Open Letter to Uber’s New CEO on Uber’s Culture

Written by Lynne Waldera and Amanda McPherson

Dara, now that you’re on board, you have the challenge of resetting Uber’s culture. A lot has been done already to fulfill the recommendations in the Holder report. There’s a new HR chief. There are new processes to eliminate bias in your hiring process. Leadership training and coaching have begun. You have a diversity advisory board.

Now the tough part falls to you: reformulating Uber’s 14 cultural values and beginning the process of truly changing the company’s behavior. You have to authentically transform Uber’s culture and behavior — while maintaining existing employees, customers and company DNA in the process. This kind of culture change is like a bone marrow transplant: the diseased marrow is replaced with healthy stem cells — without the host rejecting it. Through this delicate balancing act, you must make these new values stick — if you really want to change the company’s behavior. If you really want to create true and long-lasting change.

From the New York Times.

Uber’s struggles with their internal culture are well known, so much so that the Holder report specifically made recommendations to change Uber’s 14 cultural values to reflect more inclusive and positive behaviors. We caution you not to do what most CEOs usually do: appoint a company-wide committee to replace these “problematic” values with new “better” ones. Unfortunately, exercises like this often result in aspirational language that has no relationship to reality and lacks the power to actually change behavior.

So what should you do? We’ve been involved in culture building and transformation in Silicon Valley for over 20 years, and think the answer involves stories.

Humans learn best through stories. Neuroscience has shown us this. Whether it’s in front of a campfire in the prehistoric age or via a short video on your iPhone, stories “stick.” Branding experts have capitalized on this for years, especially as short form video sharing has grown in prominence. But through our experience consulting with and building technology companies over the last twenty years, we’ve seen storytelling is just as important for internal communications and culture.

(Photo by Joris Voeten on Unsplash)

Simply putting a list of new values on a wall or website won’t solve Uber’s problems. You must internalize the values in order to change behavior, and to do that, we believe Uber must animate its values and norms through storytelling.

Here’s what we recommend.

  • Gather and publish canonical stories on the employee and driver’s lifecycle that exemplify your values.

The company needs to listen, document and share key stories that define its internal audiences and guide behavior. The best stories are like fables, ones that teach us right from wrong, how to act and how to make decisions. Values are the Ten Commandments, while stories are the tale of the Good Samaritan. Value-based stories aren’t just pretty words, they educate employees about how to be and what to do. After listening, we suggest creating a canonical list of the following types of stories:

  • Joining: Why I joined
  • Role/Mission: What am I here to do
  • Justice: What I expect in return for my work/ what motivates me
  • Separation: Why I will leave/exit. We encourage you to use the well-publicized exits the company has faced as fodder to show why they left, and why others stayed, and why they would leave in the future.
  • Don’t forget failure stories (why and how we fail).

In culture change, it is often helpful to explicitly say “we used to do it this way” and “now we are doing it this way.” The past is always prologue to the future, and you can’t pretend the uncomfortable actions that came before don’t exist. Enacting real change — from organization change to personal recovery — always involves assuming accountability. Embrace the past, but explain how the future will be different. It may be helpful to shape this by taking accountability for the shortcomings of the previous culture and describing how the new culture is different with specific examples in action. (From: (old culture) To: (new story).

  • Use a story framework.

To best be absorbed by the brain, these stories should follow a traditional story arc of rising action and resolution. We’ve lead exercises where companies define their story arcs. This should include core values, brand archetypes, the challenges to overcome and what’s at stake for both the hero of your story (the customer or employee) and the company itself. Think character, action and choices, not just bullet points on a slide that everyone agrees on.

Instead of listing generic values such as “meritocracy and toe stepping,” showcase a courageous former Uber engineer named Susan Fowler who did the ultimate “toe step” and called attention to major problems. While she faced obstacles that revealed even more internal issues, ultimately the company is changing as a result of her brave actions. Choices best display our values.
  • Define the customer as the hero, not the company.

Most of the existing values of the company, as pointed out by Holder, center on the company, and its motivations. The best stories aren’t about the founder or the employees — they are about the customer, and what the company can do for her. The best cultures are driven by a purpose centered on human potential; e.g. Google’s mission to “to organize the world’s information and make it universally accessible and useful” or Facebook’s mission “to bring the world closer together.”

  • Define Uber as the guide, or mentor, helping the customer.

Your company should be the Gandalf to the customer’s Frodo, not the other way around. The values embodied in the current list seem all to be service to one main goal: beating the competition. But to what end? What’s the larger good?

  • Redefine conflict and your brand archetype.

Every story has a hero and a villain. Every story also has a voice. Too often, Uber cast itself as the scrappy disruptor fighting everyone: government, cab drivers and even its own drivers. Changing your culture doesn’t mean conflict goes away. But rather the hero (the customer) can use Uber’s innovation against high prices, stagnant innovation and environmental concerns. Recast that inherent scrappiness in service of goals that live outside the company. Internal success, growth, wealth and disruption are not the values from which to spring.

  • Make employees/drivers champions of the story.

Employees and drivers are key actors in service to the hero — the customer. They need to be involved in the process of articulating why they care about customers and what principles matter to them. As Jim Collins recommended, your values should be beliefs you hold even if at some point they become a competitive disadvantage. Ask yourself a series of questions that pinpoint beliefs that you’d stick with, no matter the outcome.

We’ve seen great norms be established around the shared stories of a company. Instead of asking employees, “What are the company’s values?” we ask them to recount their favorite story about the company. When we see the same stories repeated, magic happens. These stories display the real motivating and shared values that you can build from. Shared stories truly illuminate your culture.

Lead exercises where teams come up with these shared stories. Start company meetings with a recent story. Ask a new employee why they joined. What decision did they make? How did they make a choice? What did they give up or overcome by joining the company? What do they hope to achieve? Or ask a driver about a memorable ride when they really made a difference in a person’s life. What did they do to make the customer experience positive? How did it impact them?

Think about showcasing the stories in company handbooks with graphics, or via online animation or murals. Feature stories in your letters to investors. Bring customers in to tell their stories to employees, both positive and critical. Surround the building with pictures of customers as reminders of your heroes. These stories, especially if they are imbued with the mission and meaning, can take on the power of myth and become a springboard for change.

  • Live your values.

By this point, you must understand that this can’t just be stories on a web site or training presentation. They have to be backed up with action. Culture is formed by what we measure and celebrate, by who is hired, fired and promoted. It is made tangible by behaviors and decisions. It is reinforced in rituals and rites, policies and strategic decisions. Make sure you authentically live the stories with your actions as a management team and establish metrics to hold you accountable.

  • Take ownership.

One thing we have learned is that you as CEO have to connect with the story. You have to believe in the story and it has to be true to you. Too many CEO’s in your position delegate the task to their HR or diversity heads and to employee committees. What results is some sanitized story created by a committee — a story that is not differentiated, authentic or relevant. Instead, your DNA, the principles you live and lead by, have to inform the story.

Dara, your biography is filled with success and failure, affluence and persecution, power and powerlessness. Use your personal story to connect with the other immigrants who are your drivers, employees who are refugees from other places, candidates who have failed and are courageously starting new lives, and customers who need safety. If you bring your best self story to Uber and use it in service to the hero-story of your customers, drivers and employees, you will ensure that the company culture changes for real and not just on paper.

Changing a culture is hard work, and can’t be done with a static list of values. They must be authentic to Uber’s DNA and implantable to the choices and behavior of the company.

Don’t forget that every good story has an arc. What once was lost can be found. The power of redemption is, after all, our most compelling human content. There is much at stake given Uber’s track record of innovation. We believe employing storytelling give you the best chance of making the cultural changes needed to redefine Uber’s place in society, and you can lead this process.