WAMANJI: Corporate culture a factor in success


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The story hit Silicon Valley like a thunderbolt.  It scared the wit out of startups because of the potential existential threat it exposed.

It is the story of Uber and its beleaguered CEO, Travis Kalanick.

Uber, which I have written about before as reconfiguring the courting dance, is incidentally clutched in “sexism, mismanagement, and work-place exclusion”.

There was more.  The Eric Holder forensic audit also exposed runaway decadence and favouritism.

The CEO and management, especially Human Resource, had conveniently elected to ignore complaints from staff.

Fasten your belt. Kalanick even had an altercation with an Uber driver.

He, it is said, turned Uber into something like an Orwellian ranch.

The audit report paints a grim, paradoxical and perplexing postcard of a firm that wowed the world for its disruptive ingenuity, sleek outside but putrid inside.

Yet, Uber is a behemoth. It belongs to the elite genealogy of disruptive tech like Airbnb, Facebook, Amazon, and Google. Its worth is a mindboggling $70 billion.

It is cruising ahead with dreams of self-driving cars. But then, Uber’s obnoxious culture, engineered by its former CEO seemed to be driving the firm to a meteoric crush.

This messy affair boils down to one critical social reality – corporate culture.

And so horrible has been the culture at Uber that Kalanick, a co-founder, resigned. At least that was honourable of him, considering that in this country so many CEOs, especially in the public sector,  will stay put with impunity.

But the Uber saga reaffirms one truism that is often ignored — that the texture and soul of corporate culture is a construct of the CEO. It is what the late US President Harry Truman partially captured as the “buck stops here”.

Because of the power they wield – social, psychological, even economic, and the ideals they espouse, CEOs influence the behaviour and character of corporates by design or default.

Thus as the corporate high priests and priestesses we hold them accountable for the conduct of their enterprises.  

Their very exploits have to be measured and their thoughts distilled.

Their morals should be unimpeachable and their intellectual honesty sound.

A CEO must understand organisational dynamics, including its politics in a bid to forge a unified and coordinated intercourse of ideas and values for productivity.

This is critical because corporate culture dictates the fortunes of organisations.

Thus, like the larger society, an organisation ought to construct and align itself to socially acceptable values.

Great organisations seek cultures that break down frontiers and spawn incredible products and services.

They communicate effectively with staff, and have fidelity to organisational values, including a sound work ethic.

It explains why disruptive technological firms have wowed the world and made spectacular profits.

The only hitch is when hubris and recklessness creep in as was the case at Uber.

Organisations cannot construct a culture celebratory of evil, exploitative of staff and customers, encouraging of unfair business practices, nepotism and favouritism, and witch-hunts and expect to flourish. Employees are sacred stakeholders.

Treat them well. If you provide a fair work environment, they will support you.

Remember, they are your number one brand ambassadors.

Yet, Uber set staff against one another, and many took the next exit, and it took one to blow the lid.

A sound corporate culture should be a carefully engineered effort.

The engineering has to be in consonant with the greatest goal the organisation seeks to attain. And here, the chief is key.

If he dithers, the organisation will take the wrong turn.

Another lesson from Uber is that the CEO’s court will always host freewheeling friends because of the protection enjoyed.

These courtiers determine a great deal the culture in the organisation.

Woe unto you if the coterie is myopic, shallow in morals and rich in selfish pursuits. Sycophants will hardly point out the king’s nakedness.

The trouble is that such flatterers brook no love for virtue or progressive cultures.

Soon, the court becomes the factory of vice. A vice that offends best practice, injures corporate reputation and punches holes in profitability and delivery.

A leader with manipulative machinery, is for sure, authoring a spectacular ruin.

It will just be matter of time, before things, as the poet mused, fall apart.

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