Fighting Multiple Battles, Uber CEO Embarks on Culture Overhaul

Fighting Multiple Battles, Uber CEO Embarks on Culture Overhaul

It has been a rough year for Uber on the talent front, where it has faced a reckoning over an organizational culture that stands accused of enabling rampant gender discrimination and sexual harassment. The scandal led to the firing of 20 employees, including executives, as well as the ouster of founder Travis Kalanick from the CEO position in June, while former US Attorney General Eric Holder was hired to lead an independent investigation into what went wrong. It also sent Uber directors scrambling to explain to investors and the public what they were doing to detoxify the ridesharing company’s culture, such as hiring Harvard business professor Frances Frei as senior vice president of leadership and strategy.

Dara Khosrowshahi, the former CEO of Expedia who took up the helm of Uber in August, has moved quickly to assure employees and investors that he is taking the culture clean-up seriously and that the kind of behavior that was allowed to slide under Kalanick would no longer be tolerated. In a LinkedIn blog post published on Tuesday, Khosrowshahi laid out a new set of cultural norms for Uber that includes a sharper focus on inclusion and ethics:

We celebrate differences. We stand apart from the average. We ensure people of diverse backgrounds feel welcome. We encourage different opinions and approaches to be heard, and then we come together and build.

We do the right thing. Period.

In keeping with best practices for culture change management (including what we have found in our own research at CEB, now Gartner), Khosrowshahi said this new set of values was developed through a bottom-up process that engaged employees directly in making decisions about how the culture needs to change:

I feel strongly that culture needs to be written from the bottom up. A culture that’s pushed from the top down doesn’t work, because people don’t believe in it. So instead of penning new values in a closed room, we asked our employees for their ideas. More than 1,200 of them sent in submissions that were voted on more than 22,000 times. We also held more than 20 focus groups with representatives from our Employee Resource Groups and our international offices.

There were some common themes: many people liked how the spirit of the previous values encouraged problem-solving and speed, but they wanted to see more around inclusion, teamwork and collaboration. They also wanted to make clear that we will put integrity at the core of all our decisions, and that we’re unafraid to admit mistakes when they happen.

This is exactly the kind of collaborative process recommended by our latest research on culture management, which CEB Corporate Leadership Council members can peruse here. It is similar to the process the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation uses to define the “cultural do’s and don’ts” that guide employees in applying the organization’s cultural values to their day-to-day work.

That, in fact, will likely be Khosrowshahi’s next challenge: Having defined the culture his company wants, he now has to make sure that employees understand what these norms mean, why they matter, and how to live them out each day. The most successful approach we’ve seen organizations take here is to move beyond culture communications and embed the culture in the business processes that govern how work gets done.