Uber CEO Dara Khosrowshahi has made some big moves since replacing brash founder Travis Kalanick at the ride-hailing firm in August. He apologized in an open letter "for the mistakes we've made" after authorities in London withdrew Uber's license and hopped the pond to meet with them. He's been in talks with SoftBank about an ownership stake, according to reports. He's hired a chief legal officer from PepsiCo with a Department of Justice background to help the company navigate a maze of legal and policy issues, including a trade secrets lawsuit and discrimination complaints.
But a seemingly small move Khosrowshahi made Tuesday could have a big impact. In a LinkedIn post, the new CEO publicly shared Uber's new cultural "norms," spelling out a list of the mantras and guidelines he hopes will drive the company as it tries to move beyond the months of controversy, leadership turnover and legal questions. It's clear, Khosrowshahi wrote, that "the culture and approach that got Uber where it is today is not what will get us to the next level. As we move away from an era of growth at all costs to one of responsible growth, our culture needs to evolve."
Axioms like "We do the right thing. Period" and "We celebrate differences" have been added to a list of values that formerly included guidelines like "always be hustlin'," engaging in meritocratic "toe-stepping" and being "superpumped" about solving big problems. Khosrowshahi acknowledged in his post Tuesday that some of these could be misunderstood -- "toe-stepping," for instance, "was meant to encourage employees to share their ideas regardless of their seniority or position in the company, but too often it was used as an excuse for being [a jerk]."
What's notable, however, isn't that Khosrowshahi outlined Uber's new values -- it's how he did it. Faced with a turnaround or cultural revamp, every new CEO offers up a list of familiar -- and often cliched -- maxims to help guide the company forward. And this move was expected: A direction to "reformulate Uber's 14 cultural values" was one of the many recommendations made by former U.S. attorney general Eric H. Holder Jr. and his law firm Covington & Burling, which investigated Uber's corporate culture after a former engineer made allegations of harassment in a blog post. Some of the values, their report said, had been identified "as having been used to justify poor behavior."
Khosrowshahi, however, took an unusual approach in following through on that recommendation. Rather than set out his own list of ideas, he wrote that he asked for submissions from employees. "I feel strongly that culture needs to be written from the bottom up," he said in the post. "A culture that's pushed from the top down doesn't work, because people don't believe in it." More than 1,200 employees sent in ideas that were voted on more than 22,000 times, Khosrowshahi said in the post; the company also held more than 20 focus groups to set out the new ideas.
"He essentially crowdsourced the cultural norms, which is actually really interesting and really rare," said Justin Wasserman, a managing director at the consulting firm Kotter, noting that Khosrowshahi had said he would take that approach after being named to the top job. "He really did put his money where his mouth is."
.@dkhos: "If culture is pushed top down, then people don't believe in it. Culture is written bottoms up."
— Uber Comms (@Uber_Comms) August 30, 2017
Khosrowshahi also decided not to call the new list of guidelines "values." That's because, he wrote, "we fully expect them to evolve as Uber continues to grow. Uber has always been a company that embraces change, and going forward we’ll approach our culture in the same way."
But there could be another advantage of calling them "norms" beyond signaling an openness to them changing. While it may seem like a small distinction, Stanford University Robert Sutton said it's actually a big one. "This stuff is meaningless unless people actually do it," he said. Khosrowshahi is "trying to change what people do and how they treat each other, not what they talk about or claim to be." Norms, he said, refer to "the behavioral standard. It's not just the crap on the wall."
While the list adds new concepts and pushes out some of the ones that helped reinforce what the New York Times called a "Hobbesian environment" at Uber, some of the general ideas remain. While Uber may no longer tell people to step on toes or "always be hustlin'," it does include a statement that "we value ideas over hierarchy," with a belief "that the best ideas can come from anywhere" and "our job is to seek out those ideas, to shape and improve them through candid debate, and to take them from concept to action." Other ideas, such as making "big bold bets," encouraging employees to think like "owners" and being "obsessed" with customers, are carry-overs.
The real test, say experts on corporate culture change, will be what comes next. "It'll be transferred from paper to plaques within the week, and none of that matters," Wasserman said. "What I will be looking for next is to what extent he and every level of management is recognizing people who are exhibiting this list of norms -- and modeling it themselves."