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The double-edged sword that is Travis Kalanick: Unraveling the culture that rocked Uber

Could the 'genius' behaviours that propelled Uber's founder, Travis Kalanick, to success be the very same ones that lead to his downfall?

by Catie McHugh
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Travis Kalanick, founder and (former) CEO of the ultimate disrupter Uber, is gone. Ousted. Kaput.

Under Kalanick, Uber is facing sexual harassment allegations and is the target of lawsuits, boycott threats and a federal investigation into claims that it has used a fake version of its app to thwart authorities. They’re in what one might call, ‘a bit of a pickle’.

The thing is, the behaviours that fostered this environment are the very same that Uber used to change the world.

The Uber Battleground.

If you’ve ever worked anywhere with crappy culture, one that sucks the life out of you and has you scouring eBay for boss-shaped voodoo dolls, you’ll understand that after a while, it impacts way beyond the workplace. It can affect your mental health and wellbeing, your personal relationships, and the worst cases have lasting effects that may stick with you for months, if not years.

It seems that many were surprised, then, to hear that startup darling Uber had some positively murky stuff going on in the background as they bulldozed their way through archaic laws, policy and regulations to spread ride-sharing far and wide. The public first got a whiff of this through Susan Fowler’s blog post, a former Uber engineer subjected to sexual harassment from her first day on the job, and an HR team that appeared to (at best) ignore her reports. Uber reported that 200,000 users deleted the app in response to the allegations.

At the helm, Travis Kalanick was dedicated to realising his service in every possible corner of the global market, even employing the use of controversial software Greyball in avoiding authorities in locations where Uber was considered illegal - a move many identified as ruthless. He also came under fire for appearing to steal Google-owned self-driving technology IP (though, many of those claims were recently dropped in court).

Adam Lashinsky’s book, Wild Ride, sums him up like this:

World famous for his ruthlessness, lack of empathy, and willingness to flout anybody else’s rules

Perhaps it isn’t surprising that Uber’s culture was said to be a petri dish of harassment, bullying and spiteful retribution in response to complaint. After all, leaders shape culture through their behaviours, and the result can spiral out of control as it filters down.

Whether you like it or not, none of this changes the fact that Travis Kalanick is an entrepreneurial genius.

The world already has taxis and hire cars - he delivered a viable alternative that created jobs and more transport options.

According to these stats, there’s an estimated 40 million monthly Uber users worldwide, with over 2 billion trips taken since its inception. For something it appeared we didn’t need, globally it has been adopted with open arms.

And is it his genius that ultimately became his nemesis?

People like Mr Kalanick are world-changers because they take risks, they push and they get us thinking, behaving and expecting in a whole new way. They can do this because they ignore advice from others, and they do not allow themselves to be bound by rules, laws and modes of conduct - all of which interfere with the revolutionary, and drive to reinvent.

Genius as the nemesis.

Fingerprint for Success (F4S) research has shown that successful entrepreneurs share similar attitudes. However, the attitudes that successfully start a business are different to those that successfully and sustainably scale a business, as Kalanic discovered. The F4S research highlights:

Indifference: Those with a high motivation towards indifference are highly creative, and don’t see the world in terms of rules, expectations or governance… an attitude that does not see boundaries or limitations, and is absolutely perfect for fostering innovations and disruptive businesses like Uber.

However, the flipside of this is that they often don’t feel a drive to impose modes of conduct on others, and are happy to shrug their shoulders at established rules. Team members are influenced by a leader and look to them for behavioural cues. In the absence of clearly defined expectations, behavior unacceptable to most others can have free reign.

High tolerance: From his behaviour, you could easily imagine Kalanick to have high tolerance. This can be highly useful for aiding his dogged determination to push Uber into every market possible, even when government roadblocks and regulation threatened to stop his idea in its tracks.

And it appears he was also highly tolerant to the inappropriate workplace behaviour around him. Poor culture doesn’t happen overnight, and Uber endured damaging and unacceptable behaviour from his leadership team and beyond.

Low external reference: The idea that ignoring advice is helpful might seem weird, but it is one of the reasons disruptive startups take off. Imagine how many people would have told Kalanick that Uber was a dumb idea: “No-one wants to get into a random person’s car to be driven around! Are you nuts?”

Uber’s commercial results show it was beneficial to stay on track with his own instinct and plan, but when it comes to scaling, an influx of team members and leading a global business, ignoring the advice of board members, HR and advisors on serious violations and team concerns, it became cultural suicide.

Low affiliation: People with low affiliation tend not to place a great deal of importance on connection and bonding within a business. They place little importance on whether they feel a sense of acceptance or belonging - basically, they don’t have a need to be liked (that’s not to say they don’t like to be liked - just that it’s not necessary in realising business aspirations).

A very low priority on affiliation can mean a leader is at risk of being blind to team members feeling excluded, disenfranchised and even rejected.

Kalanick would have to join F4S for us to be sure (and Mr Kalanick, we would love to have you on board - can we have our people call your people?), but his public image paints a portrait of a person who was unable to adapt his startup behaviour as the business scaled. You simply cannot ignore all the rules all the time, especially when you’re a high growth venture and others hold you in a position of leadership and trust.

His experiences are valuable for entrepreneurs with aspirations of world domination.

You can illuminate your blind spots and start training your entrepreneurial brain. Find out your own motivation for indifference, affiliation and external reference now at Fingerprint for Success.

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