With the ubiquity at which colleagues and relatives use ride-hailing services, it seems quite unbelievable that Uber did not exist till 2009 when Travis Kalanick co-founded the company. Uber expanded at ferocious speed, ever ready to take on regulators, protests by taxi companies and drivers in all corners of the world. Today, the company operates in 633 cities around the globe, is valued at more than US$60 billion and probably mentioned in every other discussion on disruptive innovation and technology. Yet by end June 2017, this looked like a company in a management crisis. After losing a string of senior executives, Kalanick relinquished his CEO position, ostensibly bowing to investor pressure. By that time, Uber was a poster-boy for its toxic culture. That, and the corporate battles confronting the company, meant that it was probably not going to be a job that potential contenders would be scrambling over each other to fill.
After what must have been an intense time for the board, they announced their choice of the replacement: the CEO of Expedia. By then, Dara Khosrowshahi had clocked 12 years at Expedia. He was not unfamiliar with bruising corporate struggles and had done well. “This has been one of the toughest decisions of my life,” he wrote a memo to his staff at Expedia prior to his leaving, “I have to tell you I am scared.”
“Wow!”, I thought. “When was the last time any leader shared their fears publicly and in such plain language, even before taking on a job?” Any government leader, permanent secretaries, heads of government agencies, C-suite members? I almost couldn’t recall.
Then I remembered a book I had read recently. It was a riveting account of 33 men trapped 700 metres below the surface of the earth in a copper-and-gold mine in the Atacama Desert, in the north of Chile. On 5 Aug 2010, these 33 men were working and expecting to be brought up for lunch anytime soon, when part of the mountain they were in, collapsed and trapped them inside. As the shockwave and dust slowly settled, Luis Urzua, the 54 year old shift foreman, organised a search party to look for survivors. After accounting for 32 other people, Luis reportedly took of his white helmet, and announced to his workers, "We are all equal now. ... There are no bosses and employees."
Every one of the miners had different thoughts about why Urzua did so, but it is widely believed that his action was a “crucial factor that inspired their collective behaviour and survival”. This was a situation like no other. Over the next 17 days, the group had no connection with the outside world, no idea if they were ever going to be rescued, had to contend with darkness, despair, possible starvation and even the very real possibility of death, yet managed to organise themselves in work and in prayer and shared what little food was available. On the 17th day, a small hole was finally bored through from the surface which gave them hope and it was not until the 69th day that they were all finally rescued. One billion people watched on television as the miners, one at a time, were winched out in a specially designed capsule called the Fenix. Urzua was the last to surface to a hero’s welcome.
In a HBR article in 2013, the authors wrote, “In such emotionally charged circumstances, most leaders feel torn. They worry: Should they be directive, taking charge and closely monitoring people? Or should they be empowering, inviting innovation and letting many experiments bloom? Our research suggests that the answer should be yes—to both. The choice presents a false dichotomy.”
Luis Urzua and Dan Khosrowshahi come from very different backgrounds. Yet their instincts, no doubt shaped by their own life and work experiences, must have told them that they were in a venture quite like no other. Nothing could have prepared them for the challenge they were going to face. They could have armed and protected themselves with the veneer of ‘I know it all’ confidence, and hopefully use that energy to propel others onwards. But they did not, and openly acknowledged that they did not have all the answers.
I like Patrick Lecioni’s account as to why this is a superior response. In explaining the 5 Dysfunctions of a Team, he argued that the most fundamental need for any team to flourish is trust. Not the predictive trust we are familiar with, not the kind that “we kind of know how someone is going to respond to something we are about to say”, not that certain consistency of behaviour, but vulnerability-based trust. It is that trust where leaders are ready to acknowledge what they know, and don’t know. In accepting that they do not have all the answers, they also signal their readiness to listen to those who may have and create a climate where there can be open and honest conversations among team members.
Indeed this is what Dan Khosrowshahi did. In his first address to his new colleagues at Uber, he ended his speech with “three things” every Uber employee should know about him:
That he was going to be totally transparent with them and asked for the same from them.
That he was going to do everything possible to “fight with” them.
That everyone is going to be able to participate and contribute in their own way
I will be watching Uber closely and rooting for Dan. And betting that he’ll do well at Uber. Any takers?
ABOUT THE ARTICLE CONTRIBUTOR
Xavier Lim is a senior consultant with Organisational Development Concepts specialising in areas of people-centric leadership. He previously held various leadership roles across various functions at Singapore Airlines, and was a member of the senior leadership team at Tiger Airways.
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