Over the past few years, various executives of blue-chip corporations have taken to writing articles on LinkedIn. I rather like them, not because I think executives can write or that speaking directly to the masses is a good idea, but because of what they unintentionally reveal. Yesterday I came across this article by Bo Young Lee, who is the Chief Diversity & Inclusion Officer at Uber.
Now before I begin, a little history. Uber’s entire business model was to go into cities worldwide and disrupt powerful, vested interests – namely, the licensed taxi industry – by exploiting grey areas and loopholes in the law. They were quite happy to kick over apple carts which had stood unshaken for decades, and brazenly face down or shrug off the inevitable outrage that followed. Acting in this manner takes a certain type of character, and you can be sure the original founders of Uber were shitlords of the first water. They saw an opportunity to make money providing a service people were denied yet crying out for, and they didn’t care who they upset along the way. If they’d been any different, the company would have fallen at the first hurdle.
It was therefore unsurprising that in 2017, eight years after its founding and by then a household name worth billions, revelations emerged that the culture in the company was one of a bunch of shitlords acting as they pleased. As Wiki puts it:
In early 2017, Uber was described by insiders as having an “asshole culture”.
Well, yes. What followed amid allegations of sexual harassment was a shakeup of the management, including the departure of CEO and founder Travis Kalanick. The board, eager to gain the approval of America’s moral guardians, decided the asshole culture was problematic and needed to change. To this end, they hired Bo Young Lee, an Asian lady who started her professional life as an Accenture consultant and thereafter spent 15 years working in diversity-related positions, in the new role of Chief Diversity & Inclusion Officer. Now, a few months later, they’ve let her write an article on LinkedIn. Let’s take a look:
The first thing I do when presented with a new job opportunity is assess an organization’s potential for change—that’s more important to me than the amount of change that’s required.
Modern executives like to foist major changes on organisations whether they’re required or not, because this makes it easier to justify their appointment and hefty salary. Ms Lee has been well schooled.
I look for a few key markers: a commitment from leadership, an understanding of the business case for diversity and inclusion (D&I), and a mutual agreement that D&I must and will touch every facet of the business. It cannot simply be a silo that lives within HR.
In other words, she tries to identify which organisations are ripe for totalitarian reform along progressive principles that were until recently restricted to the lunatic fringe of American academia.
Throughout the process, I saw an organization that was clearly committed to change but could use help on how to accomplish those changes. Despite some uncertainty around the “how,” when I spoke with Dara and learned about his passion for the “what” and “why,”
So the company wanted to change, but didn’t know how, so they created the position of Chief Diversity & Inclusion Officer.
I knew quickly Uber was a company where I’d want to be.
I bet you did.
That’s not to say the process didn’t come with its challenges. In many ways I’m a classic introvert, so when news of me joining leaked to the press, I wasn’t quite ready for the influx of questions about me.
Such as what value you bring to the stakeholders.
The attention accompanying my announcement forced me to give some serious thought to whether I wanted to introduce that level of scrutiny into the work I was doing.
So you know you’re a grifter. I find your honesty refreshing.
In order to understand the dynamics of D&I, you have to look at the underlying drivers of exclusion. Organizations have challenges with D&I because society has challenges with it.
Want to promote more women working in East Asia? You need to start with the history and entrenched gender norms women face in Korea, Japan and China.
Another frank admission: this is less about improving workplace conditions and shareholder value than social engineering on a global scale.
On a practical level, it’s important to not just redesign a system or a process, but to give employees real developmental opportunities that will help them expand their skill sets to promote inclusivity. Otherwise, they’ll simply find ways to undermine the new system.
Translation: it’s important we don’t adopt systems and processes whose benefit is self-evident; instead we’ll put in whatever makes us look good and force our employees to accept them.
Too often, we tell people to be inclusive without really showing them what that looks like.
Perhaps because every example of inclusivity put forward doesn’t appear very inclusive to those who aren’t willfully blind.
For example, many companies (Uber included) have expanded parental leave to create more equitable policies for mothers and fathers. While well-intentioned, when a company changes a policy without addressing the surrounding cultural norms, it can backfire.
So rather than running a business in a manner suited to prevailing cultural norms, Uber will henceforth attempt to change society.
If fathers don’t feel encouraged to take advantage of longer leave—but mothers do—these policies can have an unintended negative outcome and reinforce existing inequalities.
Previously we ignored social norms in order to pursue progressive policies, but we only made things worse. So we’re going to double our efforts while still ignoring reality.
To change attitudes toward something like parental leave, companies can (and should) do things like recognize managers that have promoted equality between male and female parental leave.
I don’t have a problem with this, actually. The time when managers were recognised for experience, competence, consistency, honesty, transparency, and integrity has long gone. They therefore might as well recognise whatever the hell this woman is trying to describe.
From my first few weeks at Uber, I’ve been encouraged by the amount of pride people take in what they do and their genuine desire to do right by fellow employees, drivers, riders, and cities.
Where do investors sit in this hierarchy of charitable feelings?
There’s also a sense of humility at Uber that’s unexpected; no one seems to be defensive about the past or makes excuses for what happened.
I expect anyone who was involved in them left, pockets full, along with the CEO.
My vision is to help make Uber a place where amazing talent from every corner of society can thrive and grow and where each employee has the ability to achieve to their highest potential. I want colleagues from different backgrounds feeling safe enough to share their real world experience.
These corporate visions remind me of Communists describing the utopias they intend to build, and they’re about as achievable.
I want employees who are equipped to have tough, challenging, and constructive conversations with one another
I’m sure James Damore heard similar sentiments at Google, right before he sent his memo.
and I want leaders who can speak truthfully to the fact that our diverse teams are our greatest asset and a competitive advantage—because they are what drive our innovation.
Erm, the company’s greatest and most ground-breaking innovation came long before the position of Chief Diversity & Inclusion Officer existed. Its one and only competitive advantage was a management team that really didn’t give a shit what anyone thought and was prepared to take on deep-rooted vested interests, and they’ve since been fired. If diverse teams were such a great asset, competitive advantage, and driver of innovation companies wouldn’t need to ram totalitarian diversity and inclusion policies down the throats of their employees.
In order to do this, D&I needs to be something that every single employee at the company has a stake in. We talk about D&I in such abstract ways that teams don’t have a sense of what they can do, but I want to teach every Uber employee that inclusion (or exclusion) happens every day, in both small and large ways
Compulsory, ongoing diversity and inclusion training for every employee. I bet they can’t wait.
Simultaneously, I want to utilize data to make big, bold moves.
I suspect this means quotas.
Like many first-generation immigrant families, my parents wanted me to become a doctor, lawyer, or an accountant. When I made the choice to work in D&I after completing my MBA, my parents just couldn’t wrap their head around the career choice.
I can understand their disappointment.
For many years my father would say, “so you fly around and teach people how to be nice to each other?” When I took the job at Uber, the announcement was picked up by Korean news and my parents were inundated with phone calls from friends and relatives.
Including Kim-Jong Un, asking if you’d be interested in a position in his government.
I’ll admit that I was happy that, for the first time, my parents understood what I do.
Oh, I’m sure they understand it by now. Whether they’re pleased about it is another matter.
Meanwhile, mainstream perceptions have also evolved during the nearly two decades that I’ve been working on D&I. When I finished my MBA in the early 2000s, the field wasn’t considered a serious thing to devote your career to, and it certainly wasn’t a role that would ever warrant a “Chief” in the title.
That’s because they’ve invented these jobs to keep the over-qualified but largely useless products of the American college system in employment.
And while we’re still at the very beginning of creating real change, I’m proud that this is now a topic that’s being prioritized.
I’d have thought returning investor value, providing the best possible service, and avoiding costly lawsuits and city-wide bans would be prioritised, but what would I know?
Apparently Uber is planning an IPO sometime in 2019, but my guess is it won’t happen: the smart money got out a long time ago, and only a complete idiot would invest in it now.