3 Leadership Lessons Uber Taught Us By Not Putting Women in the C-Suite

When Uber recently hired former Orbitz CEO Barney Harford to be its new Chief Operating Officer, I swore at my laptop. The choice brought back memories of last August, when founder Travis Kalanick was replaced by Dara Khosrowshahi amid scandals, reports of a sexist culture and allegations of driver abuse. I grumbled about that hire, too.

To me, one of those jobs had to go to a woman. Nothing against Khosrowshahi, who’s super-qualified and seems like a wise, values-driven, self-aware leader. Or Harford, who by all accounts is a brilliant ops guy. But in the age of #metoo and Harvey Weinstein, with sexual harassment no longer being tolerated even in the Silicon Valley boys’ club, it seemed obvious that one of Uber’s new leaders should be an Ovarian-American. When the announcement of a new Uber COO broke, I dared to hope.


But I was wrong. Uber’s board made the right call for the company’s brand and culture. Hiring a woman as CEO would’ve been the PC thing to do, but it would have backfired and sent the wrong message. Here are 3 savvy leadership lessons you should take away from Uber’s gutsy, counterintuitive hires:

1. People respect tough calls, but not pandering.

Hiring Khosrowshahi took courage, and the overall response was respect. If Uber had brought in a woman to fill Kalanick’s shoes–no matter how accomplished–she would’ve been delegitimized instantly. Everybody from Wall Street to Sand Hill Road would’ve dismissed the choice as a transparent attempt to roll female customers while convincing the press call to off their dogs. Could a woman step into today’s bromantic Uber culture and take the company to the next level? You bet your app. But the woman who does it should earn the gig on merit. She shouldn’t be a diversity hire.

2. Leaders hold the people responsible for a problem accountable for fixing it.  

So far, Khosrowshahi has made a terrific impression. He’s said all the right things, is politically progressive, and Expedia (which he ran before coming to Uber) has no gender pay gap. Awesome. But it’s the fact that he’s a man that’s critical to Uber’s survival. Why? Because if Khosrowshahi can instill a healthy, inclusive culture in the company, the world will hail it as a genuine, permanent change of heart that Uber’s dude-dominated workforce supports.

If a female CEO did the same thing, many would condemn it as a coerced, hypocritical PR stunt and insist that the company’s enlightened ways would evaporate as soon as a male chief executive took the wheel again. And they might be right.

Men made Uber a mess. For the brand to remain credible, men have to clean it up. The cleaning lady should not pick up after them.

3. Leading means giving the public a mea culpa from time to time.

After defying the calls to pick a woman CEO, people were sure the long-rumored COO job would be filled by a female. Mashable, Business Insider, Huffington Post and others had been making their pitch for a woman COO since March. So Uber took some heat for Harford. Or, as The Verge put it, “Ex-Orbitz CEO Barney Harford, a white man, named to position that once was supposed to go to a woman.” That stings.

But it’s okay. There comes a time when a brand that’s done wrong has to stop making excuses, step up and take its tongue lashing without complaint. To its credit, Uber’s leaders have done that. Now if the company chooses a woman to fill its next senior executive opening, nobody can claim she was hired for anything but her exceptional qualifications.

Uber, the next move is yours.

Replace the Dreaded Annual Review to Achieve Extraordinary Success

David Hassell likes to tell a story about pot roast. He’s shared it with me once before, but the CEO of 15Five, unravels it so diligently, I don’t mind hearing it again. It goes something like this: A woman is preparing pot roast and cuts off the ends. When asked why, she replies, “It’s what my mother did.” Hassell goes on to explain that cutting off the ends was handed down through various generations: “It’s what we do.” When the story folds in the great-great-great grandmother, she explains, “I cut off the ends so the pot roast would fit in the pan.”

In work and life, there are beliefs we hold that go unchallenged. We go about life familiarly doing things way, yet we have no cogent explanation for their influence on thinking “that’s just how we’ve always done it.”  While it is cognitively more comfortable to allow routine and tradition to dictate what we believe and do, they have no place in a company that wants to be at its best. We do not always realize that we have succumbed to beliefs and actions that have become irrelevant.

Take for example the annual performance appraisal. It is a routine that has long ago lost its usefulness. Sure, at one point we thought annually telling someone how they are doing was enough, crazy as it sounds today. Sure, we assumed people knew where they struggled and excelled at work, silly as that sounds today. So, when 15Five released an update to their employee engagement tool that includes a solution that challenges “It’s what we do,” I wanted to learn more.

What follows is not a summary of Hassell’s new product. Instead, I want to provide you with insights to help your company modernize how you develop people. I will include some wisdom Hassell shared with me, too.

Goodbye Annual Performance Review. Say Hello “Best Self Review.”

I have long advocated for leaders to focus on the workplace environment, or climate, as a way to motivate and inspire people. It is the central focus of my book, The Optimistic Workplace. Most managers do not consider the annual review as a way to positively shape the climate of their team or the organizations. Most managers and their employees dread the yearly routine. That dread prevents managers from seeing how the ill-fitted discussion drains any good vibes that might exist within the team.

15Five advocates what they call the “Best Self Review.” It is a definite shift towards helping humans learn how they can excel–in work and life. Gone are the days where a paycheck is enough for enduring subpar workplaces and bosses. Work is a central part of our identity. It is how we make meaning of our contribution to the world, or at least, our small part of it. We are undeniably driven to be part of something important. It is time businesses ( I’m looking at you HR) overhaul the one process that can leverage the aforementioned human needs. The annual review needs to sunset. In its place is an ongoing dialogue about constant learning and applying strengths to the businesses challenges and maintenance tasks central to success for both the employee and the company.

Taking Steps to Replace the Annual Performance Review

It does not matter if you call the performance conversations “Best Self Review” or something else. What matters is you stop the tradition because it’s what you’ve always done. Letting your own pot roast story be the narrative for one of your most important responsibilities is management malpractice. It not only hurts your company it also damages your effectiveness and your employees’ too.

To help you discover new ways to inspire high performance and people, consider these tidbits:

  1. Integrate personal values, purpose, and strengths into your ongoing performance conversations. Do employees understand how their values influence their work? Do they have a sense of how their actions contribute to the company’s Why?
  2. Establish a cadence of growth conversations. For example, new employees should have more frequent discussions with their manager–at least monthly and quarterly.
  3. Capture your notes from your discussions–actions items, projects, personal and professional goals–in a tool that can be shared and accessed anywhere. Tools like 15Five and Weekdone are solid options.
  4. Abandon numerical scales. These often demotivate employees and are wholly subjective. Instead, focus on impact to the company, growth of the employee, and project successes.

Hassell suggests having employees reflect on and answer questions like these:

  • “What are my top three strengths and how did I apply them this past quarter.”
  • “What are my three opportunities where I can improve in the next quarter?”
  • “What impact do I want to have on the organization this quarter?”
  • “What three wins do I want to acknowledge and celebrate?”

As my conversation with David Hassell came to an end, he made an important distinction: “[A manager’s job] isn’t to score the person, but to give critical feedback that’s necessary for growth. It’s in service to the person and not just the organization.” The end goal of a performance conversation is not to check it off your to-do list. Instead, the end goal is to partner with people, so they become their best self or fulfill their potential. There is no timeframe for this. It is an ongoing dialogue. This represents the critical shift essential to replacing the annual review.  

Be Less of a Jerk: Do Something About Your Sleep

One of the delights of being an academic is sometimes you stumble on a useful, practical gem, and one such gem is an article titled, “You Wouldn’t Like Me When I’m Sleepy: Leaders’ Sleep, Daily Abusive Supervision, and Work Unit Engagement” by Christopher M Barnes, Lorenzo Lucianetti, Davasheesh P. Bhave, and Michael S. Christian published in the Academy of Management Journal. The study maintains that sleep may be one factor to be taken into account in explaining abusive supervisory behavior. The researcher make the point that at least some of the daily variation of negative leadership behavior may be explained by the sleep factor. Interestingly, the authors find that the quality of sleep rather than its quantity may be associated with abusive behavior.  Abusive behavior is catalogued as hostile verbal and non-verbal behaviors, not including physical contact. This finding suggests that maybe leaders should monitor their sleep habits.

In the workplace, the authors argue, leaders face situations where they are tempted to react in impulsive and abusive ways. Perhaps they are frustrated due to lack of progress, or maybe they explode when they notice a mistake or when their ideas are criticized.  Each of these situations puts leaders into a situation where their ego strength is depleted and they are less capable of the self-regulation necessary to control their impulses. At the moment when self-regulation is so critical, when stopping and reflecting on the short- and long-term consequences of their behavior is essential, leaders instead react by impulsively lashing out.

The authors make the case that poor sleep quality results in ego depletion, which in turn can lead to abusive supervisory behavior which consequently cannot only impede employee engagement but also have negative consequences for the team and the organization.

What’s the point? Think of the stress that leaders and entrepreneurs are under when developing new products, searching for new markets, and competing for resources.

Leadership, especially in an entrepreneurial setting, is demanding. Mistakes are made, resources are limited, and competition is inevitable–setting up a situation that requires a great deal of self-regulation to hold forth and to be steady and reflective.

The vicious cycle is that the very stresses that leaders and entrepreneurs labor under may lead to poor sleep quality, which leads to less self-regulation and more abusive behavior, eroding the support of the very people whose support you need to promote your good ideas and move your agenda.

That’s the bad news. The good news is that part of negative supervisory behavior varies daily, and may vary due to the quality of sleep of the leader. Obviously, this isn’t a complete or total explanation why you may be a jerk as a leader or supervisor, or to say definitely that in all cases that poor sleep quality is a predictor of abusive supervisory behavior. But if poor sleep quality explains a fraction of your negative supervisory behavior, maybe you should consider doing something about your sleep habits. Your colleagues will appreciate it, your family will appreciate it, and all and all, you may find having a better night’s rest worthwhile.

The Best Teams Build Up Accountability With Each Other (But Not in the Way You Think)

Practicing accountability while working on teams is critical to any team’s success. Team experts like Patrick Lencioni, Thomas Kayser, and John Maxwell all list accountability as one of the top traits of high-performance teams. Making sure that people are delivering on their commitments is essential to making sure a team is effective. Members who make commitments but then don’t deliver will quickly bring a team to its knees.

Having worked with and coached dozens teams of all different types over the last two decades, I’ve learned that building a culture of accountability is one of the single most important interventions I can make. However, I’ve noticed there are different approaches to accountability and that some are more successful than others. As I’ve honed my approach to team development, I’ve found a few key steps to the accountability conversation that work well. The trick is to shift the mindset from one of punishment to one of support.

Many teams start raising the accountability level by calling people out publicly when they fall short. While this raises the awareness about commitments and gets people to think twice before signing up–and once they do, can get them to double down on effort–it ultimately undermines a team’s success. Focusing on punishment motivates people to engage in two counterproductive tendencies.

First, when faced with possible punishment, people tend to play it safe. They hesitate to stretch themselves to try new things. This shuts down learning and development since most growth occurs outside of a person’s comfort zone, when they are stretching themselves. If someone is afraid of punishment, they have little incentive to learn.

Second, people will stick with the tried and true rather than experimenting with new, possibly better, approaches to their work. If people are afraid that they’ll be called out if they fail, they won’t experiment. Unfortunately, this shuts down innovation and creativity; creativity is ultimately how a team, and a company, makes future improvements.

To avoid creating a culture of accountability based on blame and punishment, focus on creating one of support and accomplishment instead. Here are five simple steps to structuring these conversations–what I call the five R’s–so that accountability becomes a positive aspect of your culture and productive outcome for your team.

1. Reinforce the relationship.

Always start by reinforcing the importance and commitment to the personal relationship. Our worst psychological fear is that we’ll be exiled by our tribe and naturally we want to avoid this result. The goal here to create a psychological safety net by assuring your people that they are not being singled out or punished.

2. Restate the team and individual commitment.

Great teams attack issues, not people. Instead of focusing the person’s actions, or lack thereof, focus on the commitments that were made. I suggest starting with the team commitment and then moving onto the individual commitment. More often than not, this is where the issue lies; people often don’t realize that a formal commitment and deadline were made and set. Once you start recording your commitments, many of your accountability issues will improve.

3. Reflect on the situation.

Be open to new information and learning by getting curious. Ask open-ended questions to pull the key information out that is needed to fix the situation. Avoid blaming or critical questions. Keep it neutral and stay open-minded to new insights and possibilities. Sometimes not meeting a commitment is not a bad thing if it would have risked a higher-level goal.

4. Redouble your support.

Strong teams know they all succeed or fail together. And even if someone has to put in extra time or effort to help someone else get his or her task done, she does so without a second thought. Team members know that everyone is working hard and pushing themselves.

5. Resolve to take action.

Make sure you conclude with specific actions and new commitments. Just because something was missed doesn’t mean it can be put aside. Either re-commit to it with new deadlines and actions, or agree that it’s no longer a task and strike it from the list.

By shifting your culture from one of blame and punishment to one of support and accomplishment, your team will be more successful and improve more quickly. It will also be a lot more enjoyable.