Uber's Fall From Grace or Why You Need to Create a Company Culture Everyone Can Believe In

Everyone is churning out think pieces aimed at diagnosing what went so wrong with Uber. The juggernaut of a tech company has been showered with bad press lately, culminating with the resignation of its CEO Travis Kalanick. And practically everything that went wrong points back to a complete and utter failure to build a successful company culture.

It’s not exactly a bold statement to say that Uber has a serious culture problem. It’s even something that the company openly acknowledged. What’s important to understand about Uber is that it was culturally doomed from the start.

Not because it had someone like Travis Kalanick calling the shots or because it embraced Silicon Valley fraternity behavior to the nth degree. The problem with Uber’s culture was born out of the very business model and product that made it explode in popularity.

Benjamin Edelman of the Harvard Business Review argues that the company’s cultural dysfunction is a natural consequence of its fundamental illegality. And while those other factors may have contributed to the disaster that it’s now dealing with, every single one of its problems stems back to the simple fact that they chose from the beginning to ignore the law.

And in many ways, we ignored it with them. We all like Uber or at least the idealized form of what Uber promises as a piece of disruptive tech. It’s also true that a culture of casual and inoffensive lawbreaking or at least an agnostic view toward the law is fairly common in today’s world. Uber is not exactly operating beyond the pale in that respect.

But Uber is case and point that this attitude — especially when it is pervasive throughout a whole company — can quickly become something toxic and destructive. It’s a slippery slope and may invariably lead to deserting other values like respectfulness and integrity.

When you can break the law flagrantly without any worry of being punished, is it really any wonder that you would start to believe you could do anything and everything you wanted?

The good news is that the promise of Uber doesn’t have to go away. Edelman uses the example of Napster to prove that a company that is fundamentally illegal can have successors — Pandora, Spotify, iTunes — that promise the same kinds of innovations only inside the law.

But in the meantime, what can we learn from this story more than anything else? Above all, it’s that you must always be thinking about your company’s culture, even from the very start. And that includes thinking about how your business model and every other factor of growth may influence that culture.

Culture isn’t something you can force. Inevitably, it’s going to take shape before your eyes as you build a business and work with the people that are going to drive it forward. But it’s important to always recognize what’s happening and adjust accordingly if you can feel yourself going off track. It’s important to always keep your developing culture at the forefront of everything you do.

It sounds like such a simple thing, but many companies lose sight of this fundamental principle before they know it. And a big reason why is because the process of growth can quickly start to erode away any semblance of culture before it even had the chance to take shape.

FirstRound recently published a piece where they spoke to Stripe COO Claire Hughes Johnson about the process of scaling while growing. Or in other words, how to avoid letting your company grow out of control. Her main point: take the time to hit pause and see what’s happening to your business.

She says that “for a long time, your actions pull your company along, and then all of a sudden it switches — your existing business starts pushing your behavior.” Basically, you find a profitable niche that works for you and you let it decide who you are as a business even if it’s antithetical to where you started from the beginning.

And it’s easy to see why. Making any business work is incredibly hard these days. Why wouldn’t you seize onto any chance of profit and ride it for all its worth? The answer is that you don’t let yourself do that because inevitably it will catch up to you. Inevitably, if you let your company define itself according to a purpose and a culture that no one believes in, it will fail.

People want to believe in the work they are doing now more than ever. We spend so much of our lives at work or thinking about work. If it doesn’t mean something to us then engagement starts to deteriorate — and it starts to deteriorate quickly.

Nothing is more important to the success of a company than an engaged team. A team not just devoted to their personal growth, but the growth of the company as a whole. If you bring them in promising one thing and your company radically shifts as it grows, they might not stick by you — at least not with the same level of dedication.

It’s easy to ignore culture in the face of the more practical challenges that every new business has to deal with. But Uber and so many other companies are proof that you can’t forget who you are and who you aspire to be. If you can believe in it, the ongoing story of your company will always be there to guide your every move toward success.

— ZK

Ed Lynes13p5Comment