Don’t be the next Uber: 3 important lessons from Travis Kalanick’s poor leadership

Following the Uber CEO’s resignation amidst controversy, entrepreneur Ab Banerjee reflects on what start-ups can do to prevent a similar business saga

It’s been a month since Travis Kalanick, founder and former CEO of Uber, walked out the door, mired in a number of scandals.

He was pushed out by investors worried about company culture, performance, and results.

If one of the world’s highest-valued private companies can get company culture wrong, that should set off alarm bells in our own heads.

So, if you’re running a start-up, what can you learn from this business saga?

1. Brilliant jerks make your team suffer

Kalanick was, by all accounts, a big fan of brilliant jerks. And in many ways that’s not such a surprise.

These people are often idolised by the media, investors, and the start-up community because they take no hostages, and get things done even if it means upsetting people in the process.

But the problem with brilliant jerks is that, while they may be great individual performers, they are not team players. They’re controlling, stubborn, and aggressive individuals.

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The success of a start-up depends on teams. People are stronger when they work together and companies founded by a team are much more likely to succeed in the long term. That’s because when people work together well, and respect each other, they naturally create an adaptive, reactive, and energetic team where there is mutual support and outstanding ideas are sparked in safety.

Don’t put individual performers above the importance of your teams.

2. Don’t lose touch with how other people feel about your business

One of the biggest surprises for me about the Uber story is how many employees apparently felt the company culture was toxic. Something had gone wrong. People weren’t enjoying working at Uber. They weren’t as engaged as they should have been.

Why didn’t the management team know this?

Start-ups can explode in size from a single tight team in one office to hundreds of teams around the world in multiple offices. Growth happens so fast that good HR processes aren’t in place which results in founders and management losing touch with people on the ground.

However, there is no excuse for that now.

Technology means it’s possible for companies to monitor the performance and feedback from employees around the world in real-time, 24/7.

Start-up founders should make sure to introduce these types of feedback apps at the individual and team level. Managers need a bird’s-eye-view of how teams are performing in their organisations, and how clients and other teams think about them too.

3. Don’t let competition trump collaboration

Finally, Uber fell into the age-old trap of believing that competition was better than collaboration. This is something you hear on every corner of America’s Silicon Valley and the UK’s Silicon Roundabout these days.

It’s fashionable to get employees to fight it out on all fronts. Competing on sales results, of course, but also programming, marketing, and design too. Who can do the most? Who can do the best?

Competition is obviously valuable. It engages employees, and gets them to think seriously about their performance. But there’s a danger as it can tip over into reckless immoral risk-taking.

It can also create a company culture where employees don’t trust each other enough to share their ideas openly for fear of either ridicule or having them stolen.

We know from the academic literature that having trust in colleagues (or feeling “psychological safe” in the management lingo) is one of the most important things for productivity.

Business starts and ends with creating strong teams

What ties together the three tips above? It’s understanding and appreciating the importance of teams to your start-up’s success, and doing everything that you can to create strong teams.

One of the most important lessons I’ve learned as an entrepreneur is that teams often have very limited self-awareness of how they’re perceived by other teams inside and outside their organisation.

So, next time you’re thinking about the difficulties of expansion, make sure you have these things in mind:

• Put as much energy into managing your teams as you do into managing your individuals
• Don’t let great individual performers suppress team effectiveness
• Introduce processes to monitor team performance
• Don’t let competition trump collaboration

Hopefully, then, you can reach Uber-like levels of growth, but without the catastrophic and preventable front-page stories a couple of years in!

Ab Banerjee is CEO of ViewsHub, the team-to-team ratings and feedback tool. He previously founded RAW Communications, which was The Times’ fastest growing technology business in 2001.


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