon Valley’s biggest success stories. The company is valued at close to $70 billion by private investors and now operates in more than 70 countries.

Yet the focus on pushing for the best result has also fueled what current and former Uber employees describe as a Hobbesian environment at the company, in which workers are sometimes pitted against one another and where a blind eye is turned to infractions from top performers.

If that sounds like the kind of place you want to spend over eight hours a day, five days a week, then knock yourself out.

Jokes aside, the whole drama is a fascinating case study of toxic values in action, and the connection between culture and brand.

Disruptive technology (a phrase that I cringe while typing) is by definition, disruptive. If you’re rendering your competitor’s business models obsolete — a la Uber — you’re going to step on some toes. I get it.

But there’s a difference between a set of values that promotes a healthy competitive spirit and one that encourages employees to view co-workers and the law as mere obstacles to overcome on the climb to the top.

If Uber’s recent challenges tell us anything, it’s that values matter. And that success built on toxic culture is unsustainable. People just don’t want to engage with brands that don’t share their values. For further reading on this topic, google “VW” or “Wells Fargo” and check out the “news” results. Seriously do it, it’s amazing how long it takes to recover from the damage of a toxic culture.

On the flip side, there are plenty of companies — wildly successful ones — that have flourishing cultures built on a foundation of healthy values.

Southwest Airlines’ values include “don’t take yourself too seriously.” Zappos emphasizes “humility, honesty and team spirit.” REI’s values include a commitment to “a code of rock-solid ethics, honesty and decency.” Together, these read like the antitheses of Uber’s values.

And not behaving like jerks doesn’t make Southwest, Zappos or REI any less competitive or successful. On the contrary: people are eager to engage with them, in part because they share their values.

For Southwest, Zappos and REI, values are more than just words on a page of the employee handbook or a corporate website. They underpin their entire brands, and — alongside other foundational pieces of purpose-driven messaging like mission, vision, and strategy — play a key role in their internal and external communications.

They’ve found common ground with customers, employees, and communities because they’ve effectively communicated that their values are aligned.

So how do we create cultures and build brands that are more like Southwest Airlines and less like any one of the more negative examples referenced above?

We have to ask ourselves a few key questions: What are our values? Do our stakeholders share them? How do they support our mission and vision? Are they a part of a larger, purpose-driven strategy? How effectively are we communicating those values to our customers, employees, and the community at-large?

The list of questions is by no means exhaustive. But, it’s a good place to start.

And they’re important questions to ask. Because the reality is that values shape brands from the inside out — for better or (in Uber’s case) for worse.

Image credit: Flickr/JD Lasica

Tyler Wagner is Director of Client Strategy for thinkPARALLAX, a sustainability communications consultancy with a passion for building brands with purpose. For more information, visit www.thinkparallax.com

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