On August 30, 2017, I’m sure a few Uber board members breathed a collective sigh of relief when Dara Khosrowshani left Expedia to accept the position as Uber’s new CEO. Though Uber’s founder, Travis Kalanick, is credited for taking an entrenched taxi cab industry by storm, his trajectory was, well, stormy.
In fact, his tenure was so clouded by alarming ethics and a “burn the village” leadership approach, not to mention compromising the health and safety of its passengers and employees, that Uber became everyone’s favorite ride-hailing service to hate. It’s no wonder that jaws were hitting the table when Khosrowshani’s farewell letter to his Expedia employees was not only a stark contrast to his Uber predecessor, but his message was downright vulnerable. The 13 months that followed his first day as Uber’s CEO are the makings of a fascinating story from which we can all learn.
Allow me to highlight a few of many milestones that mark Khosrowshani’s efforts to repair a company in disarray on a massive scale.
Khosrowshani knew the huge task he was facing when he took on Uber’s turbulent culture last August. Rather than come in with guns blazing, he began listening, explains Uber’s global director, Jessica Bryndza. He sat down with drivers, engineers, and staff who worked the customer service lines. His listening approach also helped him rewrite the company values that guide Uber’s businesses practices.
Eight months in and he was still listening but pairing that quality with a measured diplomacy that smoothed toxic relations at the board level, sealed a $9 billion investment deal with Softbank, and settled a high-stakes lawsuit with Waymo. Khosrowshani credits his ability to manage risk due to his early life being shaped by loss.
Khosrowshani mended fences with transparency and humility. He renewed alliances with London after he wrote in a letter to the city, “On behalf of everyone at Uber globally, I apologize for the mistakes we’ve made.” Khosrowshani also disclosed that hackers accessed data from 57 million drivers and riders in October 2016. He learned of it shortly after coming on board and told the public in November 2017. He said, “While I can’t erase the past, I can commit on behalf of every Uber employee that we will learn from our mistakes.”
Though Khosrowshani’s path is textbook, a turnaround—no matter how sound—is never foolproof. For instance, from the time I thought about this blog to the moment I sat down to write it, multiple stories—too many to address thoughtfully in this post—have been released in the news about Uber that will further test Khosrowshani’s tenacity.
What are some of the lessons here? Turnarounds are messy. They can’t be solved overnight by rebranding and a contrite speech or letter. They require fundamental changes and heavy lifting from the C-suite and mailroom alike. Most importantly, they take time—especially when the actions of your predecessors have left people not-yet-ready to forgive. If the public still needs time to process, you bide that time by earning trust incrementally and by demonstrating a departure from the past.
What’s working in your favor is that everyone loves a comeback story. People want you to succeed because that means you’re doing well by doing good. The question is, will Khosrowshani have the grit to withstand the wrongdoings that may continue to surface during his come-back effort? Let’s watch and learn.