Travis Kalanick wrote an awesome letter to Uber employees. They never saw it.

Photo: TechCrunch

In 2017, Travis Kalanick was on leave as CEO of Uber to deal with family medical issues. The beleaguered company was at a low point. His letter to employees is the best “I’m sorry, we need to change” communication I’ve ever read, but he never sent it — and he was forced out shortly thereafter.

Author and New York Times reporter Mike Isaac got a copy of the letter; Gizmodo published it. Take a look. I added the words in brackets to clarify some elements; I’ve indicated where some portions were omitted here. The full letter is at Gizmodo.

The Travis Kalanick letter

Team,

Over the last seven years, our company has grown a lot — but it hasn’t grown up.

I’ve been an entrepreneur my whole life. Most of the time, I’ve been on the brink of imminent failure and bankruptcy. I was never focused on building thriving organizations. I was mostly just struggling to survive.
When Uber took off, for the first time in my life I was leading an organization that wasn’t on the brink of failure each day. In just the last three and a half years, our service and our company has grown at an unprecedented rate…

…As we grew, I held on to too many things that helped me survive and build a great company, but at scale became ever-increasing liabilities.
I put growing our business ahead of properly scaling our internal culture and organization.

I approached decisions as transactions, instead of opportunities to build relationships with our drivers, riders, communities and cities we serve.

I favored logic over empathy, when sometimes it’s more important to show you care than to prove you’re right.

I focused on getting the right individuals to build Uber, without doing enough to ensure we’re building the right kind of teams.

I was too focused on making Uber feel like a small company even after we got big. I was still that scrappy entrepreneur, diving into growth — sometimes obsessively so — but without enough care for our communities, or how we would adjust the processes that worked for us as a small company for our current challenges as a big global company.

Growth is something to celebrate, but without the appropriate checks and balances can lead to serious mistakes. At scale, our mistakes have a much greater impact — on our teams, customers and the communities we serve. That’s why small company approaches must change when you scale. I succeeded by acting small, but failed in being bigger.

And that contributed to an avalanche of organizational debt throughout our company.

If you’re writing a “turn the company around” letter, this is practically a model. A few things this letter does right:

  • Plain language. There is no jargon whatsoever. There is no passive voice. There are no exaggerated weasel words. It reads like a human talking, not a corporate stooge.
  • First person. Kalanick writes directly to the reader. He takes personal responsibility for his mistakes. It is mostly “I,” not “we.”
  • Unflinching. It communicates “I was wrong” not once, but several times, in several ways. It’s disarming in its honesty.

An avalanche of organizational debt

It was naive to think that we could build a technology and product driven organization as fast as we did. Over the last few years, as our organization grew we created more and more organizational debt.

— Too many first time managers, 63 percent of all managers having never managed before

— Great managers given more responsibility than ready for

— Processes that didn’t scale for the size or complexity of the organization; process for a 400 person company cannot work at a company of 14,000

— HR staff and systems didn’t keep pace with company size and needs

— Weak coordination of product teams; every product team wanted to communicate with riders, and prioritize different features

— Loss of empathy and local relationships, as small and lightweight driver support teams transformed Into a centralized support system
When you pile these issues on top of each other, you eventually have an avalanche of organizational debt. There are reasons why companies don’t usually grow this fast, and we should have been paying greater attention to the hard problems caused by hyper-growththis [sic]. We also didn’t focus enough on giving every employee a great experience, or fiercely supporting those who experienced bad behavior and injustice.

Now he gets analytical, while still taking responsibility. If you want to lay the foundation for change, you need to be honest about what you did wrong in factual, quantitative terms. Just about any high-growth startup could learn from this — many have similar problems.

Notice also how Kalanick paces you through this communication with subheads and bullets. Those are not signs of org-speak, they are navigational signposts, and this is the best way to use them.

The limits of our values

Part of the problem was also that the values which helped Uber to reach our present scale, didn’t get the care and attention to scale as the company grew.

There’s a lot of good intent behind our values, but each is a two-sided coin that can be misappropriated or misinterpreted — or, as many of you have said, weaponized. If our values are applied improperly, they don’t help our company — they hurt it.

Meritocracy and toe-stepping can empower individuals to speak truth to power, but if weaponized can lead to people getting stepped on — speaking power to truth.

Always be hustling is a normal and positive part of startup life, but gone too far and you find you’re not leaving anything on the table for the partners and communities you serve. You end up running on empty.

Let builders build can empower people to change the world, but without constraints give them the license to avoid collaboration with important stakeholders.

And principled confrontation is how you create optimistic change in the face of disagreement, unless it bends towards arrogance and stubbornness without purpose.

Our company is still young and dynamic, and our values should be too. We will reexamine, reinterpret and renew them so they are fit for the company we are today — and the company we will want to become.

An extraordinary exercise in self-reflection. When was the last time you saw a company executive admit, “Our values were at the root of problems”? And yet, they often are. (Ask Wells Fargo.)

[Portion omitted for length]

Accountability

Settling our organizational debt [begins] with holding people accountable for their behavior at our company — addressing bad behavior, and rooting out sources of injustice wherever they appear.

We didn’t wait for publication of the release of the Holder recommendations [an internal report about Uber’s shortcomings] to begin fixing things. In response to Susan Fowler’s blog post [about being sexually harassed], we quickly established an anonymous and confidential employee hotline to help investigate workplace issues. Over the last three months we’ve already taken action against specific employees who have come to the attention of HR for unacceptable behavior towards other members of the Uber family. We have terminated a number of employees, and issued warnings to others.

Moving forward, we will be taking a zero tolerance approach for behavior that breaches our employee code of conduct. No-one should have to come to work dreading an interaction with their manager, and no-one should have to lie awake at night wondering if this is the right company to build a career at.

[Portion omitted for length]

Culture, equality and inclusion
Transforming our organization also means transforming our culture, creating an environment in which every employee feels respected, supported and empowered. This also means creating a people first approach to HR so that every employee can be heard at our company, regardless of gender, race or background.

This is an area I’m deeply committed to improving at. With the incredible leadership and support of Liane, our head of HR, I’ve already begun to understand many of the cultural challenges we face at Uber in much greater detail. I’m also spending much more time building relationships with employees at every level throughout the organization, in particular our incredible women’s group, LadyEng. Sometimes these conversations can be hard, but they have to happen so I can learn and fix things.

Many of these challenges we face in common with the rest of the tech industry. But we’re not using that as an excuse to avoid confronting the issues we need to start fixing now.

To that end, we’re investing in new tools, benefits and processes to champion equality, inclusion and justice throughout the company. On their own, many of these efforts are small, but we know they’re important to many of you and together create a profound impact. We’ve already rolled out a diversity report, launched an equal pay review, and are exploring a refresh of our cultural values. We’ve also begun providing Inclusion Training Workshops to managers, investing in leadership development for women and employees from underrepresented backgrounds, and have taken steps to ensure more diverse hiring panels.

Transforming our culture will take time, but we’re committed to investing in making Uber a great place to work, for as long as it takes.

This is just the start.

These sorts of promises are common. Kalanick had made them before. And a few weasel words like “deeply” and “profound” have crept in. But this could have laid the groundwork for change, if Kalanick had remained with the company.

Supporting drivers

Lastly, we’re also going to invest in better serving our drivers — the heart and soul of our company.

Our vision with Uber has always been about creating a better quality of life — giving people the freedom, flexibility and opportunities that come from being able to earn on their own schedule at the push of a button. But we need to do a better job here, and rebuild our relationship with drivers. I’ll be sharing more about this next week, and how we’re putting people first throughout our entire community.

An empty promise. This is still a problem.

A closing thought

Over the last few months, I’ve talked to hundreds of you about how we can create a more effective, inclusive and respectful workplace. I know the conversations I’ve had are just part of a larger, continuing company conversation.

The courage and determination of those who chose to speak up and help improve our company is something I am deeply proud of. You’ve reminded me how incredible it is to assemble a team like this, filled with talented women and men from every background and walk of life. Being able to rely on your talent and contributions to advance our mission is a privilege, and I’m committed to better supporting you to reach your full potential.

Over the last few days, as I’m sure you can imagine, family has been on my mind a lot.

My mother always encouraged me to stay as connected as possible with the wonderful, talented, inspiring people that make Uber everything that it is. She always put people first, and it’s time I live her legacy. My dad taught me that actions speak louder than words, and to lead by example. So I felt it was important to be very candid here about the challenges we face at Uber — but also how we’re taking action without delay to make things right.

I hope you will join with me in building an even better Uber.

Could this letter have ever been sent?

In the end, no one joined Kalanick, as he was forced out. Despite the eloquence of these words, the culture he had created ate him alive and continues to challenge his company. Changing something this powerful is extremely hard.

I really wonder what would have happened if Kalanick had not left Uber. I very much wonder if such a letter would ever have reached the employees and inevitably leaked to the media. Could he have led a positive change after having created and led a toxic culture?

I suspect this letter would never have been sent, even if Kalanick remained. CEOs are capable of this level of self-reflection, I’ve seen it in person. But inevitably, before they publish, they speak with their own staff. That staff, including their corporate counsel and head of PR, tells them it’s a bad idea to say such things so publicly. They sand off the edges, hedge the apologies, and weaken the promises. And what started as a clear, powerful, personal statement becomes weak, watered down, and mostly useless.

If your company is in trouble, read what Kalanick wrote. Reflect. Write your own honest missive in a moment of clarity. And send it. If leaders did this more often, maybe we’d actually start to trust them.

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