Over the past year, it has proven hard for Uber to stay out of the headlines. The company has found itself at the painful nexus of the old world and the new world of business. If business were still only about the single bottom line of results, results, results, we would be hailing Uber as a disruptor par excellence and we would still be lauding its ex-CEO, Travis Kalanick, as a ‘master of the Universe’ business titan. After all, the numbers are impressive; $6.5bn in revenues, 633 cities, 12,000 employees. All in only 8 years of existence.
Yet the fact that Uber’s reputation is in tatters and its former CEO looking for a new job demonstrates that the world of business has changed. It is no longer sufficient to focus upon results, results, results. The modern business stakeholder demands that business leaders focus upon results, relationships and reputation. Travis Kalanick woke up to this new reality too late, but the new CEO of Uber, Dara Khosrowshahi, appears to be in sync with this trend. In a fascinating email sent by Dara in response to Uber losing its operating license in London, the new CEO states:-
‘The truth is there is a high cost to a bad reputation. Going forward, it is critical we act with integrity in everything that we do. That means… building trust through our actions and our behaviour. In doing so, we will show that Uber is not just a really great product, but a really great company that is meaningfully contributing to society, beyond its business and its bottom line.’
And we as consumers find ourselves caught up in the same ideological battle. Over 0.5 million people signed a petition to protest against Uber losing its London license. These people love the Uber product, as I do, because we are looking at the situation purely as consumers. It is the same as for Ryanair, a recent press article commented ‘we love what they do even as we acknowledge the dislikeable way in which they do it’. I do not like what Ryanair or Uber stand for but, as a consumer, I still choose to fly with Ryanair and I still hail a cab from Uber. However, it is slowly dawning on me that before I was a consumer I was a human being. As a human being, I object to Uber and Ryanair. How do I know this to be true? Because I would never want my children to work for those companies. How is it that what is not ok for my own children I consider to be fine for someone else’s children? Is it because I consider those ‘other people’ to be less human than me? So when will I stop making decisions purely as a consumer and start making them as a human being?
As consumers, we were persuaded that all we ever wanted were great products and services, but as human beings we realise that now what we really want is great companies; companies that ‘meaningfully contribute to society, beyond their business and their bottom line’. We live in a bewildering time when, one by one, people are waking up from the hypnotic daze of an artificial consumerism to reclaim a common authentic humanity. On the day that happens, on the day when the penny finally drops, we find ourselves saying ‘enough is enough’. We find ourselves concluding that, even though we love the free market, the price of unfettered consumerism has suddenly become too high a price to pay. It shocks us, but we find ourselves part of an increasing cross-section of people who sense that what got us here is not what is going to get us to the next stage of the game. And these people are not raging socialists, nor are they angry populists, they are normal human beings from across the political spectrum who in business, and in society as a whole, are preparing to follow new leadership and commit to the journey of trust; preparing to follow leaders like Uber’s Dara Khosrowshahi and preparing to abandon leaders like Travis Kalanick. People who, like NFL footballing stars, suddenly find themselves going down on one knee, no longer saluting the flag of consumerism that once governed every aspect of their lives.
The question for other CEOs and leaders is this, ‘when will you commit yourself and your organisation to the journey of trust?’. When will you start becoming part of the solution rather than part of the problem? When will you abandon results, results, results and embrace results, relationships and reputation as the new order of business? As Starbucks CEO, Howard Schulz, has said, ‘To be a benevolent organisation you need to make lots of profit, but if your sole purpose is profit you’re on a collision course with time.’ No one can tell you when that collision will come but the Uber case study ought to convince you that the time is nearer than you think. The time is nearer than you think.