Uber, Google, and the Significance of Building an Intentional Culture

Customer waiting for an Uber

Toxic. Aggressive. Hyper-Alpha. Dangerous. Investors, former employees, and tech industry insiders used each of these adjectives to describe Uber’s culture in recent weeks. The trio of blows to Uber in recent months point to severe flaws in Uber’s leadership, direction, and most centrally, their organization’s culture.

To review, so far this year:

Uber charged surge pricing during a taxi strike that arose in protest of a ban on refugees from seven mostly Muslim countries, prompting many to delete the app and much negative press.

Former reliability engineer, Susan Fowler, wrote a blog on her personal website detailing sexual harassment and gender discrimination at Uber, including dismissal of her supervisor’s misconduct because he was a “top performer.” During her year with the company the percentage of women fell from over 25% to below 3%.

Uber and Anthony Levandowski, the lead engineer of its self-driving car program, are the targets of a lawsuit from Alphabet (Google’s parent company) alleging Levandowski and others stole intellectual property and trade secrets before ending their employment at Alphabet’s self-driving car division, Waymo.Alphabet claims to have logs of downloads by Levandowski and others and evidence of communications with Uber while they were still employed.

Who Is Responsible?

With the range of problems facing Uber, could it be that there is one root cause? Some have suggested their Human Resources team is to blame. They believe rapid growth led their HR team to focus primarily on talent acquisition and avoid other key responsibilities, leading to a potentially inhospitable work environment for women, and potential leaks of intellectual property. Indeed a review of Uber’s careers page shows they are currently hiring for 232 openings in marketing and 347 in Engineering – no doubt presenting HR with a significant challenge in hiring alone.

However, the systemic problems Uber incurred this year reach far beyond HR to the entire leadership team and its culture: the system of shared values, beliefs, and experiences that govern the thinking and behavior of everyone from CEO Travis Kalanaick to the person in HR initially investigating a sexual harassment claim. The major function of organizational culture is to spark and sustain success as well as provide a personal and shared identity for members. Uber’s exceptionally rapid growth to a $50 billion company since its inception in 2009, and business model of contract-based drivers, represents a unique case for understanding the importance of developing and continually strengthening an intentional culture.

Indeed, industry experts expect the damage to Uber’s brand from surge charging during the previously mentioned taxi strike and the allegations of sexual harassment and gender discrimination alone could total over $100 million. While some of these costs are direct (declining numbers of people downloading the app and actively using Uber), the biggest damage may be to Uber’s employment brand: top talent actively choosing not to apply for openings, and current employees considering other employment opportunities because their employer’s values and behavior do not align with their own. What’s more, talks of an initial public offering (IPO) in 2017 are at risk because of this recent string of events.

How Does Uber Define Its Culture?

Values and beliefs form the “whys” of a company’s actions.  In press interviews, Uber leadership describe three core values, although they are not listed on their website or described in detail:

1. Be an owner, not a renter.

2. Take big bold bets.

3. The best idea wins.

Leaders and employees also mention 8 Uber Competencies expected of all employees:

1. Vision

2. Quality Obsession

3. Innovation

4. Fierceness

5. Execution

6. Scale

7. Communication

8. Super-Pumpedness

It’s difficult, however, to uncover clear definitions of these competencies anywhere, even on Uber’s careers page (where it’s beneficial to communicate your values and expectations to candidates).  For “Super-pumpedness” to be meaningful, it must be supported by clear behaviors and expectations (and maybe be a little easier to say during a performance conversation). Interviews with current employees by Business Insider suggest “Fierceness” and “Super-Pumpedness” refers to the hustle mindset that is expected of all employees. Again, this description does not provide clarity to build shared expectations about values, beliefs, and day-to-day expectations. In fact, in the absence of a definition, employees are left to make their own interpretations, which might include behaviors that are at odds with what was intended. For example, “Fierceness” might be interpreted as “win at all costs” leading some to think, for example, short term performance is more important than a sexual harassment claim.

Google: Lessons in Building an Intentional Culture

At six-years old, Google was valued at $23 billion for its IPO in 2004. While that’s half the current valuation of Uber (13 years ago), its growth, success, and size are similar. Google (now Alphabet) was even an early investor in Uber. But despite this fast growth, Google avoided many of the blunders Uber stumbled upon.

This may be, in part, because Google built an intentional culture and consciously measured how that culture influenced performance and results. When Google was only a few years old, its founders recognized the need to clearly articulate a set of principles to guide the company’s direction and the behavior of a rapidly growing workforce. They called these principles “10 Things We Know To Be True,” and are foundational in Google’s strategy and performance.  They are:

1. Focus on the user and all else will follow.

2. It’s best to do one thing really, really well.

3. Fast is better than slow.

4. Democracy on the web works.

5. You don’t need to be at your desk to need an answer.

6. You can make money without doing evil.

7. There’s always more information out there.

8. The need for information crosses all borders.

9. You can be serious without a suit.

10. Great just isn’t good enough.

Each of the ten things was clearly defined and explained in operational terms to employees. In comparison to Uber’s three values and eight competencies, this list provides a much clearer picture of the “why” behind Google and succinct guidance for employees.

Just as important as having an intentional culture is measuring its success and how it is being lived with science. Google measures not only the strength of its performance and culture on key metrics, but also how policies, initiatives, and individual behaviors contribute to results.

One example: knowing that managers have tremendous influence over the success of their teams, Google set out to “build better bosses” by analyzing performance reviews, employee surveys, and nominations for top manager awards. Using a mix of quantitative and qualitative approaches, they determined the most important behaviors for being a high-performing boss. Setting a clear strategy, helping employees with development, and getting things done, were the top three. This allowed Google to target talent management efforts for everything from hiring to leadership development.

Take-Away

Whether you’re intentionally building and measuring it, or only thinking about it when the topic comes up – you have a culture.  We believe the strongest cultures clearly communicate expectations for how to behave, care for each stakeholder group, compete, and be unique. A commentator on Bloomberg Technology this week said Uber is a large company showing many “baby company” problems. Culture provides concrete values that give employees an understanding of your reason for being, and reasons to believe. If your employees don’t believe, your customers and other stakeholders won’t believe.

You have a culture – but is it the right one and aligned with your values and beliefs about success?  To explore the layers of your culture download our whitepaper, “What is Organizational Culture?”

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