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Ducks in a Row: More Bad Uber Culture

Tuesday, November 25th, 2014


Uber’s culture is on view in the news and it hasn’t been pretty.

Current news is focused on the privacy scandal, the compensation and pricing rage of a few weeks ago has fallen off the front page as have the overly-aggressive driver recruiting and efforts to sabotage a competitor’s fundraising while Uber’s pushing subprime loans to its drivers seems to be totally eclipsed.

Many users are deleting their accounts

To Imran Malek, an engineer at DataXu in Boston, it signals a winner-takes-all culture that justifies any behavior so long as everyone is getting rich. “If investors choose to value you for billions, you are untouchable.

VC Mark Suster wrote a spirited defense of Uber, although I don’t consider it as unbiased as he claims.

He claims that most of Uber’s actions fall in the category of ‘business as usual’, with the exception of employees accessing the so-called god view that tracks users’ movements.

I will tell you that if I were Uber this is the one thing I would plug up immediately and enforcing swift punishment for violations. If the public doesn’t trust you with basic confidentiality as a service you’re toast.

All of the articles offer multiple source links for those of you who want an in-depth picture.

A company’s culture provides an insider’s look at it’s values; a quote from Lisa Abeyta, founder of a tech company in Albuquerque, sums it up nicely,

“There is a difference between being competitive and being dirty. It is bad-boy, jerk culture. And I can’t celebrate that.”

Flickr image credit: Robert Payne

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Ducks in a Row: Culture and Moods

Tuesday, November 4th, 2014


Good mood; weird mood; bad mood; silly mood.

We all have moods and those moods affect everything we do.

Moods are affected by all kinds of stuff, such as the weather.

Good weather = good mood; bad weather = bad mood.

In turn, our actions reflect our mood, rather than reflecting the real world; take online restaurant reviews

“The best reviews are written on sunny days between 70 and 100 degrees,” researcher Saeideh Bakhshi concluded. “A nice day can lead to a nice review. A rainy day can mean a miserable one.”

Likewise, the culture created by each boss actively effects moods, thus having a profound effect on workers creativity, productivity and a slew of other attitudes.

Bad cultures create negative moods.

Negative moods can lead to a procrastination doom loop, in which an individual perpetually delays important tasks while waiting for an angel of inspiration to visit.

When you’re the boss, no matter what you say or how you squirm, the culture that exists in your own organization is a direct result of you.

Flickr image credit: kuhnmi

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Ducks in a Row: Stupidity Kills

Tuesday, March 11th, 2014

In 2012 we looked at how a bad judgment and a toxic, dysfunctional culture killed off the 113-year-old premier law firm of Dewey & LeBoeuf.

But having read the latest I have to revise what I said.

In addition to bad judgment, think gross stupidity.

I suppose I should say “alleged,” but the evidence leaves little doubt regarding just how stupid these bosses were.

Consider the smoking emails between Steven Davis, Dewey’s former chairman; Stephen DiCarmine, the firm’s former executive director; Joel Sanders, the former chief financial officer; and Zachary Warren, a former client relations manager.

Four men, who were charged by New York prosecutors on Thursday with orchestrating a nearly four-year scheme to manipulate the firm’s books to keep it afloat during the financial crisis, talked openly in emails about “fake income,” “accounting tricks” and their ability to fool the firm’s “clueless auditor,” the prosecutors said.  (…) One of the men even used the phrase “cooking the books” to describe what they were doing to mislead the firm’s lenders and creditors in setting the stage for a $150 million debt offering…  

And ignorance isn’t a viable excuse for lawyers by any stretch of the imagination.

The global number one rule in our post-Enron world is that you do not write anything in emails that you wouldn’t want to see on the front page of your newspaper.

In case you aren’t familiar with them, the Darwin Awards “are cautionary tales about people who kill themselves in really stupid ways, and in doing so, significantly improve the gene pool by eliminating themselves from the human race.”

Perhaps there should be a special award for people who kill companies through acts of excessive stupidity.


Image credit: Tombstone Generator

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Ducks in a Row: Does Your Culture Quack?

Tuesday, July 30th, 2013

http://www.flickr.com/photos/usfwsmtnprairie/8409186334/How do you describe your culture?

Most bosses describe theirs as more positive and in more glowing terms than their people do.

Which makes sense, given that most people see their own actions in the best light and culture is a reflection-made-real of the boss’s own MAP (mindset, attitude, philosophy™).

Is it really a cause for concern if your team describes it differently, more negatively or as downright horrible, especially if their complaints seem nit-picking or sound more like whining to you?

Even if you see nothing wrong with it; even if it reflects most/all your previous managers, you had better pay attention to other opinions if you want to have a strong, productive, high retention/low turnover organization—whether team or the entire company.

Or, in the shortened version of what Douglas Adams so famously said, if it looks like a duck and quacks like a duck it most likely is a duck.

Flickr image credit: USFWS Mountain Prairie

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Ducks in a Row: Intentional Culture

Tuesday, June 11th, 2013

http://www.flickr.com/photos/acrylicartist/5857962888/Mortgage originators are rarely great places to be, whichever side of the desk you are on.

The exception is Quicken Loans.

Quicken Loans was rated highest in customer satisfaction among mortgage originators in 2010, 2011 and 2012, according to J. D. Power & Associates. The company has also been ranked in the top 30 of Fortune’s “100 Best Companies to Work For” for 10 consecutive years.

What makes Quicken different?

Founder Dan Gilbert’s and CEO Bill Emerson’s focus on intentional culture—emphasis on ‘intentional’.

“If you don’t create a culture at your company, a culture will create itself,” Mr. Emerson said in a phone interview. “And it won’t be good. I sometimes hear people say ‘We don’t have a culture at our company.’ They have one. But if it hasn’t been nurtured, if no one has spent on any time on it, you can assume it’s the wrong culture.”

Call it Intentional Culture.

Of course, intentional culture comes in two flavors—positive (good) and negative (bad).

Tony Hsieh at Zappos is a master of good culture; Bob Nardelli is a master of the opposite.

If you aren’t sure how (or if) your own culture is intentional you should ask yourself the following questions.

  1. What are the primary features of my group’s culture?
  2. How did it happen, i.e., who originated it?
  3. Does it reflect values in which I believe?
  4. Does it drive the actions and attitude I want from my team?
  5. Are new people coached in the culture and current people reminded, so it permeates our business every day?

Then ask yourself what you can do to enhance the best parts and realign/correct any parts that have gone astray.

Flickr image credit: Rodney Campbell

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Ducks in a Row: Toxic Culture

Tuesday, February 26th, 2013

http://www.flickr.com/photos/kevenlaw/2475812639/How would you feel as a member of a highly respected, world-class organization to hear it described as follows, not by a competitor, but based on an internal investigation.

In all, the documents painted a picture of a highly dysfunctional, top-heavy organization divided into discrete, rival factions, and weighed down by mistrust, poor communication, buck-passing and internecine squabbling.

The article refers to the BBC, but could just as well be describing any on of hundreds of companies ranging from Fortune 50 to tiny mom & pop businesses.

In most cases it happens when bosses takes their eyes off the cultural ball and make seriously erroneous assumptions, such as these,

  • Once culture is set it doesn’t change.
  • Culture takes care of itself, i.e., it’s self-sustaining
  • People will follow my lead, so I don’t need to be culturally proactive.
  • What culture?

Toxic culture kills everything in its path, including, eventually, the company itself—IBM nearly died of it.

As Lou Gerstner said, I came to see, in my time at IBM, that culture isn’t just one aspect of the game—it is the game,” and he’s not the only CEO to feel that way.

The BBC is just one of the latest in a long line to be brought low by a bad culture.

Flickr image credit: Keven Law

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Ducks in a Row: The Seeds You Plant

Tuesday, December 4th, 2012

“That culture is like the air we breathe or the water that fish swim in. It has the potential, for better or worse, to affect everybody in the same way.” –Dr. Linda H. Pololi, a senior scientist at Brandeis University

http://www.flickr.com/photos/infomatique/2544951056/Dr. Pololi was talking about the culture in academic medicine negatively affecting men as well as women, although the women’s situation has a higher profile.

While the information in the article is interesting, as well as unexpected in part, it’s her comment at the end on which I want to focus.

As a manager you set the culture of your own group; it may closely resemble your company’s culture or may be wildly divergent.

The divergence is not always a bad thing—many managers have created great cultures in the midst of toxic ones.

By the same token, toxic mini cultures have been propagated within good company cultures by managers who believe that approach is the best way to manage.

Companies are much like gardens and the cultures within its main culture are what grow therein.

If you equate good culture to flowers and bad culture to weeds the problem becomes obvious.

Flowers are fragile and require more thought, attention and cultivation for them to spread.

However, with no effort on the part of the gardener, weeds spread quickly and if ignored will take over the garden.

There is an anonymous poem that I do my best to emulate throughout my life,

Your mind is a garden,
Your thoughts are the seeds,
You can grow flowers or
You can grow weeds.

With a bit of tweaking you can use it for your company,

Your company is a garden,
Your cultures are seeds,
You can grow flowers or
You can grow weeds.

It’s always a choice, but this choice will affect your employees, customers, vendors and investors.

Be sure to choose consciously, wisely and well.

Flickr image credit: William Murphy


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Ducks in a Row: Bad Boss Bad Culture

Tuesday, March 6th, 2012

So very true. I once worked at a company where one of the Vice Presidents took obviously sadistic pleasure in torturing people below him in the company hierarchy.

He even said to me once in private, with a smirk on his face, “I love scaring the hell out of people. Watch how I can make them shake when I threaten their ability to support their family. It feels good to have this much power.”

Adult bullying—particularly in the workplace, where people are often terrified of losing their source of income—is a serious problem and society has to stop ignoring it. You may be “the boss” but that does not give you the right to brutalize and abuse the people who work for you.Father and Husband, Seattle

2737187867_b162a330d2_mThis comment is from an NYT op-ed piece on about bullying and Lady Gaga’s official unveiling of her Born This Way Foundation at Harvard.

Sadly, the comment isn’t outlandish or even a recent phenomenon.

A memory dating back to the late Seventies is of a VP whose favorite pastime was forcing the managers under him to run layoffs a few days before Christmas; he really got off on that.

Last year Stanford prof Bob Sutton published Good Boss, Bad Boss about how power makes us focus more on our own needs and wants and less on others, also to act like the rules apply to others and not to us.

Based on new research Sutton has added more material on what he terms “power poisoning” to the recently released paperback version.

“Alas, recent developments suggest that staying in tune with the people you oversee is even more difficult than this book suggests. And the other disturbing effects of wielding power over others are even worse than I thought.”

Worse than Sutton thought? That, indeed, is a scary statement and one that should get your attention.

Bad Bosses are the source of bad cultures; there is absolutely no way to separate them.

Bad cultures are the source of bad results; there is absolutely no way to separate them.

This makes it simple for you to know if you have a case of power poisoning, as well as how severe it is.

Look at the results of your organization, whether team, department, division or company.

Just yours, not in combination with the rest of the company or in light of the economy or any other of the dozens of rationalizations available.

If you can actually do that you are at least half way to being able to counter the poison and reading Good Boss, Bad Boss will actually be worth your time.

Image credit: B Garrett


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Expand Your Mind: Culpable Culture

Saturday, August 13th, 2011

It is useful to occasionally take the time to understand the origins and path of something that is truly shocking—or should be—and the role culture plays in it.

The worst first: San Bruno, California 2010 where a gas line in exploded killing eight people, destroying 38 homes and causing significant additional damage. According to employees, there was “…a pervasive corporate culture where employees were discouraged from reporting safety problems and feared retaliation if they did. If what employees say is true, and evidence is mounting that it is, management at PG&E should be thankful they aren’t in England where they would probably be charged with corporate manslaughter.

There is no penalty for maiming or killing careers and corporations. In fact, the guilty parties are often rewarded with copious amounts of cash, stock and other goodies. Such is the case of Jeff Kindler, ex CEO of Pfizer, the world’s largest pharmaceutical company, and Mary McLeod, his hand-picked head of HR. Together they trashed a powerful culture and brought Pfizer to its knees. Although Kindler was fired, his “exit package of $16 million in cash and stock, another $6.9 million in retirement benefits, and various other forms of stock compensation” makes you wonder what a hero would receive upon leaving. Fortune’s in-depth story is fascinating reading for workers and a powerful lesson for anyone in a management role, no matter the level.

Finally, an excellent analysis of the challenges faced and solutions used  by Jamie Oliver when he found that he had to change a community’s culture before it would change its eating habits (documented on Jamie Oliver’s Food Revolution) as applied to changing corporate culture.

Flickr image credit: http://www.flickr.com/photos/pedroelcarvalho/2812091311/

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Expand Your Mind: Toxic Corporate Culture

Saturday, August 6th, 2011

Toxic corporate culture isn’t limited to corporations; you can find it anywhere you care to look. Toxic culture doesn’t involve just one specific set of actions; rather it is a permissive atmosphere in which various negative and destructive actions are accommodated.

What happens when a leader uses a culture of fear, intimidation and retaliation to enhance results and gain good press? Exactly what happened to the Atlanta school system.

Goldman Sachs’s toxic locker room culture has been written about and condemned for years, but nothing really changes. Earlier this month a federal judge refused to reconsider Goldman Sachs’ efforts to force arbitration on the women who filed a class action suite against the firm. I hope they win the suite, but I doubt that even that will have much effect. No matter how large the damages they would be a drop in the bucket for Goldman.

I frequently hear women complain about guys hitting on them at conferences and, to be fair, I’m hearing more often from men asking how to handle unwanted advances from women. In a recent post on the subject Tim O’Reilly, whose company produces tech conferences such as Oscon, talks about the problem and states that such actions won’t be tolerated and that’s good. But the tone of the post is mild, calling actions such as stalking and unwanted sexual advances “a no-no” and saying, “If we hear that you are that guy, we will investigate, and you may be asked to leave.” MAY be asked to leave? Shouldn’t anyone proven to have acted in any of the manners mentioned be TOLD to leave and, if the actions are severe enough, barred from future events?

Any organizational culture that is permeated with “toxic leaders,” those who “put their own needs first, micro-manage subordinates, behave in a mean-spirited manner or display poor decision making” has a problem. Just ask the US Army, which is considering using 360-degree evaluations in its command selection process to weed them out.

Rather than leave you on a downer or with a bad taste in your mouth, take a look at the first article in a series from Fast Company on how good companies build positive cultures. The first example is MailChimp and includes CEO Ben Chestnut’s 5 Rules for a Creative Culture. If the rest of the series is as useful as the MailChimp example it will be well-worth following.


Flickr image credit: pedroCarvalho

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