Jarring notes from Uber

An illustration picture shows the logo of car-sharing service app Uber on a smartphone next to the picture of an official German taxi signHigh quality musical performances are much sought after, mostly for their pleasant, aural experience. They are balm to tired souls, inspiration for the artistically inclined.

However, it does not take much to bring down the quality of the performance a few notches; something as trivial as poor acoustics or quality of equipment, could reduce a heavenly performance to ‘unbearable’. Can we imagine, if in addition to poor acoustics, the performers were out of sync, the lead musician was inconsistent and dominating, female members were side-lined and the performers only performed for their own sake.

Recipe for disaster? Well, yes certainly!

Uber has gone on with its openly discordant, brassy tunes and yet grown its presence to 70 countries and a valuation said to be close to $70b. What might explain the value and continuity of business ascribed to this dysfunctional boy band? Let us hope that the ease of hailing a cab ride does not overshadow the dark footprints of this organisation.

The organisation experiences its moment of truth with the resignation of Travis Kalanick on 20th June, though he still continues as a member of the board. Kalanick was served a letter by his leading investors, requesting for his resignation. He was persuaded to leave after hours of discussion. Several other senior members of his team have also left, and not without controversy.

In the last few months, a lot has been written about various mishaps at Uber. Its aggressive risk-taking incubated by Silicon Valley’s infamous ‘bro’ culture; its ambitious, alpha-male leader and his cohort of similarly minded managers; of various malpractices and mishandling of issues such as the rape case in India.

Some of this has been granted the garb of ‘culture’; a word that has often mystified me.

Yet, not enough to let momentous mishaps at Uber masquerade as ‘cultural’ issues! Some samples:

·             Sexual harassment, discrimination and disrespect for women employees. (On a side note, it is hard to accept that we really are struggling with this; thousands of years after our evolution from pawing apes!)

·             A bold, hands-off, flagrantly irresponsible fine print; that serves neither the drivers nor its clients.

·             Misbehaviour and gross abandon at office parties.

·             Deflecting law enforcers where its services were banned or resisted using technology and violation of privacy guidelines.

Here is a breakdown of the 215 complaints recorded by Uber, post the publication of the blog by Susan Fowler.

I believe that Uber’s multifarious failure stem from poorly defined values. It is the values that guide decisions and shape behaviours. Values which are applauded, encouraged and shared over time, become part of the cultural fabric. ‘If you hire people who lie, cheat, and steal, in time your company culture will be the same’, says Gary Petersen in this write-up.

As per this article, Uber’s employees are asked to sign-up to 14 company values. These include making ‘bold bets’, ‘being obsessed by the customer’, ‘always be hustlin’, and the need to ‘practice a meritocracy’.

Where in the grand scheme of things are the values that speak of  ‘respect for employees, irrespective of gender’, being ‘fair to the customer’ and driving an ‘open and transparent’ work environment? As Susan Fowler, an ex-employee states in her blog: ‘there was a game-of-thrones political war raging within the upper management in the infrastructure engineering organization. It seemed like every manager was fighting their peers and attempting to undermine their direct supervisor so they could have their direct supervisor’s job.’

While Uber was a poster child of Silicon Valley, it is hard to ignore the heady fumes of greed. The valley that is home to energetic enterprises that create bold new realities and and disrupt the status quo, rewards its members with wealth and recognition. However, does it have the checks and controls required to mould its clan into responsible businesses?

It is true that disruption abounds and is fuelled by Silicon Valley, we need to be abundantly clear that disruption of human dignity and breach of trust is not welcome and most definitely not part of business model. The lines need to be drawn.

I do hope that Uber has learnt its lesson and will work to renew itself.


© Anu Maakan 2017

(Disclaimer: all views published here are the personal views of the author and do not represent those of any organization).



Organisational Leadership: Joe’s success and your own!


Joe is now ‘CEO Joe’. He did not start out like that. From a simple, hardworking IT consultant to CEO of a multi-million dollar corporation, he has done well. Very well! In less than 10 years, he has chiselled out a reality bigger than he ever imagined. Surely, it wasn’t the few pats on the back and the somewhat bigger pay-check that did it all? Or did it?

My inner decoding machinery was humming. I had to know a few truths. There weren’t any dead give-aways, like an Ivy-League degree, a multi-million dollar package, or an evidently over-powering personality that could emblazon a pathway through hell.

What makes Joe

Joe is keenly interested in what he does and has been given the support and space to fashion a future for the company. He is well entrenched in the business, engaged with business partners and loves the products he builds. He has a team that shares a common vision, collaborates well and delivers. Together, they understand their markets and have the capability to execute. He also gives his team the same autonomy, sense of purpose and support that is available to him from the top. ‘I was allowed to operate as an intrapreneur, and the room to expand would appear when I needed it’, says Joe. He has also been well rewarded and recognised along the way.

If the formula for success is so plainly visible why are there so few Joe’s?

Motivation or theory?

Hundreds of motivational theories have evolved over the last 200 years. Motivators such as compensation, rewards and recognition, social interaction, job enrichment, empowerment have been in the public domain for a long time. There is plenty to choose from.

Is it that corporations do not understand these? Or have simply shied away from actually applying these? Does the approach to motivation remain a bit too impersonal and non-serious? I would think it does.

How many of us get a thank you for a job well done, a personalised Christmas gift, the freedom to choose some of the work we do? Not many… the clues are visible every day!

Motivators moved on – what inspires in the 21stcentury

The nature of jobs has also seen a change from the industrial era. Not many of us work in a coal mine any more, make railway coaches or produce steel pellets. A lot of us are knowledge workers. These may be more complex, often less structured, more creative and non-repetitive tasks, with no one single way of doing them. In such an environment, creativity, problem solving and intrinsic knowledge play a major role. Says Dan Pink, ‘the traditional carrot and stick reward system works for certain 20th century mechanistic tasks, but for many 21st century tasks, this approach does not work and often does harm.’

Teresa Amabile: Intrinsic motivators are more important than money or status

Harvard’s Teresa Amabilesays that ‘the single and most powerful progress is meaningful work.’ A central tenet of hercomponential theory is the intrinsic principle of creativity.

Some companies are beginning to experiment & introduce innovative work practices, most others are lagging behind. It does not appear that justice has been done to the expectant millions queuing-up to the workplace every day. All it takes is a better appreciation of the individual and a few directed efforts to convert the somber haze around your people to an electric buzz.

It is time for leaders to engage and empower in new ways.


© Anu Maakan 2016

(Disclaimer: all views published here are the personal views of the author and do not represent those of any organization).



Organisational Leadership: The badge of greatness


Michelle Obama is my role model….…. she went to Harvard, she is talented and always encourages young girls to reach for their dreams. I want to be like her’, said my daughter. Words of wisdom from the leading lady of America had made it past the glitz and glamour of several other goddesses. I felt reassured about the influences working on my daughter.

The conversation made me think. Do we all have role models? Consciously or unconsciously do we pick cues from those in our immediate environment? Who might these people be? Family members? Managers? Social activists? Thought leaders? Anyone with a success story to tell!  I think I have been and continue to be impacted by a large number of people. Starting from my successful older cousins who led me to an MBA degree, to my first boss who showed how to build & retain the trust of customers, to the manager who told me, ‘you need to define the job, make it your own…..’ which I never forgot, I have been and continue to be influenced by a large number of role models, more so than I realise. The benefit has been mine as much as that of the corporation.

Observing leaders go about their lives can influence how teams behave, perform their tasks and add value. It can lead to improved/ innovative business practices, more resilient, hi-performing teams, greater profitability and finally sustainable, profitable corporations.

However, the power to influence negatively is as great or more as the positive fallouts.

Here are a few items to look-out for:

  • Show interest in your people, genuine as far as possible.
  • Encourage ownership & creativity at an individual level.
  • Participate in team meetings & daily huddles. They are useful venues for problem solving.
  • Communicate clearly and unequivocally.
  • Operate from a plan, being reactive and appearing whimsical takes away employee confidence.
  • As far as possible, communicate key decisions widely.
  • Provide the background data and context to changes/ decisions made.
  • Avoid emotional outbursts. These can only have a negative impact.
  • Encourage collaboration.
  • Help teams understand performance objectives and provide regular feedback.
  • Define your expectations prior to a meeting. Negative outcomes from important meetings can hurt confidence and career progression.

Management needs to recognise the power they wield, the impact they have & the change that they can drive. ‘Leadership is example. Example is the way leaders create reasons for others to believe in their leadership’, says John Boldoni, an international leadership consultant. Leaders actions set benchmarks in behaviour. Being a good role-model drives trust and loyalty, greater buy-in for corporate objectives, thereby increasing chances for survival & success.

My experience in change management has consistently shown that leadership has a big role to play in the success of teams. Teams who perceived their leaders to be inaccessible, uninvolved, uncommunicative and ‘pure task masters’ had poorly motivated, low performing teams. Leaders should be seen as leading teams that are collectively creating a thriving, high-performing organisation. ‘When we make decisions, the employees should be part of the journey and should know they’re not just filling my pockets’ (1), says Lars Rebien Sorensen, CEO of Novo Nordisk, voted best performing CEO by Harvard Business Review in Nov. ’15.

As rightly put by Winston Churchill, ‘the price of greatness is responsibility’.

© Anu Maakan 2016

(Disclaimer: all views published here are the personal views of the author and do not represent those of any organization).