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One piece of advice Uber’s new CEO would give to former CEO Travis Kalanick

At Salesforce’s Dreamforce 2018 keynote presentation on day two, Marc Benioff (pictured right), CEO and founder of Salesforce asked the newly appointed CEO of (often defamed) brand Uber, Dara Khosrowshahi (pictured left), if he could give one piece of advice to former CEO Travis Kalanick, what would it be. To which Khosrowshahi, who has been in the role a little over a year, said, “The message I would give him is something I learnt from my old boss, which is listen to what you don’t want to hear.”

He added, “The higher up you get, the less you really know what is going on at a company. Because you get measures that are protected and your schedules are scheduled.”

You lose fidelity when you move up an organisation.

“When you succeed like [Kalanick] who was succeeding and succeeding and succeeding, and this is not isolated to Kalanick alone, you stop listening,” he said. In the fourth industrial revolution, Khosrowshahi believes CEOs need to be more transparent and be ready to use tools and technology they are probably not the most used to.

“This is going to be a painful process for some. Some are going to make it and some are not. I think we are going through a little painful process,” he said.

When asked if the company has heart, Khosrowshahi said, “We have heart”.  Interestingly enough, this question has been asked by Benioff to former CEO Kalanick in 2015 on stage. This time around, Khosrowshahi took the question with grace, explaining that if anything, the company wants the heart to play a bigger role in the decisions it makes every day across the company.

“One of the things I didn’t expect in the company, which drove me to join the company, is that the employees have a sense of mission,” Khosrowshahi said. He explained that the employees in Uber are immensely passionate about creating opportunities for driver partners and mobility, through technology. As a company, obviously “the head” plays a role in making logical decisions. “But it is when the head and heart come together and there is an alignment that the magic happens,” Khosrowshahi explained.

We are looking to bring the magic back.

Over the past year, Khosrowshahi said a lot of time has been spend on working on the safety aspect of the brand and while there is no guarantee of 100% safety in any transport organisation, Uber hopes to do its best to do its best in optimising the platform to be as safe as possible.

“We have built a platform on which there are drivers and riders. And of course, there are good people and bad people in the world, and some might argue that if these people using the service do something bad it isn’t the company’s fault. But I think that is just not good enough,” he said.  This prompted Uber to add on features such as 911 integration to share information with the police if people feel unsafe, and safety tool sets to alert family members of their locations and even on the driver front it lets drivers know if they are driving too fast (which hurts their ratings).

Uber’s toxic internal work culture

Khosrowshahi said for the past year, he has also been busy working on the external image of the brand. And now, he is looking to build a company that Uber employees can be proud of too.

“I think we have done a good job externally [showcasing] the new Uber but the work on culture internally is really hard. To some extent, I have been so busy fighting the external battles and putting in place a management team, that I don’t think I have done quite enough internally looking at culture and diversity in all aspects and at all levels across the company,” he admitted.

Currently, to counter bias, the brand uses HR tools to ensure fair job promotions. Khosrowshahi is also passionate about hiring a diverse set of people from different ethnic backgrounds. “I think recruitment, retention and development go hand in hand. We have gotten recruitment up to a decent place. And now it is [time to focus on] development and retention. This is not just my job but all of the job of the leadership team.”

Given Uber drivers are in fact the face of the company, the company is also now doing more to cater to their needs. While the brand has always called their drivers “partners”, it hasn’t always treated them as such, admitted Khosrowshahi.

Historically, Uber always thought that if it optimised the platform for the consumer, the demand will come and there will be money for the driver partner and everything will be fine. But now, Uber has a “very robust” driver product team which adds on products such as tipping and others, demanded by the drivers.

“We as a company now are creating product much more in line with both our consumers and driver partners,” he added. Last year, the brand put together a programme called 180 days of change where it started to really listen to what the drivers wanted and shipped specific app features requested individual.

Another area Uber is looking at is benefits given today’s workforce is far more mobile than in the past.

“People [today] are moving around (freelancing) more obviously. They don’t get married to a company […] We really have to think of benefits for these temporary workers who are mobile, regardless if they are moving from job to job,” he said.

Being the “saviour” CEO

Khosrowshahi added that his first reaction when being contacted for the role was, “No f-ing way.” But while he was “in a great situation” at Expedia, he personally felt that an opportunity like the one presented by Uber was rare. “I always look for people I can like and respect and learn from. Secondly, I also look for a place where I can as an individual make a difference. Lastly, I look for a place that is making a difference.”

Uber, in his eyes, fit the bill.

I can’t think of another company and opportunity where I as an individual could make a difference, at a company which is making a real difference in the world.

Khosrowshahi said the biggest surprise for him has been the amount of press glare and the lack of public versus private.

“There is none of that now.  [The press glare] is absolutely something I expected. But until you are in the middle of it, you never know what it is like. I am trying to follow what my dad told me of just being myself where I will either be liked or I won’t. If you spend too much time pretending, it will suck and your facade will fall.”

He added that over the past year, he has learnt more than he has over the past five years in his career.

“You never go into these situations thinking it is going to be easy. But what I love is succeeding as a team, and getting together a group you trust that knows they are building something great,” he said, adding:

You have plenty of bad days but you know what you are doing is special and that helps me power through the bad days and there are more bad days than good days these days.

Salesforce paid for the journalist’s trip to Dreamforce 2018, held in San Francisco.

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