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Can Uber Evolve – Quickly?

Shifting culture and leadership norms is hard, but there are a number of moves that could help Uber evolve.
Guest Writer
Senior Lecturer at the MIT Sloan School of Management
5 min read
Opinions expressed by Entrepreneur contributors are their own.

I’m a huge fan of Uber and use its services all the time. Still, I can’t deny it’s been a tough couple of weeks for Uber. A blog post by a woman employee who credibly seems to be claiming sexual harassment and retaliation for making those claims was widely covered in the media. Days later, a video that showed the CEO arguing vehemently with an Uber driver about rates went viral. Plus, revelations about “grey-balling” -- preventing certain people from accessing the Uber system -- put the company in an unfavorable light with a number of different stakeholders.

In the aftermath of these news items, Uber has taken some swift action. A board member, Arianna Huffington, flew in for listening meetings and the company hired former Attorney General Eric Holder to investigate the allegations of sexual harassment. And, the company announced it was searching a for chief operating officer to work with the CEO, Travis Kalanick.

Related: How a Strong HR Function Could Have Helped Uber Avoid the Sexual Harassment Scandal

Kalanick for his part acknowledged that he needs to “fundamentally change as a leader and grow up.” These actions are a necessary start, but are not sufficient to address the underlying causes of Uber’s problems.

Uber has relentlessly focused on scaling globally, growing to 11,000 employees in a very short time span. Scaling quickly is important in a business where “winners often take most.” 

But, it’s also clear that senior leaders were not paying attention to the strategic, cultural and leadership shifts that needed to occur as the company grew. In particular: 

  • Strategically, senior leaders seem to have focused on minimal viable products, rapid experimentation, running their “playbook” for entering cities, hiring people as quickly as possible, coring and tipping the Uber platform. As they grew, they lost sight of the need for a “systems-view” and dismissed the need to integrate or collaborate with other parts of city eco-systems.
  • Culturally, senior leaders valued performance more than how that performance was achieved. They continuously recognized and rewarded “fierceness,” and those who seemed to “always be hustling.” These highly prized elements of Uber’s culture worked early on but turned out to have a dark side as the company grew. Competing with other employees became more important than collaborating. Respecting different viewpoints and enrolling others wasn’t valued at the cost of psychological safety and greater fear.
  • In terms of leadership: By necessity, Uber runs a very decentralized model that allows different regions to run independently and meet the particular dynamics of a city. Unless Uber works proactively to prevent it, their recent problems are likely to replicate themselves at the local level.

Related: What Does Uber Need to Do to Fix Its Battered Reputation?

So, what can Uber do now?

Uber needs to repair its reputation, shift its culture and continue to grow sustainably. Shifting culture and leadership norms is hard, but there are a number of moves that could help Uber evolve more quickly. At a minimum they’ll need to:

Work at the top to bring in respected outside talent in prominent leadership roles to refresh and renew the company. Very often credible people from the outside can help spark a critical mass of leaders to act in new ways. Many people have wondered whether Travis Kalanick should be fired. If he knew about the harassment claims and did nothing, then probably yes. But, if not, then why not keep the expertise and insight, send a message that everyone can learn and grow, and keep him as chairman, giving day-to-day operating responsibilities to the new COO? Uber will also need to make visible changes to the role, processes and deliverables of HR so that the function is strategic, at the planning table and more than just recruitment and compliance. Finally, Uber’s most senior leaders must continue to put themselves in some uncomfortable, unfamiliar situations so that they’ll see the Uber system more directly and continue to ask better questions about how best to move Uber ahead. 

Related: Does Your Company Culture Match Your Brand?

Engage the leaders one to two levels below the C-suite about their role and responsibilities in modeling a new kind of leadership. These leaders -- because they touch the majority of Uber’s employees and drivers -- can have far more impact on Uber’s culture than the CEO and COO will have. It will be critical in working with these leaders to create and promulgate some provocative rules that challenge many of the norms (beliefs, habits and assumptions) that currently make up Uber’s culture. The decisions these leaders make -- what they do, notice and say (in that order) every day -- will ultimately determine if Uber repairs its reputation, attracts and retains talent, and grows in the future.

Enroll the wider Uber workforce in refreshing and revising Uber’s 14 values. Uber needs to spark and support a company-wide conversation about culture -- what norms, beliefs and habits to keep, what to add, what to throw away. Handled well, these conversations can be very useful in managing the inherent tensions in growing quickly and profitably while respecting all types of employees, collaborating on the inside while still competing effectively.

Two key questions remain: Will Uber take action to address the underlying root causes of their recent woes? And, will their current investors give them the time and space to help the company’s leaders grow and mature?

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