Just Who Has the Right Skills to Turn Uber Around?

Just Who Has the Right Skills to Turn Uber Around?

Just Who Has the Right Skills to Turn Uber Around?

access_time Aug/01/2017

Last week, Hewlett Packard Enterprise CEO Meg Whitman decided to clear the air. The executive took to Twitter -- an account that largely hadn’t been active since 2011 -- to make this statement about whether she would step into Uber's CEO position vacated by Travis Kalanick.

(3/3) We have a lot of work still to do at HPE and I am not going anywhere. Uber's CEO will not be Meg Whitman.

— Meg Whitman (@MegWhitman) July 28, 2017

Her answer was a resounding no. So who is it going to be? Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg and GM CEO Mary Barra apparently aren’t interested either. Two of the names that have floated to the surface are Jeffery Immelt, who will leave his post as CEO of GE this week, and Mark Fields, who was CEO at Ford.

Kyle Jensen, associate dean and director of entrepreneurship at the Yale School of Management, says he thinks that those leaders would be sensible choices.

“Each is a Silicon Valley outsider and each presided over complex multi-national operations, which is relevant as Uber races Lyft and others around the globe," Jensen says. "Unfortunately for Uber, it's culture was ill-shaped by the leadership of founder Travis Kalanick. Uber is in the enviable position of leading the ride share market, which will provide some breathing room and time to instill more sound ethics in the organization. Until the culture is fixed, it will be a tax on the company.”

As the search continues for a new person to helm the embattled ride hailing company, but reports indicate it hasn’t been the smoothest transition. And that’s before you get into turning around a company that has spent months beset by scandal.

As Kalanick remains on Uber’s board, how much of an impact the former CEO will have on the day-to-day operations of the company remain somewhat unclear, but it would seem that he isn’t quite comfortable with the idea of taking a backseat to new leadership.

Related: Travis Kalanick Stepped Down, But Uber's Problems Won't Be Instantly Solved

According to Kara Swisher in Recode, some are concerned that Kalanick is “trying to game the outcome in his favor, after he told several people that he was 'Steve Jobs-ing it.' It is a reference to the late leader of Apple, who was fired from the company, only to later return in triumph.”

In April, Uber’s valuation was hovering around $50 billion -- still high, but a significant dip from the $70 billion valuation that made it the most valuable private company in the world. For the members of the board who have put money and time into the growth of the company, finding a new CEO isn’t just about righting Uber’s cultural woes but also getting a return on their investment.

“This next CEO could potentially be the CEO to take the company public,” notes Dr. Marsha Ershaghi Hames, managing director of strategy and development at LRN, a firm that specializes in helping companies build cultures and systems of leadership that promote ethical behavior. But in order for the new leadership to succeed, it can’t just be about the money.

Related: Uber Recently Gave Pay Raises, But Are They Enough to Keep Employees Around?

“We're in this era where we're doing well when we're doing the right thing,” Ershagi Hames says. “My advice to whoever is leading the recruitment and evaluation for the next Uber CEO is there isn't going to be one individual or one silver bullet. That individual put into the position of leadership needs to lead by building trust, by driving an open and transparent dialogue, by being willing to listen first and by connecting profit with purpose.”

One of the central tasks that a new CEO will have to contend with is recreating the company’s culture. The investigation conducted by former attorney general Eric Holder highlighted the most toxic elements that need to be removed in order for Uber to move forward, but Heather Huhman, career expert and the president of Come Recommended, says that it can be tough to impose a new culture, especially if it is seen as coming from an outsider.

“Culture is discovered rather than created -- and a new leader will need to listen very carefully to the people inside Uber to find the stories and values that they can amplify to propel them forward," she says. "This will be the defining trait of the right person -- that they are able to find a voice for the people that are there, rather than bringing all the ideas from outside. These are hard questions that the company needs to grapple with, and they will require an extremely skilled listener and communicator to turn the ship.”

Related: The Rise and Fall of Uber and Travis Kalanick

Brett Stephens, the CEO of executive search and leadership consulting firm RSR Partners, agrees. He says that he thinks the main trait that a successful CEO leading a turnaround must have is a capacity for empathy.

“Uber is a perfect example of how artificial intelligence and digital disruption are quickly recalibrating the CEO’s desired skillset,” Stephens says. “These chief executives need to be experts in collaboration, engagement and human interaction. This ability to connect with others will likely be the defining leadership trait of our generation. If deployed adeptly, empathy will enable a new CEO to not only excel at reshaping the company, but also build a culture that empowers employees, strengthens the company and rewards investors.”

While Uber’s first era was marked by sharp elbows and a win-at-all-costs mentality, for the company to succeed in its next chapter, the person at the helm will do well to listen rather than talk.

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For example, here are the answers from one of the respondents, a marketing executive, and those I suggested to him:

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1. Get parent company buy-in.

When I was having conversations with RBmedia management during the acquisition process about what made Audiobooks.com different, we always jumped to the people we have on board (before we even got into the numbers). Our staff is a dedicated, fun-loving, culture-first team, so discussing the preservation of some important policy-based pillars of the Audiobooks.com culture was an important part of the deal. Casual dress code, flexible working hours and unlimited paid vacation all remained because our new management team respected that we had a good thing going on and agreed, as the saying goes, “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.”

We also discussed my budget allocation for “other employee costs,” and RBmedia was supportive of investing in culture by funding monthly socials, healthy breakfasts and a great holiday party. It’s no secret that employees will care about their work if they feel that their work cares about them. Plus, turnover is expensive in a niche industry. Between the job posting fees and the loss of productivity while someone is being trained, each new hire costs the company a significant amount of money. By retaining the hallmarks of the Audiobooks.com culture and making an effort to show staff that we care, we retained 100 percent of our pre-acquisition talent into the post-acquisition period; that’s a number I take pride in.

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2. Offer a robust and dynamic program.

One of our core value statements is “we are a fun community” because we want the office to be a great place for people to spend their time. We often like to say that our employees aren’t chained to their desks: We encourage frequent breaks to play games, e.g. bocce ball when the Canadian weather cooperates, not only because it makes people happier, but because it stimulates creativity and encourages employee bonding. By setting that precedent, initiatives like an office book club and ping-pong league recently sprang up organically, without management introducing them, and at no company cost. I think it’s the sense of community these activities foster that carried our company culture through the acquisition.

As a tech company, we hire a lot of millennials who have expectations as to what a workplace should offer in 2017: free food, flexibility, an aesthetically-pleasing space, fun activities, etc. As I am a firm believer in these priorities, we host an in-house masseuse once a month (our benefits cover massages), and we recently introduced bi-weekly yoga and mindfulness classes in an unused boardroom. Offering competitive perks and office programs can make all the difference for attracting top talent in today’s market, and can encourage that talent to stick around and stay engaged even through the uncertainty of an acquisition. 

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3. Develop a sense of employee ownership.

We frequently initiate formal employee engagement surveys as well as informal conversations with HR to check in on how everyone is feeling. It was crucial to ramp up this practice throughout the acquisition process to keep close tabs on the office climate, and tweak our approach as necessary. In response to a post-acquisition survey, for example, we made changes to how inter-departmental projects are managed. Having a dynamic approach to what we offer in the workplace and how we organize our workflow keeps us efficient and in tune with employee needs. This adaptability and understanding of shifting employee needs is likely a key reason why our engagement score rings in at high numbers time and again.

Our monthly performance reviews also focus on how each individual contributes to company objectives, to keep people feeling connected to the big picture. We encourage ownership and autonomy and in turn, we have a culture of self-starters who are committed to the business and its performance. We also deliberately touch base on people’s personal lives during these meetings, so that we can keep work/life balance in check and find ways to support our employees during good and bad times. We’ve fostered an environment in which every employee feels important and invested in the company’s success, and the business results speak for themselves.

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I believe that you can’t change company culture without impacting the bottom line, and I wonder if Walmart finally accepted Jet.com’s approach because it was starting to see some negative effects. On the contrary, I’m proud that Audiobooks.com’s new parent company RBmedia shared my vision that we’re successful because of our office culture -- not in spite of it -- and I’m confident that our staff retention, engagement and recruitment will continue to benefit because of it.

There will be change post-acquisition. Processes will get updated and operations will be altered, along with some other inevitabilities. But, by recognizing that culture has value, investing in it and nurturing it, it doesn’t need to be a casualty of a good acquisition -- it can be the hallmark of a great one.

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