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Filling the Driver’s Seat at Uber

August 15, 2017

What type of leader should Uber look to hire as its new CEO? Michael Watkins, Founder of Genesis Advisors and professor of leadership at Switzerland’s IMD business school, weighs in on why the chatter about needing a female CEO is a good, but could backfire should Uber ultimately decide to go with a male chief. Plus, Watkins discusses why Uber just needs a mature leader, gender aside.

Cheddar: How does a company like Uber run for over six months without a leader?

MDW: There’s good news and bad news. Yes, the company is continuing to run, but not as it needs to. Regulatory issues and ongoing investigations will ultimately consume a lot of leadership time. When you don’t have a leader for a long period like this, the strategic direction can get lost. I think the story is one of the company needing a different kind of leader to take it forward. It probably needed a disruptive type of leader—one willing to push the limits with sharp elbows, but now it needs a very different kind of leadership and culture.

Cheddar: What is that different leadership and do you think a female leader can solve Uber’s problems? Are there other attributes that you think Uber needs in order to get back on track?

MDW: The notion that a female leader is going to fix an anti-female culture in a company is, I think, a fundamentally misguided one that can ultimately set the female CEO up for failure. What Uber needs is a mature leader, an executive who can lead a larger organization and put in place the right processes, systems and disciplines. Uber’s basic value system needs to be adjusted fairly dramatically. I would look for a mature leader who can lead a large organization— it’s the issue of maturity and not gender, that will be the make or break issue here.


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Leading a Virtual Team

Cheddar: Focusing on collaboration within a business as technology evolves. Creating a virtual team can be beneficial to your company, but what are some of the things a company needs to understand before it goes virtual?

MDW: The most important thing is to understand that there really is a cost to operating as a virtual organization. Yes, there are tremendous benefits and lots of efficiencies to operating virtually, but the richness of the communication gets lost and it’s relatively easy for people to lose focus. So, you need to understand that your fundamental approach to doing work has to change in a virtual, collaboration environment.

Cheddar: How do you cultivate company culture when you are remote—when you aren’t physically present in the office?

MDW: It means you need to communicate in a different way and be more disciplined in the types of communication you use. The culture of an organization is not so much what the CEO says or does, but fundamentally what behaviors are incentivized in an organization. Most often, you see things go wrong when the wrong types of behaviors are incentivized. So, as you put a collaborative system in place—whatever that mix of knowledge and data management systems, collaborative platforms, video sharing, etc., is—you need to focus on the fundamental basis of incentives you put in place (e.g., how is work structured, what is going to be valued). You often have to create a new language for the organization, because when you have people coming together across geographic and cultural divides, you need to create a shared language that operates across those boundaries.

Cheddar: This raises a question about the core principles that help companies collaborate. What are those?

MDW: If you are creating a virtual team, ideally you should get the team together physically, early on. However, that may not always be possible. Either way, you need to be clear about what the task structure is and what the processes are because in a virtual environment you will be adjusting as you go. You need to be sure that you have the best set of technologies for the job and that everyone is operating with the same technologies. You need to be sure you are being equitable across your team and, for example, not relegate everyone in Singapore to midnight video conferences. You need to be sure the underlying set of connections get made in a non-work sense—I call it creating a “virtual water cooler” for people to gather around to get to know and understand each other on a person level. And most importantly, you have to foster a sense of shared leadership. Everyone has to step up in a virtual environment and be willing to take on part of the leadership burden.

My ten core principles for effective digital collaboration:

  1. If possible, get team together physically early-on
  2. Clarify tasks and process, not just goals and roles
  3. Commit to a communication charter
  4. Leverage the best communication technologies
  5. Build a team with rhythm
  6. Agree on a shared language
  7. Create a “virtual water cooler”
  8. Clarify and track commitments
  9. Foster shared leadership
  10. Don’t forget the 1:1s


Follow this link to watch the interview.


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