In case you don’t remember, Travis Kalanick had a great 2017. It started with Susan Fowler (one of the Time People of the Year) wrote a long essay about the terrible culture (especially for women) inside the company. At the time that piece was released, the company’s valuation was around $70 billion and rising. I believe this, more than anything, led to his departure from the company. The company that Kalanick built was a window into what he valued.
I’m sure you also remember, an Uber driver posted a video of the CEO of the company berating him: “Some people don’t like to take responsibility” he says, hastily leaving the car after an ad hoc discussion of pricing strategy. The fallout from that interaction was severe, exemplifying the worst of the deepening class divisions in Silicon Valley. Seemingly knowing that things were going to get much, much worse, Kalanick reportedly “writhed around on the floor” when a couple of his senior executives showed him the clip:
As the clip ended, the three stood in stunned silence. Kalanick seemed to understand that his behavior required some form of contrition. According to a person who was there, he literally got down on his hands and knees and began squirming on the floor. ‘This is bad,’ he muttered. ‘I’m terrible.’
This thoughtless exchange was the icing on the cake for Kalanick, who departed the company soon after.
In early 2017, Uber’s valuation was $70 billion and rising. Uber sold in December for $48 billion — between market forces (increasing regulation in its markets at home and abroad), and Kalanick’s character flaws, the company lost a third of its value in the space of a few months.
I don’t know much about Travis Kalanick, but I do know that we all have those moments when we want to writhe around on the floor. “I’m terrible.” We all are, to some degree. It’s always tough to get caught on your worst day, in a bad mood, with a ton of other things on your mind.
But, are you terrible because of how you act in in this one specific instance, or how you think?
Let’s rewind: suppose Kalanick had led a high performing team with a strong culture. (I know it’s possible — if you don’t believe me, we’re hiring.) With the support of his executives, and his team, he could have gone on late night talk shows and made his public apologies. He could have built a team of Uber driver representatives and given them some say in pricing changes. We all would have nodded, because (you know) we’ve all been there.
The problem with the situation is the company he built, and a culture that didn’t seem to treat women as people (and that’s what we know about). That, more than anything, revealed how Kalanick thought, what he valued, who he was as a person.
Your thoughts drive your actions 95% of the time. But that last 5% — that’s those “I’m terrible” moments. You fail, you fall short, you disappoint, you offend. You want to writhe around on the floor. Those are the moments where you have to be humble and go on late night talk shows.
Kalanick’s values bubbled up through the company he built. Success at all costs. Growth over compassion. Money over people. Rewards for politicking rather than results. The inevitable result is a company of 12,000 employees with a directive to win at all costs. I don’t know Kalanick’s heart, but I’d be willing to bet that those are his values. He hired the first employees, and probably interviewed an signed off on the first 50 or so. He planted those bad seeds.
The upside to Uber was astronomical. Kalanick’s 5% failures would have cost him a few jokes at his expense by Colbert. It was Kalanick’s 95% that cost him (personally) billions of dollars.
Starting a new job, in a new company, I can look back on my first 8 months and think about all the times I let my people down. I can think of all the times I let the business down. All the times where I affected negative consequences for someone that works for me, or someone for whom I work, or someone waiting patiently in his high chair for me to get home. Most of those failures were the 5% type, but a few of them were the 95% type.
And that scares me. The fear of failing someone who’s depending on me (especially someone that I hired, or someone who’s expecting a critical deliverable, or my family) because of who I am, and what I value weighs on my mind.
There are two options — give up or change. How might I reframe the way I think about my role, about my relationships with my boss and team, about the way I work? How might I find a better way to accomplish my mission at work, while giving more of myself to my wife and son (and soon to be daughter)? How might I dislodge decades of bad habits in the service of something bigger? For me, this involves reading things that challenge my perspective and reframe things in my mind. It involves buying lunch and coffee for mentors that I trust, being vulnerable in front of my wife and closest friends, and asking for help.
It’s slow. It’s hard. But it is possible 🙂