A few weeks ago, we all woke up to the news of Mr. Travis Kalanick having finally resigned from Uber’s responsibilities citing difficulties in his personal life. As you might be aware, just a few weeks after appointing the former US attorney general to investigate issues going at Uber and a few days after taking an indefinite leave from his CEO duties at the company he founded. After such developments, most of us thought that the company was going to stabilize and finally breakaway from the negative stories, which emerged from the company’s string of negative events about some Uber drivers mistreating or violating the rights of the clients and finally, the big story about sexism in the company thanks to none other than Susan Fowler, a former Uber engineer who red-flagged the company for sexism and the nature of power struggle within.
Mr. Kalanick is the co-founder of the peer-to-peer file sharing company Red Swoosh and now, a former CEO of the Uber transportation network. After watching and reading news across several online platforms that Mr. Kalanick had resigned, there was no much surprise due to the manner in which events followed each other, building up one after the other. As a person working with start-up founders on daily basis, I felt a bit concerned about the startup setup struggles, the company creation process and finally, when you are successful; bigger challenges await on the way.
I thought that may be, all promising start-up founders and companies need to be prepared for success in a special way and inline with the way the world has become today. Ideally, as it is today, something is not adding up somewhere in what transpired at Uber and many more other start-ups we have heard about in the past, VC firms in silicon valley and so on. More information has to come to light for the outsiders to real understand what went on inside the company, but also in Silicon Valley now so similar stories are starting to come to light.
As we mentioned above, Uber hired former US Attorney General Eric Holder to probe into allegations of sexism and the power struggle within. He was later adopted by the company as a culture change adviser/ agent, after his report on his findings. This is of course a great effort that must be commended even if it might have happened too late, but at least they took the initiative to do so.
But how did all this happen and get to this point, in this era?
First, when Uber became a successful company the team of employees who worked at the company at the time might have been caught by surprise and it is said that they organized a celebratory event/ party back in 2013, at the head of organization of course there was none other than Mr. Kalanick.
Some articles allege that Mr. Kalanick wrote a letter to the staff detailing cases under which colleagues could be allowed to have sex between themselves, you can find this letter online if you are interested in reading details. However, it is also said that he planned to celibate during the entire event.
As I read the story in the news-outlets today, I kept thinking, “could this letter have been the trigger that got us to the story of the day about the company?”
Success is addictive, but it is also like a very dangerous drug… if abused, it may destroy all the efforts we spend trying to get to that hard-fought success status, which majority of us never get to enjoy anyway, as it is the case today with Mr. Kalanick. This is sad, we see it happen over and over and something must be done about it. Let us hope that agreements, settlements and necessary measures are taken to prevent such incidents from happening, and pave way for the company and Mr. Kalanick to continue to do what they are good at, bringing breakthrough and disruptive innovations to the people who need it the most.
We have seen success destroy Hollywood actors and actress careers, and many more successful people. Most of us be like: “if I were the one in that position, I would have not done this or that….” However, we do forget that it is not happening to us because we are not yet successful. Once successful, you never get to know what that will do to you until it has happened and the endless struggle to dealing with the consequences. Success, if not very well managed is as destructive as a drug, especially with today’s social media, the news flow too fast for anyone no matter how successful or powerful they are to contain it. So, I believe it is better to be preventive rather than being reactionary in strategy.
The curse of young CEOs. Is not a story of today alone!
It appears young CEOs or Start-up Founders continue to go through challenging times earlier in their start-ups corporate careers. Someone reading this email may react like… ohhh no, Mr. Kalanick called for it by the way he managed the company or what was he thinking when he wrote the 2013 celebratory letter to his employees!
The fact is, nobody knows what will strike and how it will strike. It can be triggered by individuals’ mistakes, lack of experience or from outside the company. Whichever way, we don’t have to wait until something goes wrong. In the case of Uber, one could tell that something is about to go up in flames. Do you remember those stories about Uber drivers’ sexual harassment and assaults to passengers? I tend to think that for the torch to beam its light towards Uber, those stories played a very huge role. It started from outside the company until something was red flagged at the heart of the company itself. When something is cooking, you can always smell the rock in the vicinity! At this time, if I were a successful startup, I would start looking at what is cooking in my own kitchen.
However, we all have a duty to put in place preventive policies and measures, consultative forums and so on in an effort to create an open, fair and conducive culture in our companies. One thing that keeps failing these companies, is to fail to take action from the very first reported reported incident. I wish something could be improved at that level.
Unfortunately, we never get to know the true reality as the outside audience, we will only get to learn different facades to every core story but not the actual reality. Evidently whether you are a great CEO or a Great Founder/ co-founder; I do believe it is about time potential successful start-ups’ owners, thought of seeking professional help that is completely different from the people they surround themselves with in the board or among directors of the company.
This is not to say that directors are not trust worthy, they are members of the board because they are fully trusted and it is believed they add huge value propositions to the vision of the company. So, the consultation or involvement of professional services doesn’t imply lack of trust at the board level at all, but rather another layer to help bridge the gap among companies’ leadership and operational structures.
How will that professional service be determined or dealt with by Startups?
Professional services will be hired to simply bridge the information gap at the top of the company’s leadership and what is going on at the different structures or levels of the company, mostly structured to cultivate a culture of openness, fairness, mutual professional respect, detecting issues before it is too late etc.
Such professionals could be hired based on trending challenges and issues in early stage companies or successful start-ups, and they could be put in place just for consultative purposes on what is generally acceptable, professional advise that could be written in the company’s codes of ethics and policies and provide professional advice on how to mitigate long term negative impact to the vision of the company, its leadership structures and the people in the company. Ensuring that top leaders are fully connected and aware of what is going on at the operational level at all time through clear structures which break the walls between low level employees and top leadership.
Today for example, everybody knows that sexism or sexual harassment is an issue that must be taken care of in workplaces, if we are to have conducive and fair work environments to all of us. Another leading issue for example is the gender pay gap. We are all aware that in most countries today, minority communities’ involvement into the corporate growth or decision-making position in companies is another huge issue and so on. Can we track these issues and prevent them from happening before they happen? I believe we can.
It is also important to remember that tracking these issues and embedding them into our policies is not sufficient. A conducive work environment must be cultivated, alarms or reporting mechanism can be facilitated or enhanced and also discuss them periodically to make sure that nobody claims to have been unaware, or for the person feeling harassed or unfairly treated to have an opportunity to air their grievances. This way, we will not wait for five months or five years to hear about such stories, but rather provide an opportunity for red-flagging to work before it becomes detrimental to the company’s vision and its people.
So the question is, should we wait until these issues start happening in our companies and workplace to act on them or should we be proactive and seek that professional guidance/ help, make sure they are embedded into our corporate culture right from the onset rather than later, if you get what I mean… something must be done sooner than later, and the time to act, is to be slightly ahead of the time and deal with such issues on preventive measures rather than reactionary tendencies.
What will happen to both Uber as a company and Mr. Kalanick as an Ex-CEO might now be left to be decisions to be taken by courts. However, recruiting a female CEO will not change the culture and the environment at the company. More is required to create that conducive environment for everyone and whatever they will do, it must be embedded in the company’s organizational culture and values. Or should Mr. Kalanick escape the public for a while and make a return to the company’s management? you never until you know! Anyway; let us wait and see what evolves after resignation of the company’s CEO.