Our Biggest Tech Leaders Are Failing Us

About a year ago, I was on a panel with two other venture capitalists. Both of them were much more well-known than I was, so I began the panel already somewhat intimidated.

We were about halfway through the panel when someone in the audience asked a question about Uber. At the time, Travis Kalanick—Uber’s previous CEO—was in the middle of self-destructing while the company was caught up in more than a handful of public scandals.

The audience member asked a simple question:

“What do you think is wrong with Uber’s culture?”

If you read anything I write, you know how much I care about company culture, both among the GAN team and among our entire community, and I speak to it often. So when I heard the question, I immediately grew in confidence and started to speak up. But before I could, one of the other venture capitalists jumped in to simply say, “Uber didn’t have the time care about their culture.”

I froze. Literally froze. I was in a mix of shock and disbelief.

Didn’t have time to care about their culture? Someone I respected, sitting right next to me, was actually saying that? And when the moderator asked why, he simply responded, “Because Uber had to grow too quickly to care about its culture.”

In case you’re missing what’s implied here, he was saying that—even with exponential growth, both financially and in the significant power that comes with it—Uber simply didn’t have time to pay attention to company culture.
 

With Great Power

This story probably reminds you of a more timely one. Like most of the world, you’re probably well aware that Facebook is in a load of trouble right now related to how they protect (or don’t) their users’ data. Last week, you probably watched any number of clips where Mark Zuckerberg (in a suit!) was questioned during a Congressional Hearing. You might have also seen my favorite part of the interview, where one of the Senators asked Zuckerberg how Facebook currently makes its money. To which Mark replied with a smile, “We run ads.” Further proving the point that you’re Facebook’s product, not its customer.

What you may not have seen was a response about this from Facebook board member, Reed Hastings. In reference to all of the latest Facebook drama, Reed was quoted as saying, “…all new technologies have pros and cons. And in social, we’re just figuring that out.”

“We’re just figuring that out.”

We’re talking about a company that’s now 14 years old, public for the last six years, the behemoth of the social media world, and a company that has more power, more wealth, and more resources than not just most companies in existence today (coming in under only Apple, Google, and Microsoft), but in all of human history.

Let that sink in.

If Uber and Facebook don’t have time to figure it out, then what do you have? And if 14 years isn’t long enough to seriously evaluate your privacy practices or company culture, exactly how long do you need?
 

Being an Adult Means Taking Responsibility

Our role models, people who are considered giants of the tech industry, are failing us. In fact, we’re seeing it everywhere today. Regardless of your political leanings, most would agree that leadership in some of our highest political offices are acting like children. Media executives are acting like children. And to a lesser extent, I think most of us are acting in childish ways, as well.

We want our offices to look like college apartments with foosball tables and kegs. We want to stay in hotel rooms that remind us of sleeping over at a friend’s house (how I feel every time I stay at an Ace Hotel).

At best, we just want to be carefree, all the time. And at worst, we want to use our power to benefit ourselves at the expense of others.

These behaviors can obviously have incredibly negative implications for all of us, both in and out of the tech world. It means that we are all capable of negatively impacting a lot of people at scale—your employees and your clients alike. When our data is misused, it can even have drastic effects on a Presidential election (or so I’ve heard).

Which is why being adults means being held accountable to our actions. Especially when we are in positions of incredible power and influence.
 

Left Searching for Examples

I’ve been mourning the lack of adult role models in my own life the past few days. Adults who are secure in their adulthood. Who have embraced getting older, know their values, and actually live out of those values all while deeply caring about others. People who aren’t getting wrapped up in some sort of scandal, sexual or otherwise.

Peggy Noonan, one of my favorite authors, recently remarked on a similar sense of loss, saying, “Those who moved against segregation and racial indignity went forward in adult attire—suits, dresses, coats, ties, hats—as if adulthood were something to which to aspire.” And then, “I miss their style and seriousness. What we’re stuck with now is Mark Zuckerberg’s.”

So if attitude reflects leadership, then the tech industry is in dire need of better examples. Tech’s biggest role models are repeatedly and grossly leaving the rest of us searching for others to look to. We’re left hunting for a script, asking how to run a company well. How to behave. How to treat our employees. How to take responsibility for our actions and change our behaviors so that we stop causing harm. And how to create safe spaces, where people can speak up about bad behaviors when they see them. From day one.

Said another way: People (especially young people working in tech) are searching for role models that show them how to be good humans who bring goodness to the world and create institutions that positively impact our communities.
 

Start Where You Are

While I realize how we got here as a culture and the immense amount of freedom we now have in our work environments and life overall, I think it’s time we all grow up.

We actually need to start giving a damn and asking ourselves what it actually means to be an adult in 2018.

And that starts with holding ourselves accountable.

Running a company or even having a job alone gives you a great deal of power, with an ability to set the tone for behavior around you.

If you’re a marketing professional, you have the ability to craft messages that bring goodness to the world. If you’re in charge of user analytics, you have the ability to do good—or very bad—things with your users’ data. If you’re a CEO, you can create a culture (even with a company of just two people) where people thrive and feel more human because they work with you. If you’re creating a product, you can ensure that that product is built for all kinds of different people, and not just the ones who look like you.

Not later, when you have more resources. Because culture starts from the beginning.

You have power. Now.

And it’s time for all of us to start writing a new script.