Dara Khosrowshahi, who's been CEO of Uber for a couple of months after leaving the same position at Expedia, today was asked by Andrew Ross Sorkin of the New York Times DealBook how he reacted when Uber's board first got in touch about his possibly leading the company. "I ignored the call," Khosrowshahi said.
A few months ago, there should have been little wonder why. Uber had a football field full of problems: sexual harassment charges, claims that the company used bid data to avoid law enforcement, allegations that it hiked prices during the London Bridge terrorist attack, an FBI probe, employees jumping ship, and a lawsuit, filed by Google's parent, for alleged theft of self-driving car technology. That's just for starters. It seemed like the only thing the company wasn't accused of was murdering kittens on YouTube.
So Khosrowshahi's reticence was understandable. And then a friend reminded him of why he was interested in running businesses and how Uber might be the next logical career step.
At a conference ... I had drinks with a friend, Daniel Ek, who runs Spotify. And he asks me about it. He says, 'Have they called you? Because I told them to give you a call.' I said, 'Yeah, but I ignored that.' And he said, 'Why the hell did you ignore that.' I said, 'I'm happy.' He said, 'Since when is life about being happy? It's about doing something great.'
In business, it's too easy to settle. Khosrowshahi waved aside an opportunity by saying he was happy. It could happen to anyone in business. But the real meaning wasn't that he was happy in the sense of satisfied. Instead, things were working out, going smoothly, and he could sit back at a company he had headed for years. That's a dangerous attitude.
If you want to retire and can, go ahead. If you've got the drive for business, however, you'll be bored silly. Khosrowshahi had essentially retired. The business was fine and there was nothing to complain about. However, he had lost a vision, which is never a passive state where you wait to see if you're "happy."
To aspire to greatness is to be in active pursuit of something worth your time. Maybe it's improving your current business or starting a new venture. But you need to keep that sense of movement in running a company. Once you stop, it drifts and is unimportant. You lose focus and your ability to manage will quickly fall. But you can turn that around by remembering what is important.
Keeping a light attitude can be productive
Ultimately convinced, Khosrowshahi called Uber back and became part of the CEO search process. He called the chairman of Expedia, Barry Diller, to explain what was going on. "He wasn't happy about it, but he totally got it and he was very supportive," Khosrowshahi said.
The experience became a bit surreal.
Until that last weekend, for me, I kind of thought the whole thing was a lark, because you've got these giants of industry -- Jeff Imelt, Meg Whitman, etc., these capital names that they're talking to. And then there's this mystery candidate, who's me, and basically I'm the only one who knows and a couple of people who are really close in my life. I honestly thought that I was just a side hobby for the board, just in case.
When Khosrowshahi talked of the experience feeling like a lark, he described a powerful and useful attitude. Instead of vesting all of his interests in this opportunity, which could be a nightmare for all he knew, he kept some emotional distance. He enjoyed the process of exploring the opportunity but never poured himself into it. Never expecting to be chosen, he avoided becoming frustrated or angry. He could be serious without taking himself seriously.
For entrepreneurs, opportunities can seem like everything. You want the chance to grow your business or sell a new client or make your mark. But think about what happens when you're overly focused on the outcome. If something goes wrong, it can be devastating. You also lose perspective on everything else happening in the business.
The likely result was that Khosrowshahi had the calm and relaxed appearance of a winner. No strain because he had no expectations. He'd be able to answer questions and project confidence. Expecting nothing, the board was in the negotiation position of needing him more than he needed them, because he never thought he'd be picked in the first place.
Similarly, you may find yourself with an opportunity that seems too good to be true, or that maybe you want a bit too much. It might be a chance to make a sale, interest by investors in your company, or even a job offer. Step back, tell yourself that it's unlikely you'll get what you want, and take the pressure off.
For Khosrowshahi, the result was that he got an opportunity to turn a major brand around when facing off against business icons.