Ego, Tech and the ‘Bro’ Culture

Unchecked ego has been the downfall of many a man (and, to be clear, it’s mostly men).

The latest example is Uber CEO Travis Kalanick who resigned after an unending tsunami of pressure, public controversies, senior leadership resignations and finally the damning results of an investigation into Uber’s ethics and leadership troubles.

But, it wasn’t the reputation damage, media coverage or public pressure that forced Kalanick out of his own company (he does remain on the board). Nope. In the end, money spoke the loudest and it was the company’s major investors who reportedly demanded the CEO’s head – and got it. And, to me, this says more about the tech culture than Kalanick’s leadership. There’s a valuable reputational lesson to be learned here for anyone in tech.

To be clear – Uber’s crisis didn’t bubble up just recently. It’s become cultural. It’s in the DNA of the company like a cancer that lingers quietly and then hits fast and hard. It’s been going on for some time, ranging from alleged sexual assaults, corporate visits to escort bars and discrimination – to a public spat with a struggling Uber driver. It has all made the CEO look like a boy running a startup in a frat house rather than a multibillion-dollar company.

I’ve seen it time and time again – first as a journalist for 20 years – and now as a crisis communications specialist and media coach the past eight years. I help people and companies navigate troubled reputational waters – and if we’re dealing with an uncontrollable, blinding ego, it makes a difficult situation incredibly worse. In many situations, these leaders are surrounded by people who only inflate the ego and rarely speak truth to power. So, when they suddenly hear someone like me speaking that truth and bursting their bubble about how they’re perceived, the results can be interesting – ranging from screaming and pounding tables to tears and collapse. It rarely lasts.

To be clear, ego is normal and healthy. Most executive leaders have healthy egos. They can be charming and they can also be ruthless. That’s the job. It’s just that some are better at keeping their ego better in check than others.

Outside of professional sports, egomania and ‘bro culture’ seem to happen more in tech than any other sector I’ve seen. And, I’m not alone in this observation:

“What is bro culture? Basically, a world that favors young men at the expense of everyone else. A “bro co.” has a “bro” C.E.O., or C.E.-Bro, usually a young man who has little work experience but is good-looking, cocky and slightly amoral — a hustler. Instead of being forced by investors to surround himself with seasoned executives, he is left to make decisions on his own.  The bro C.E.O. does what you’d expect an immature young man to do when you give him lots of money and surround him with fawning admirers — he creates a culture built on reckless spending and excessive partying, where bad behavior is not just tolerated but even encouraged….Bro cos. become corporate frat houses, where employees are chosen like pledges, based on “culture fit.” Women get hired, but they rarely get promoted and sometimes complain of being harassed. Minorities and older workers are excluded.”  ~Dan Lyons in the New York Times

I’m not suggesting this is a problem in all tech companies. That would be unfair and simply untrue. I am simply saying that unchecked egos and unusual behaviour are more prevalent in tech than in other sectors I’ve worked with. Like at Uber, it becomes engrained in the culture, affects hiring and ultimately poisons that culture.

What is surprising is the lack of tangible action from the Uber board until recently – and that action appears to have come only because of the bottom line.

At some point, reputational damage can impact any brand or company, regardless of valuation and popularity. End users have freedom of choice and in Uber’s case, they started speaking – including a #DeleteUber campaign on social media. The company lost $2.8 billion last year while competitors grew and raised capital to create a viable alternative – and it looks like 2017 is shaping up the same with reported losses already. Uber’s valuation is still up around $70-billion and it’s still generating sizeable revenue, but its momentum is definitely downward. And, that unfortunately appears to be the ONLY reason why investors forced the CEO out.

Anyone who sits on corporate boards understands the concept of governance and fiduciary duty. Your role is to do what’s best for the company and not the CEO. I’ve advised boards having leadership problems – and although I’m not a financial expert, I understand narrative, culture and reputational crisis. In the case of Uber, had I been advising this board, I would have recommended a change a long time ago. However, based on the recent ‘bro’-like actions of a board member who made a sexist comment and had to resign – perhaps this cultural cancer has infected the board as well.

From a reputational perspective, it’s going to be interesting to watch this play out and see what board members do next with Uber’s leadership. They have an opportunity to make a huge statement through action – and establish a new narrative.

Stay tuned, bro.