Can Dara Khosrowshahi fix the problems that ended Uber’s license in London?

Photo: CNBC

New Uber CEO Dara Khosrowshahi must now deal with Transport for London’s decision to yank Uber’s license to operate in the city. He’s straddling two worlds — praising the team but asking for change and self-reflection. You can read his email to the global team either way, and that is the problem.

Lets look at the email, which CNBC has published, from the perspectives of two Uber employees: Bro, who wants Uber to compete as hard as it ever did and keep its culture basically the same, and Flo, who wants to transform Uber into place that values ethical behavior over competitive ruthlessness. Bro and Flo’s imagined words below are mine.

From: Dara Khosrowshahi
Date: Fri, Sep 22, 2017 at 12:53 PM
Subject: Re: Update on London’s License

Thanks Pierre, and thanks to everyone working on this issue.

Like all of you, I’m hugely disappointed in the decision by London’s Mayor and Transport for London. It could have profound negative consequences for the 40,000 drivers who depend on Uber for work and the 3.5 million Londoners who rely on Uber to get around.

Bro: Words like “hugely” tell me that our CEO realizes this is a big freakin’ deal.

Flo: He started by mentioning 40,000 drivers and 3.5 million customers. That’s where the focus should be.

It’s particularly discouraging that this is happening in the UK, where the team has led the way on partnerships with local groups to increase the number of wheelchair-accessible and electric vehicles on the road.

Bro: We jumped through their hoops. So this isn’t fair.

Flo: At least he mentioned some of what we’re doing right.

While the impulse may be to say that this is unfair, one of the lessons I’ve learned over time is that change comes from self-reflection. So it’s worth examining how we got here. The truth is that there is a high cost to a bad reputation. Irrespective of whether we did everything that is being said about us in London today (and to be clear, I don’t think we did), it really matters what people think of us, especially in a global business like ours, where actions in one part of the world can have serious consequences in another.

Bro: “Irrespective of whether we did everything” — damn right. We need to improve our reputation so we get credit for what we did right. Time for marketing and PR to do their jobs.

Flo: “Worth examining how we got here” — damn right. We got caught doing all sorts of crap. This is payback for how we have behaved.

Going forward, it’s critical that we act with integrity in everything we do, and learn how to be a better partner to every city we operate in. That doesn’t mean abandoning our principles—we will vigorously appeal TfL’s decision—but rather building trust through our actions and our behavior. 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.

Bro: Khosrowshahi is “vigorously” appealing the decision, because he knows it’s unfair. Integrity, principles, great company, contributing meaningfully, blah blah blah. We contribute best by winning.

Flo: Finally, some talk about integrity, principles, and contributing to society beyond the bottom line. This is the only way Uber will survive. Otherwise the same thing will happen in lots of other cities.

Thanks for everything you’re doing to make Uber the best company it can be, and particularly to our teammates in London and across the UK.


Bro: Go London team. CEO has your back.

Flo: Go global culture. CEO making changes.

Weasel words make this email ambiguous

Khosrowshahi is going for balance. He doesn’t want to demoralize the workers, but he does need them to realize that they must change. That’s why the email is ambiguous — it has to be. Look at the weasel words and wimpy constructions that you can take either way:

  • hugely disappointed
  • profound negative consequences
  • discouraging
  • increase the number of wheelchair-accessible and electric vehicles
  • the impulse may be to say that this is unfair
  • high cost to a bad reputation
  • Irrespective of whether we did everything that is being said about us
  • serious consequences
  • be a better partner
  • vigorously appeal TfL’s decision
  • Uber is not just a really great product, but a really great company
  • meaningfully contributing to society

These are warm and emotional words, but they don’t represent any leadership in themselves. What’s the difference between disappointed and “hugely” disappointed, or negative consequences and “profound” negative consequences? What is a great product or a “really great” company? What is the “high cost to a bad reputation?” What is a worker at Uber supposed to do upon reading this? You can see why Bro and Flo might have different ideas about that.

What matters is what Khosrowshahi does in the wake of this, not what he says. Travis Kalanick could never have credibly written what Khosrowshahi did, but changing this culture will be a lot harder than writing this email.

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