Corporate Culture Will Make or Break Uber

Or, Business isn’t Politics and Vice Versa.

Here is what I know.

I know Sarah Lacy, who is a brilliant journalist who exhibits the good journalist’s disdain for likeability (see Kara Swisher). She also happens to be a woman in an industry known for misogyny.

I know Uber, whose cars I have ridden in not only in Phoenix, but in San Francisco, New York, Washington DC, London, Paris, Moscow, and Ho Chi Minh City. I’ve never had a disappointing experience.

I know brands, business and corporate culture, since I have started three companies and a foundation. All three companies were concerned with brands, brand strategy and marketing. I was also Worldwide Director of PR for the CEG at Intel. And a CMO.

And I know businesses, having consulted to over 900 of them over the past 20 years.

What I’ve read: Uber hired David Plouffe to create a grass roots initiative aimed at gathering support for Uber as it fights to be accepted by regulatory bodies. Soon after, a kerfluffle arose that has made women remove the Uber app from their phones and men call for Travis Kalanick’s ouster. If you don’t know the details, readhere, here and here. And there’s more.

As a business advisor, I know Uber needs to take action. But what kind of action? It can’t just lay down for all this, because it needs to scale rapidly and satisfy investors. But I can’t keep calling attention to itself in the juvenile ways it has been doing lately.

Too bad Uber, with its $25 billion valuation, isn’t asking for my advice, but I will offer it anyway. Uber needs to grow up.

Corporate culture comes from the top down. Apparently, the part of the culture that involves hiring and screening drivers is productive, because my own experience with Uber drivers and their promptness, cleanliness, and pleasant, professional attitudes has been good. One of Uber’s differentiators is the way they screen and train drivers, and allowing for a few mistakes, this part of the culture works well.

But the drivers don’t work for Uber. The part of the culture inside the executive offices is broken, and if it isn’t fixed now, Uber will disintegrate into the WalMart of ride sharing rather than the Starbucks. This is a major and critical inflection point for the company.

In that respect, David Plouffe was the wrong hire. He sends the wrong message: win at all costs. The message really needs to be “add value to the system with every interaction.” Uber’s customers are not just the people who call for a taxi, they are shareholders, regulators, journalists, families of drivers, drivers, and the general public.

You may say this is impossible to track as the company gets bigger and bigger. But it isn’t. Southwest Airlines built an amazing corporate culture by treating its employees well on the theory that happy employees would produce happy customers. Starbucks built an amazing brand for which they charge a ridiculous premium by treating its baristas as partners and offering education and health insurance.

No regulatory agency tries to prevent a Starbucks or a Southwest from coming into the community because loyal customers make their presence known. But you don’t do that by using a win-at-all-costs mentality, because it backfires. Long after David Plouffe is gone from the Obama White House voters who feel duped by Obama’s unfulfilled campaign promises produce a backlash in the mid term elections.

It takes a long time for the results of a scorched earth policy to make themselves felt, so it won’t be tomorrow that Uber suffers. But eventually it will. Many communities no longer want a WalMart in their neighborhoods, because they know it puts small business out of business.

At one time WalMart was cheered because it was disruptive. But it’s corporate culture has now made it distasteful. Watch out, Uber.