Uber, Sexism & The Board

JUN 21, 2017

A Company's Culture Starts With The Board

The recent instances of irony relating to Uber seem to keep coming - and I am sure I am not the only one noticing this...

First, a video surfaces of Travis Kalanick, the billionaire CEO of Uber, chewing out an Uber driver during a pricing discussion. The driver, visibly agitated, mentions how he's lost $97,000 and is now bankrupt from what he states is Uber's "flawed business strategy." Kalanick, exhibiting an obvious low emotional intelligence (EQ) and lack of mindfulness, ends the discussion by angrily stating, “Some people don’t like to take responsibility for their own shit. They blame everything in their life on somebody else. Good luck!” Even if Kalanick's statement could have been true, his response was that of an immature business leader with an obvious need for leadership training. What better way to bury your business than to berate and belittle your employees - the same ones that elevated you to billionaire status! Irony.

Then, in an effort to show Board and C-Level alignment across the company, an 'all-hands' meeting, a town-hall-like gathering for employees, was called to address topics including the recently announced CEO's leave of absence *, news coverage on the company and claims relating to gender discrimination. What happened next cannot be made up... First, Liane Hornsey, Uber's human resources chief, asked everyone in attendance to hug each other. Yep, a request for some physical contact in a company meeting - somewhat of a risky move and in poor timing for a company mired in sexual harassment lawsuits, don't you think? And from the head of HR? That is irony, my friends. Next comes the icing on the cake. Arianna Huffington, an Uber Board member, was speaking to the company in that same 'all hands' meeting on the topic of building a more diverse board in an effort to spark change from the top. "There’s a lot of data that shows when there’s one woman on a board, it’s much more likely that there will be a second woman on the board,” she stated to the group. That's when another Board member, David Bonderman, chimed in to joke, “Actually, what it shows is that it’s much more likely to be more talking.” Wow. A sexist joke at a company meeting designed to show support on changing a sexist environment? And from a Board member? Once again, more irony. Needless to say, Bonderman's resignation in less than 24 hours was a welcomed response for many.

(* Update: As of Tuesday, June 20th, it has been announced that Travis Kalanick is no longer CEO of Uber - five of the company's key investors demanded that he resign via a letter entitled 'Moving Uber Forward.' In another twist of irony, it is believed that his resignation was announced to the media before being conveyed to Uber employees...)

Uber - /ˈuːbə/: denoting an outstanding or supreme example of a particular kind of person or thing. To a great or extreme degree.

Even the definition of the word Uber as compared to the company is ironic. Setting a 'supreme example' is a lofty goal and I admire this - likely a phrase that fits perfectly into any company's vision statement. But what could have happened differently at Uber? And where could a course correction have emanated from when earlier warning signs of a wayward company culture were starting to stray?

It begins and ends with the Board...

A common challenge for Boards, especially in the private sector, is the open and honest communication regarding development and focus areas for the CEO. This can be a tough conversation in public companies, too, however private companies have the added nuance of the CEO typically directing the Board or having overriding voting power on the Board. Tricky maneuvering, indeed, and territory that requires finesse and an ego-free exchange. Boards should consider multiple facets of evaluation for a CEO that should not just be 'scheduled events' or 'formal reviews,' but more so ongoing analysis via observation with more frequent verbal feedback. Experience has shown that CEOs who are open to this type of constructive feedback and act on it experience greater success and have a more productive relationship with their Board. A few areas to keep in constant perspective when a Board interacts with their CEO:

  • Presence: Is the CEO coming to Board meetings prepared and are they fully engaged during the meetings? CEOs who are struggling with time management and prioritization typically are not 'present' in meetings as well as other interactions. If this is happening in front of the Board, it is most definitely happening in front of their managers and employees - and that creates a terrible culture. Coach your CEO on both the perception as well as the outcome / behaviors of those in the company when employees truly feel that the CEO is engaging with them.
  • Emotional Intelligence (EQ): I speak often about EQ in many of my articles due to what I believe is an uncompromisable trait for true leaders. EQ is 'the capacity to be aware of, control, and express one's emotions, and to handle interpersonal relationships judiciously and empathetically.' Any CEO who views constructive feedback or criticism from the Board as an attack or attempt to undermine needs to immediately apply some thought-leadership to their actions and responses. EQ maturity is typically something that comes with experience, so don't expect overnight success, however, the book 'Emotional Intelligence 2.0' should be required reading. Travis Bradberry, one of the co-authors, states, "EQ is so critical to success that it accounts for 58 percent of performance in all types of jobs. It’s the single biggest predictor of performance in the workplace and the strongest driver of leadership and personal excellence."
  • Mindfulness Intelligence (MQ): MQ is the latest groundbreaking intelligence system that we'll see more of in the near future. Mindfulness is 'the process of bringing one's attention to the internal experiences occurring in the present moment.' In other words, is your CEO looking deeper within themselves and in those around them to better understand their actions and responses. Has one of their senior leaders or managers started to exhibit performance issues? A non-mindful response would likely be for the CEO to immediately address the issues and tell them that it has to improve. On the other hand, a mindful response from a CEO would initially include internal thoughts and questions such as: Inwardly Facing - Have I done everything I can do to help my team member? Have I provided enough inner tools and outer resources to deal with this pressure? Outwardly Facing - Is there something that is making their job less fulfilling? Has there been added stress in recent times due to a responsibility change? Is there a potential personal problem at home that is causing distraction? Are they in agreement with the direction of the company? These types of mindful thoughts lead to a much more productive and effective conversation - with a much greater chance for a motivating and successful outcome. Linda Bjork, a pioneer in the MQ arena, convincingly demonstrates the correlation of MQ to leadership success in her book 'Inner Business - Training Your Mind For Leadership Success.' In my recent interview with Linda for the purposes of this article, she stated, "The multiple leadership mishaps at Uber are prime examples of serious mindfulness gaps. When you lose touch with yourself and you are in a leadership position, you are essentially trying to lead without integrity, self-awareness and a healthy mindset. All these things can be learned in a systematic, science-based way. And once you start having these conversations, you will find in what capacity mindfulness intelligence should be available to the organization and demonstrated by the leadership.”

In singular or combination of the above focus areas, there are interesting outcomes for a company overall when these are addressed head-on and improved upon. Increased company performance, higher employee job satisfaction, ethical company-wide behaviors, lowered legal risks, decreased employee turnover and a further sense of team members having found the right professional 'home' are just a few profound examples - all of which are uber-important to any business.

What will you consider when evaluating, guiding and supporting your CEO?

Reach out for help in creating your solid Board CEO support strategy.


About the Author: In addition to sitting on numerous Boards, Mark A. Pfister is a certified Board Director and advises public, private and non-profit boards in efficient and effective operations. He is the inventor of the 'Board as a Service' (BaaS) engagement model and an expert project/program manager frequently consulting on strategic global initiatives in their initiation and operational phases....... << Read full bio here >>

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