Travis Kalanick's 'Profound Apology' Is a Cautionary Lesson for Young Founders
The Uber CEO's public angst about berating a driver and confronting sexual harassment allegations reveals the need to grow in personal skills as well as business skills.
The “profound apology” issued by Uber founder and CEO Travis Kalanick that he must “fundamentally change as a leader and grow up,” in response to a video showing him berating a driver that went viral, underscores how the pressures of a high-growth startup can undermine leadership development when and where it’s needed most.
In his apology, posted on the Uber site, Kalanick admitted, “This is the first time I’ve been willing to admit that I need leadership help and I intend to get it.” For Kalanick, who has also faced criticism for the culture at his company after sexual harassment allegations went public in a blog by a former employee, this is a crucial admission. The serial entrepreneur, who founded file sharing startup Red Swoosh in his early 20s and Uber in his early 30s, shows the importance of entrepreneurs developing holistically -- vertically into self-awareness and self-management, as well as horizontally across the skills needed to run a business.
Kalanick’s statement that, “My job as your leader is to lead…and that starts with behaving in a way that makes us all proud,” is also a cautionary tale for entrepreneurs who don’t put sufficient emphasis on personal and leadership development.
As our work with young entrepreneurs shows, capturing the investors’ interest takes more than just a great idea or even good results. Founders who exhibit self-awareness, leadership ability and agility, and who can grow along with their company, will be more likely to go the distance. The intensity and pace of launching and scaling a high-growth startup are so great, young founders, in particular, must pay attention to the amplifying effects of speed on their leadership. Entrepreneurs who develop holistically establish the foundation for building the necessary confidence to manage complex relationships, competing priorities, and fast-paced decisions.
While it’s common for young entrepreneurs to have mentors, many of whom are experienced entrepreneurs and investors, much of the feedback from these sources is focused on the functional elements of business-building (product development, marketing, design, finance etc.). What’s far less common is thoughtful guidance on how these founders successfully evolve into leaders -- and how their “executive DNA” may positively or negatively impact the success of their early ventures.
No matter how good the idea or convincing the business model, a startup rises and falls on the leader’s capacity to develop and grow alongside the business. There are three dimensions of awareness that deepen a young founders EQ.
Awareness One: Strengths, Weaknesses and Derailers
Without self-awareness of one’s strengths and weaknesses, it becomes difficult if not impossible to build a team with complementary skills and expertise. To gain this awareness, young founders need to reflect on the key strengths essential to the team and to the success of the business. They also should know when to rely on others’ strengths and perspectives.
The temptation among many organizations, including startups, is for leaders to gravitate toward those who are “same as me.” But as research has found, homogeneity can stifle creativity and hold back the organization. A team that is diverse in terms of gender, race and ethnicity, as well as experience, thinking styles, and background is better equipped to tackle problems and bring to bear insights that create breakthrough innovations. One cannot do this without a high degree of self-awareness.
Awareness Two: Orientation to Conflict
Without understanding their orientation to conflict, founders will struggle to manage difficult or disappointing conversations. Key reflections here are how they manage interpersonal conflict with others, and how they manage operational conflicts among competing priorities and commitments.
For founding leaders of startups, there’s no avoiding bad news, disappointing results, tough feedback, and making hard decisions that leave others unhappy. A “softer” version of conflict comes into play internally as the young founder struggles with when and how to say no. The leader who learns the art of a “positive no” is more apt to maintain a laser focus on priorities in the business and in their personal productivity. They will also avoid the classic trap of becoming over-committed and yielding anemic results across the board; unable to prioritize and delegate authority to others, particularly as the company grows.
Awareness Three: Your Values and Purpose
Though last on this list, knowing one’s values is perhaps the most important awareness founders must have, as their personal values establish their startup’s culture. Key questions here are what do you stand for, and why does this venture exist?
Much like the process of product development, developing one’s identity as a leader is an iterative, others-focused process that involves trial and error. However, the leader’s identity and toolkit are often developed at warp speed as their business begins to scale. Without a clear sense of one’s values and purpose, founders are less likely to project the optimism and confidence demanded of them, and are more likely to become over-invested in their image, less open to learning, and less clear about their goals.
In the corporate world, leaders typically gain these three dimensions of awareness as they build a sense of self over time, through training, experience, and classic management relationships. But high-growth startups are a “heat inducing laboratory” in which young founders are thrust into high-stakes leadership roles quickly, and sometimes prematurely, as the business scales and the team grows. This makes foundational coaching and interpersonal development more important early on, even before a startup is launched. In this respect, founder-leader fit is a close second to product-market fit.
For many young founders, the first taste of executive leadership accompanies the excitement and pressure of a startup launch. For those who grow both horizontally across business functions and vertically in leadership maturity and skill, success may be more likely, and certainly more satisfying. Chances are, they’ll never have to apologize publicly for a lack of leadership maturity as Kalanick just did.
David Schonthal is a portfolio director at IDEO and a professor at Kellogg School of Management in innovation and entrepreneurship. He is the faculty director of the Zell Fellows Program, a selective venture accelerator program helping student entrepreneurs launch new businesses. Brooke Vuckovic is an executive coach working with c-suite leaders; she teaches young leaders and executives at Kellogg School of Management.