The world has learned a lot about new business models from Uber. "We want to be the Uber of ______" has become a Silicon Valley mantra (just fill in the blank with your own industry or market). But given what we've discovered over the last few months about the company's policies and practices, do we really all want to be like Uber?
We throw the words "company culture" around like it's simply another business strategy or annual company initiative. It's not. An organization's culture can't be "changed" through simply firing a few bad apples or publishing a new set of corporate values.
I first saw Uber's fiercely competitive culture at play in the early days of the ride-sharing service when I was picked up at the Newark Airport on my way into New York City. The driver told me that he didn't display the Uber sign on his dashboard because he'd get a $1000 fine if he got caught picking up passengers at baggage claim. "Why would you take that risk?" I asked. His confident reply: "Because if I get a ticket, I just send it into Uber and they'll pay it!"
We've seen this aggressive, rule-breaking--and for some, morally questionable--behavior from Uber consistently since its inception. Early on, Uber employees were accused of submitting over 5,000 fake ride requests to its rival Lyft as part of its competitive strategy. Later, an Uber executive publicly suggested the company might dig up and share personal dirt on journalists and other critics. And the company was caught by the city of Portland using special technology to evade its local transportation regulators. The latest firing of 20 employees for sexual harassment provides another clue about the type of behavior that's been "acceptable" within the firm. And now, most recently, Uber board member, David Bonderman, resigned after making an off-the-cuff sexist comment at an employee gathering focused on addressing sexism at the company.
Over the past 20 years, I've worked directly with some of the world's most well-known corporate culture icons like Disney and 3M, interviewed hundreds of culture-savvy executives, and conducted extensive research on the organizational dynamics that drive the norms, values, and assumptions (i.e.: culture) that shape behavior. Here's what I've seen. Startups have it easy when it comes to corporate culture--the founders set the tone and the values. They create culture from scratch through role modeling what's acceptable and unacceptable behavior, both in the market and especially inside their walls. Established companies--including Uber and it's 12,000 employees--have a different challenge: culture change.
Transforming the underlying norms and values that shape people's everyday behavior isn't easy. Here are four lessons from Uber's follies that any company can apply to crafting their own corporate culture:
1) Align internal and external values.
What you do in the market, how you compete, and how you treat partners, directly reflect what employees internalize as acceptable internal behavior. Treat others outside the company like you want employees to treat each other inside the company.
2) Demonstrate zero tolerance for the intolerable.
People notice what's rewarded, as well as ignored. The moment intolerable behavior occurs, nip it in the bud. The nip will become a story that conveys the true values of the company for years after.
3) Recognize and reward everyday heroes.
Creating culture doesn't only happen in the C-Suite. Every person shapes culture every day through their interactions. Seek out exemplary employees who embody what you want more of and publicly recognize them for their small, medium, and large achievements.
4) Give everyone a voice.
The most innovative organizational cultures aren't based on fear and don't have rigid command and control hierarchies. They're based on a free flow of communication and collaboration where everyone's input and ideas are valued and recognized.
While culture may start at the top, it's reinforced everyday by employees themselves based on what they believe are acceptable and valued behaviors. Uber has an opportunity to transform its culture, but it needs to elevate leaders at all levels who inherently possess the values that they want to redefine the future of its organization.