Uber's Travis Kalanick needs a lesson in charm

EDITOR'S BLOG: CEOs of multi-billion dollar companies shouldn't get into back-seat spats with their workers - or contractors for that matter.

by Matthew Gwyther
Last Updated: 01 Mar 2017

Uber’s Travis Kalanick, it would appear, has been enrolled in the same charm school classes as those taken by the Candy brothers. For those who haven’t been following the trial at which the Candys are contesting a £132 million claim from a former business associate, Nick Holyoake, the proceedings make for disturbing reading.

Some of the testimony about the Candy brother’s alleged behaviour could not be repeated in front of a family audience. The brothers are accused in written evidence of making threats against Holyoake, with Nick Candy saying his brother Christian would involve 'Russians' who would 'not think twice about hurting' Holyoake’s family, and Christian telling him to be careful that his pregnant wife did not suffer another miscarriage. The Candys strongly deny all allegations and the trial continues.

But anyway. Back to Travis and Uber. It has been a pretty awful year so far for the reputations of both. First came the revelations of sexist behaviour from a female former software engineer - she said she’d been propositioned for sex by her boss and when she’d protested to the HR department she was told that the man would not be disciplined partly because he had been deemed a ‘high performer.’ An attempt to take the heat out of this story was made by Kalanick when he agreed to meet more than 100 of Uber’s female employees to say, ‘There are people in this room who have experienced things that are incredibly unjust.’

Kalanick has never been allowed to forget the fact that he used to refer to his company as ‘Boob-er’ because its success hugely improved his dating prospects. But on top of the sexism charges now comes the video of his row with one of his drivers, who protests with Kalanick in the back that he’s been bankrupted by the company’s pricing policies. The video can be watched here.

To be fair to Kalanick the driver, Fawzi Kamel, is pretty aggressively cheesed off. But a degree of noblesse oblige from the boss is called for here. You cannot simply, as the CEO of a $69 billion business, lose your rag and yell: ‘Some people don’t like to take responsibility for their own shit. They blame everything in life on somebody else.’ You have to learn to take stuff on the chin without just trading blows like a street-fighter. The mention of ‘responsibility’ reflects the fact that Kalanick does not regard the guy as his employee therefore he has no duty of care towards him. But the testy relationship between Uber and its drivers is a whole other problematic issue.

Kalanick has been told by his comms people to express a massive and immediate mea culpa. He obliged and is even saying he needs to ‘grow up’ (a good line that has hints of Rachel Whetstone, his director of communications who used to do the job at Google and is Steve Hilton’s best half) and requires some proper training in leadership.

This might be a good idea but it’s not just leadership training that Kalanick requires but better manners and an ounce of good grace - or as the Americans might put it, he needs to learn how not to be an asshole. He is rude, boorish and entirely lacking in any empathy for what his driver is going through being in the hole for $97,000. (The fact that the driver’s parting quip was ‘I know you are not going to go far’ probably cut Travis to the quick, too.)  In fact Kalanick appears to share many of the thin-skinned personal qualities of his new president.

We’ve been here before discussing the whole issue of ‘fierceness’ which Uber has embraced since the get go.

That sort of maximum, toe-treading push does not endear companies to people when you see it up close and personal. Neither will investors be terribly impressed. Many will now be wondering if he is turning into a liability for such a massive international, issue-dogged and complex company. It’s no surprise that one of the comments under the FT’s treatment of the story is: ‘Hey Kalanick, your mate Shkreli wants to know if you're free to hang out tonight?’ Martin Shkreli is the pariah who buys orphan drug rights and hikes the price by a thousand per cent.

And, finally, never mind his manners and charm but Travis was not wearing his seat belt. Safety first.

Image credit: Heisenberg Media/Flickr


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