Dear Travis... leadership tips for Uber's beleaguered boss

By Lucy Hooker
Business reporter, BBC News

Image source, Getty Images
Image caption, Travis Kalanick accepts he needs to improve his leadership skills

"This is the first time I've been willing to admit that I need leadership help and I intend to get it."

On Monday night, Travis Kalanick, Uber's boss, was obliged to grovel over his behaviour towards his driver.

And, as we all know, recognising you have a problem is the first step to recovery.

So we've put together an eight-step programme to help him turn around his management style.

1. Be honest

Mr Kalanick does at least recognise there's a problem - something that also became clearer to the world at large on Monday when a dashcam video was released showing the boss apparently being argumentative, short-tempered and dismissive towards his driver.

But he already knew he had that in him.

"Look, I'm a passionate entrepreneur. I'm like fire and brimstone sometimes. And so there are times when I'll go - I'll get too into the weeds and too into the debate, because I'm so passionate about it," he told Vanity Fair in 2014, with the admission that it "can rub some people the wrong way".

He's waited until now to accept it's time to change, but better late than never.

Image source, iStock

2. Apologise

He did that.

But only once the altercation had turned into a car-crash on social media. He could have said something a month ago when the incident happened.

"If he'd have apologised afterwards to that driver and said, 'you caught me at a bad moment and I want to apologise', I'd guess this story would not be out there," says John Blakey, executive coach and author of The Trusted Executive.

"Saying sorry is not a habit a lot of CEOs have got."

3. Watch out

"The other mistake he made was he didn't seem to realise the whole world is watching. Leaders should assume any interaction they have will end up in the news," says New York-based executive coach, Ben Dattner.

Serious chief executive officers never completely let their hair down, he says, even if they are on their way to a Super Bowl party.

"Assume anything can, and will, be broadcast against you. Use it as an opportunity to end up in a heart-warming clip 'CEO of Uber gives ride to kid' instead of 'CEO of Uber has negative encounter with driver'."

Image source, iStock

4. Stay loyal

One thing he did right was using his own company's services. That at least shows commitment, and he definitely shouldn't start taking the bus.

But maybe he could do more?

"As a matter of course take one Uber ride a week. It's just an opportunity to hear from drivers and answer their questions and hear their concerns so there isn't a disgruntled outburst - to ensure [he's] listening on an ongoing basis," says Mr Dattner.

5. Embrace change

If in the past he's taken some pride in his confrontational approach, it could now be time to move on.

"We characterise him as aggressive, dog-eat-dog, and he's obviously an extremely driven individual, that's how he's achieved what he's achieved," says Mr Blakey.

"[But] what got you here, won't get you there. Those attributes - the challenge, the boldness, the brashness - to get to the next stage of the game, he has to recognise he needs new qualities."

Even so, he may prove resistant to taking advice, says Leila Bulling Towne.

She's advised executives both in Silicon Valley and around he world. She thinks the public humiliation he's just been through is likely to make him feel like a child who has been spanked for misbehaviour.

The pain and embarrassment may have been enough to prompt him to seek help. But the negative feelings may make it harder for him to embrace change.

Image source, iStock

6. Empathise

"This is a driver, one of hundreds, thousands, however many drivers. He could have said 'Tell me more. What do I need to know?'", suggests Ms Bulling Towne.

"If that had been filmed, we'd have seen him as someone accepting feedback, asking for new ideas, showing [the characteristics] we elevate leaders for."

Ben Dattner agrees Mr Kalanick could definitely have handled the situation better.

"He could have explained: 'Here's the policy that we changed'. Or he could have been empathic and said: 'I'm sorry to hear your income has gone down'."

"He should convey: 'I'm concerned about how much you're making and how satisfied you are as a driver for Uber'."

7. Calm down

"Each of us has triggers, things that bother us: people running late, people interrupting, traffic," says Ms Bulling Towne.

"We need to understand what our triggers are and when that happens not have an emotional hijacking as a result.

"It would be good for him to understand those hot buttons."

In Mr Kalanick's case, it could be the negative publicity swirling around his company in recent weeks - the legal battles to keep Uber operating in cities around the world, the stress of running a rapidly expanding tech giant. Or it could just be that he was really tired.

Image source, iStock

8. Snooze

As Mr Kalanick himself admits, he used to think you had to burn the candle at both ends to be the real deal as head of a Silicon Valley start-up.

But now Arianna Huffington is on Uber's board he seems to have changed his mind.

She co-founded the Huffington Post, but her big thing now is that everyone, and especially executives, should sleep more.

Mr Kalanick says it's "fricking obvious" that she's right. More time under the duvet equals "more wisdom, more emotional intelligence, more productivity, a happier life", he reckons.

So maybe he just hasn't been sleeping well lately.

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