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Mar 16, 201710:50 AMOpen Mic

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Culture is a four-letter word

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When I started to write this article I originally titled it “Culture is not a four-letter word.” It was intended to address the CEOs who think culture is a squishy, beer for lunch, feel good concept that doesn’t deserve a place at the grown-up table. I wanted to demonstrate how incorrect that can be and make the case for the power of culture and why it should be at the top of every CEOs list.

I was prepared to make a compelling case to convince CEOs that culture is every bit as important as strategic planning. I was ready to cite all kinds of studies and dazzling statistics that prove that positive cultures create positive financial performance.

But now I know I don’t have to, thanks to a four-letter word: Uber. Uber’s toxic culture was placed front and center last month in the news.

According to recent reports, Uber has engaged in everything from sexual harassment to stealing driverless technology from Google. Even some of its own investors claim the company fosters a toxic culture.

There is that four-letter word again. You know, the beer for lunch, don’t bother with culture mindset. Culture can be a four-letter word if it is ignored. Culture can be a four-letter word if it is toxic — and toxic cultures kill more businesses than recessions. It’s liable to kill Uber, too.

So what went wrong with Uber? How can a company that claims its values are “making communities safer” and “standing up for its driver community” go so horribly wrong? That is because those are only what I call “bumper sticker” values. Values that look good in an annual report but have no real meaning inside the company. Wells Fargo is a perfect example of this. Two of Wells Fargo’s key values are “ethics” and “what’s right for customers.” Yet they defrauded their customers by creating over 2 million ghost accounts.

There is often a difference between bumper sticker slogans and the real values that lie beneath. Value statements are always warm and fuzzy. But a company’s real values are manifested by how leaders and employees act, not how they claim they act. At the end of the day culture is nothing more than a collection of values, and values dictate how employees will behave. Such was the case with Wells Fargo. Such is the case with Uber.


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