Exclusive: The Letter Travis Kalanick Never Sent

Photo: Justin Sullivan (Getty)

Things could not have been much worse for Uber in the summer of 2017.

That may be difficult to believe given the company’s tumbling reputation and stock price, and the imminent threat California lawmakers present to its business model. But within and without, that summer was one of the darkest moments in the company’s history, according to Mike Isaac, the New York Times reporter and author of Super Pumped, which chronicles the ridehailing company.

“Uber in 2017 is totally under siege. They have one dramatic thing happening after the other,” Isaac told me in a brief interview. Former engineer Susan Fowler wrote a letter exposing the culture of harassment CEO Travis Kalanick had fostered within Uber; video surfaced of Kalanick berating an Uber driver mid-ride; a secretive program specifically designed to deceive law enforcement called ‘Greyball’ was uncovered; a viral campaign to boycott Uber took root after Kalanick accepted a position on President Trump’s short-lived Strategic and Policy Forum; Google subsidiary Waymo sued Uber for alleged theft of trade secrets. All this took place in the span of a few short months, and investors, as well as a company report by former Attorney General Eric Holder, saw one glaring flaw at the center of this mess: Travis Kalanick himself.

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By coincidence, just as the Holder report had come out, Kalanick announced a leave of absence to attend to family matters. His mother had died in a boating accident that also left his father seriously injured. “The incredible outpouring of heartfelt notes and condolences from all of you have kept me strong but almost universally they have ended with ‘How can I help?’. My answer is simple,” the grieving CEO wrote in a June 2017 email to Uber staff. “Do your life’s work in service to our mission. That gives me time with family.” Mired in controversy and in the midst of tragic loss, Kalanick still put his business first to a degree that reads as unhealthy. Just over a week later, a group of the company’s major investors would force him to step down as CEO.

During his time at the hotel across from the hospital where his father was being treated, Kalanick penned a letter, one which, for the stubborn, fratboy-ish CEO, was wildly out of character. In it, he essentially admits to most of the faults that the public, his employees, and his investors had levied against his leadership. An excerpt of the largely unedited 2,000-word document appears in Super Pumped; Isaac kindly provided the letter to Gizmodo for publication, which appears in its entirety below.

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Through less charitable eyes, the letter is a testament to how truly intractable Kalanick was as a leader. Well aware that his own investors were out for blood, it still took tragic circumstances beyond his control to force him into a state where he could admit some amount of fault for Uber’s legendarily awful culture and publicly promise some modicum of change. Or at least the timing of the events makes that a convenient reading. “My mother always encouraged me to stay as connected as possible with the wonderful, talented, inspiring people that make Uber everything that it is. She always put people first, and it’s time I live her legacy,” Kalanick wrote.

It also suggests an Uber that could have been: one with a contrite Kalanick at the helm, and it may help explain in part why some employees felt the need to protest his ouster. At the very least, Kalanick’s plans—which include a lot of organizational overhaul to divest the scrappy start-up culture that no longer served a company of 15,000 employees, and at least found some level of awareness for the working conditions it put its drivers in—undermines current CEO Dara Khosrowshahi’s reputation as Uber’s great reformer. Though much-needed reforms have certainly been instituted under his watch, it seems those changes were already in the works. Kalanick’s plans, however, wouldn’t have been known by the wider company. Before the letter could be edited and distributed, he was forced to step down.

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Of course, the only person who can really clear up what Travis was thinking while writing this letter is Travis himself, who is unlikely to speak publicly about a company for which he retains a board seat and in which he owns a considerable financial stake. We invite him to do so, regardless.

His letter:

Team,

Over the last seven years, our company has grown a lot — but it hasn’t grown up.

I’ve been an entrepreneur my whole life. Most of the time, I’ve been on the brink of imminent failure and bankruptcy. I was never focused on building thriving organizations. I was mostly just struggling to survive.

When Uber took off, for the first time in my life I was leading an organization that wasn’t on the brink of failure each day. In just the last three and a half years, our service and our company has grown at an unprecedented rate...

...As we grew, I held on to too many things that helped me survive and build a great company, but at scale became ever-increasing liabilities.

I put growing our business ahead of properly scaling our internal culture and organization.

I approached decisions as transactions, instead of opportunities to build relationships with our drivers, riders, communities and cities we serve.

I favored logic over empathy, when sometimes it’s more important to show you care than to prove you’re right.

I focused on getting the right individuals to build Uber, without doing enough to ensure we’re building the right kind of teams.

I was too focused on making Uber feel like a small company even after we got big. I was still that scrappy entrepreneur, diving into growth — sometimes obsessively so — but without enough care for our communities, or how we would adjust the processes that worked for us as a small company for our current challenges as a big global company.

Growth is something to celebrate, but without the appropriate checks and balances can lead to serious mistakes. At scale, our mistakes have a much greater impact — on our teams, customers and the communities we serve. That’s why small company approaches must change when you scale. I succeeded by acting small, but failed in being bigger.

And that contributed to an avalanche of organizational debt throughout our company.

——

An avalanche of organizational debt

It was naive to think that we could build a technology and product driven organization as fast as we did. Over the last few years, as our organization grew we created more and more organizational debt.

— Too many first time managers, 63 percent of all managers having never managed before

— Great managers given more responsibility than ready for

— Processes that didn’t scale for the size or complexity of the organization; process for a 400 person company cannot work at a company of 14,000

— HR staff and systems didn’t keep pace with company size and needs

— Weak coordination of product teams; every product team wanted to communicate with riders, and prioritize different features

— Loss of empathy and local relationships, as small and lightweight driver support teams transformed Into a centralized support system

When you pile these issues on top of each other, you eventually have an avalanche of organizational debt. There are reasons why companies don’t usually grow this fast, and we should have been paying greater attention to the hard problems caused by hyper-growththis [sic]. We also didn’t focus enough on giving every employee a great experience, or fiercely supporting those who experienced bad behavior and injustice.

The limits of our values

Part of the problem was also that the values which helped Uber to reach our present scale, didn’t get the care and attention to scale as the company grew.

There’s a lot of good intent behind our values, but each is a two-sided coin that can be misappropriated or misinterpreted — or, as many of you have said, weaponized. If our values are applied improperly, they don’t help our company — they hurt it.

Meritocracy and toe-stepping can empower individuals to speak truth to power, but if weaponized can lead to people getting stepped on — speaking power to truth.

Always be hustling is a normal and positive part of startup life, but gone too far and you find you’re not leaving anything on the table for the partners and communities you serve. You end up running on empty.

Let builders build can empower people to change the world, but without constraints give them the license to avoid collaboration with important stakeholders.

And principled confrontation is how you create optimistic change in the face of disagreement, unless it bends towards arrogance and stubbornness without purpose.

Our company is still young and dynamic, and our values should be too. We will reexamine, reinterpret and renew them so they are fit for the company we are today — and the company we will want to become.

A people first approach

Ultimately, we lost track of what our purpose is all about — people. We forgot to put people first and as we grew, we left behind too many of the inspiring employees we work with and too many of the amazing partners who serve our cities.

The blog post by Susan Fowler earlier this year was a wakeup call. The issues she raised were serious on their own but also speak to a larger problem with our organization and culture, and why we need a new approach as a company.

We need to put humanity at the center of everything we do at Uber. We need to put people first.

Putting people first means continuing to focus on our mission and serving communities well — but also recognizing that we have an obligation to the community that all of us are building together here at Uber.

Putting people first means building trustworthy, credible processes within our company so that every employee is listened to and treated with respect — and can get support whenever they need it.

Putting people first also means being transparent about the challenges we face, such as diversity, so we can create greater trust and collaboration in our efforts to solve our challenges.

Putting people first means refreshing our values so that they’re fit for the company we are today, and that we avoid situations where values become misappropriated to justify bad behaviors.

Putting people first means banishing biases from our workplace, conscious or unconscious, and hiring and developing the best talent, including women, people of color, LGBT and differently abled employees.

Putting people first means not viewing every interaction with a rider or driver as a transaction, but as a relationship — something we’re committed to investing in for years to come.

And putting people first means accepting when we’re wrong, and not being self-righteous when we’re right. I hope my note reflects this.

We’re not going to slow down as a company. But we’re going to change, and become a more caring and inclusive organization which listens: to our community, our customers and all of you.

This is a long term effort, and something I’ll be talking more about for many months and years to come. But today, I want to share some of the immediate steps we’re taking on this journey.

Accountability

Settling our organizational debt betings [sic] with holding people accountable for their behavior at our company — addressing bad behavior, and rooting out sources of injustice wherever they appear.

We didn’t wait for publication of the release of the Holder recommendations to begin fixing things. In response to Susan Fowler’s blog post, we quickly established an anonymous and confidential employee hotline to help investigate workplace issues. Over the last three months we’ve already taken action against specific employees who have come to the attention of HR for unacceptable behavior towards other members of the Uber family. We have terminated a number of employees, and issued warnings to others.

Moving forward, we will be taking a zero tolerance approach for behavior that breaches our employee code of conduct. No-one should have to come to work dreading an interaction with their manager, and no-one should have to lie awake at night wondering if this is the right company to build a career at.

Leadership/management

We’re also making changes to our leadership team. For us to change as an organization, and for me to grow as a leader, we need the support of experienced new talent.

I’ve already said that I’m hiring a COO to partner with me. We’ve also announced that we’re hiring a CFO, with deep financial and operational expertise at major global companies, a new General Counsel, a SVP of Engineering to lead our tech group, and a Chief Marketing Officer. Today I’m also excited to welcome [Chief Brand Officer] and [SVP Leadership & Strategy].

We’re also adding a new member to our Board of Directors. XX brings a wealth of experience in building world-class organizations and his/her skills will allow us to execute more effectively on the opportunities and challenges ahead.

Culture, equality and inclusion

Transforming our organization also means transforming our culture, creating an environment in which every employee feels respected, supported and empowered. This also means creating a people first approach to HR so that every employee can be heard at our company, regardless of gender, race or background.

This is an area I’m deeply committed to improving at. With the incredible leadership and support of Liane, our head of HR, I’ve already begun to understand many of the cultural challenges we face at Uber in much greater detail. I’m also spending much more time building relationships with employees at every level throughout the organization, in particular our incredible women’s group, LadyEng. Sometimes these conversations can be hard, but they have to happen so I can learn and fix things.

Many of these challenges we face in common with the rest of the tech industry. But we’re not using that as an excuse to avoid confronting the issues we need to start fixing now.

To that end, we’re investing in new tools, benefits and processes to champion equality, inclusion and justice throughout the company. On their own, many of these efforts are small, but we know they’re important to many of you and together create a profound impact. We’ve already rolled out a diversity report, launched an equal pay review, and are exploring a refresh of our cultural values. We’ve also begun providing Inclusion Training Workshops to managers, investing in leadership development for women and employees from underrepresented backgrounds, and have taken steps to ensure more diverse hiring panels.

Transforming our culture will take time, but we’re committed to investing in making Uber a great place to work, for as long as it takes. This is just the start.

Supporting drivers

Lastly, we’re also going to invest in better serving our drivers — the heart and soul of our company.

Our vision with Uber has always been about creating a better quality of life — giving people the freedom, flexibility and opportunities that come from being able to earn on their own schedule at the push of a button. But we need to do a better job here, and rebuild our relationship with drivers. I’ll be sharing more about this next week, and how we’re putting people first throughout our entire community.

A closing thought

Over the last few months, I’ve talked to hundreds of you about how we can create a more effective, inclusive and respectful workplace. I know the conversations I’ve had are just part of a larger, continuing company conversation.

The courage and determination of those who chose to speak up and help improve our company is something I am deeply proud of. You’ve reminded me how incredible it is to assemble a team like this, filled with talented women and men from every background and walk of life. Being able to rely on your talent and contributions to advance our mission is a privilege, and I’m committed to better supporting you to reach your full potential.

Over the last few days, as I’m sure you can imagine, family has been on my mind a lot.

My mother always encouraged me to stay as connected as possible with the wonderful, talented, inspiring people that make Uber everything that it is. She always put people first, and it’s time I live her legacy. My dad taught me that actions speak louder than words, and to lead by example. So I felt it was important to be very candid here about the challenges we face at Uber — but also how we’re taking action without delay to make things right.

I hope you will join with me in building an even better Uber.

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Bryan Menegus

Senior reporter. Tech + labor /// bryan.menegus [at] gizmodo.com Keybase: keybase.io/bryangm Securedrop: http://gmg7jl25ony5g7ws.onion/

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