The drama over the CEO selection and transition at Uber has captured news headlines everywhere. Media has spotlighted one crisis after another — lawsuits, sexual discrimination, and harassment — an epic litany of a culture gone wrong, at one of the most highly valued tech startups. Blame was clearly laid at the feet of founder and CEO Travis Kalanick, who the board ultimately forced to resign from his position. The board publicly bickered over high-visibility CEO choices before settling on a dark horse, Dara Khosrowshahi, from outside the company. He will be tasked with a daunting list of challenges, from turning around the company’s internal culture, to staving off increasing competition from Lyft and others, as well as restoring investor confidence in Uber.
The framework for CEO success in such a contentious climate is difficult to fathom. While Dara Khosrowshahi doesn’t have the “star power” name that some of the other contenders did, he does have the experience in running a large international organization wrought with government regulation and intense competition. But, track record is just table stakes for this role.
We are living in a time when business models are dramatically shifting, market conditions are uncertain, and political leadership is volatile. As Khosrowshahi most eloquently said in a recent interview, when talking about his former company, Expedia, “if you don’t change as an executive in an industry that is moving as fast as ours, you’re dead; you’re out.” The pace of CEO departures shows that leading in this climate is tough going — and more fail than succeed.
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As a recent article on fixing Uber’s culture pointed out, it will require touching both the rational and the emotional elements. I would argue that the emotional factor is key, and that communications makes the difference is getting it right.
A few key points to keep in mind that comprise the drive and force behind the emotional power that, if unlocked, is the foundation for success:
A leader has to inspire what is often a disparate group to get behind him. While there are a lot of believers left at Uber who are staying true to its mission, the recent events have also likely left many disillusioned non-believers. The number of senior high-level positions that remain open (including the COO and general counsel roles) is a signal of an underlying skepticism — but they are both a problem and an opportunity. While they point to lack of confidence in joining Uber, they also give the great chance to build an aligned, fresh team that will be believers and ambassadors of the new Uber movement and new leadership under Khosrowshahi.
Creating the story
Uber, of course, has a great story — it’s one of the most highly visible disruptors of business, changing how we get from here to there, and how we think about transportation. But, there are many competitors now. Lyft is gaining market share from Uber. Uber needs to reinvent itself again, and get back its mojo as the head of the transportation transformation, especially as autonomous vehicles and other technology promise to turn things upside-down again. The story needs to be humanized and personal. It needs to be relevant to everyone, including those less obvious to be affected. It needs color, anecdotes and mass appeal. It needs to be sustained with meaningful and compelling content. In other words, this is a new start for Uber, and its new stories need to speak to the progression.
Empathetic leadership style
Leaders coming from outside the company have the advantage of a clean slate and fresh perspective, but they also have the challenge of needing to quickly win the trust of their team, employees and shareholders. I have heard the idea that it takes a “tribe” to grow a company. The new leader needs to personally connect with the emotional core of the tribe — the concept of connecting with others with a similar mindset, who will also provide social support and encourage forward movement.
In an email to Expedia staff, Khosrowshahi said he was “scared” and had “forgotten what life is outside of this place [Expedia].” Publicly recognizing the magnitude of the role, and the fact that the new leader will need the “tribe” to deliver and get behind him, goes a long way to winning hearts, and making people feel part of the new team.
Quick wins to give people something to hold onto
Getting started, gaining the knowledge of the business and the capabilities of the team, takes time, even while expectations are high for strong execution and results. Khosrowshahi was smart when he announced in an early town hall that the company would go public earlier than anticipated, saying it could be anywhere between 18 and 36 months. It gave employees a boost to early rewards, and a goal to work towards. It also made them feel like they were part of the process, and part of the win. People want to be part of a winning team, and they want a leader who they feel will get them there. Even if there are setbacks along the way, if employees feel their leader is a champion for them and for the long-term goals of the company, they are more likely to stay, work hard and push the company to success.