Riding the Unicorns

18 mar 2016

Riding the Unicorns

What does it take to lead the fastest growing and most innovative companies?

Nicolas Buteau

They are called unicorns. They are the new kids on the block, the pioneering and highly innovative software and tech start-ups that have experienced incredible growth and achieved a valuation of at least $1 billion. They have a thirst for talent.

The unicorns – companies such as Uber, Xiaomi, Airbnb, Snapchat, Pinterest and Dropbox – are competing in an era of aggressive recruiting driven by their ever-increasing scale and a need to hire, or poach, the very finest talent.

Bursting out of their native Silicon Valley they have entirely transformed the accepted life cycles that govern the creation, growth and maturation of traditional companies. Now they are doing the same to the human capital landscape.

“Such innovative businesses, like Uber, Airbnb and so on have human capital needs that are outside of the norm,” said Rachel Botsman, a leading commentator on the rise of the share economy, in the last issue of Observe.

“They are incredibly commercially savvy but think completely differently about organisational culture and structure. Traditional roles are being redefined or completely fractured because they have multiple dimensions,” said Botsman, before adding: “The people running and building these companies have a very different DNA.”

World changing ambitions

Leading the herd is ride services company Uber Technologies. In just six years Uber has entirely disrupted the taxi and transportation sector with its unique app-based service. Its rise has been meteoric – from a presence in 17 cities just three years ago, the company is today active in 350 cities in 65 countries worldwide. It employs 5,500 people, a figure that has grown from 2,000 at the start of 2015 and from 100 just three years ago.

Promising a fast-paced work environment and ‘world changing ambitions’, Uber, along with the other unicorn companies, is responsible for a migration of executive level individuals from other sectors drawn by the unique prospect of working for one of the world’s most innovative and exciting start-ups and the more fulfilling career prospects that this brings.

The perfect proposition

“In many ways we’ve become the alternative to investment banking or management consulting – industries that in the past have attracted the cream of the talent,” says , Uber’s Recruitment Manager EMEA. “A large proportion of graduates are keen to bypass that part of their career as soon as possible and join an innovative and fast-moving environment where their sense of achievement is far greater and more pronounced.

We’re changing the way that employees relate to their work, and that’s an incredibly exciting prospect for today’s leaders,” he adds. “Uber is the perfect proposition for candidates that want an entrepreneurial environment that rewards them unlike any other. We’re building the business of the future, but you can see the impact of your actions on a daily basis.”

But what does it take to lead a company with a structure that Buteau describes as “so fast-growing, like having 350 start-ups all working at the same time”?

“Some of our challenges – and the extent of our growth – are unprecedented,” says Buteau. “Our hires must be strategic and hands on, visionary, passionate, determined to grow personally and professionally as fast as the company (quite a challenge in a business that is growing fourfold each year) and prepared to deal with an insane level of ambiguity.”

According to Buteau, Uber’s success and its ability to disrupt new markets and verticals “relies on recruiting the best and brightest, with a focus on problem-solving, team work, creativity, analytical skills, passion for the business and a vision that goes beyond what is happening today.

“We want leaders that can take a step back and maintain a bird’s eye view of the organisation – essential considering our geographical diversity – but also individuals who are prepared to ‘get stuck in’ and get things done when it’s needed. Personally, I look for optimistic leadership: always inspiring others, gaining trust and respect, staying positive and joining forces in good spirit to make the sum greater than the parts.”

And optimism is in abundance at Uber as its expansion continues unabated. “We’ve essentially had to build the company as we scale,” Buteau explains. “To give you an idea of that scale in human capital terms, around 70 per cent of the company’s employees have been in the business for just a year. You can only imagine the challenge that presents in terms of leadership and cultural values.”

We are all leaders at Uber

“There is an expectation that you scale as rapidly as the company does,” he adds. “It’s an almost unique prospect in terms of employment. Anyone that has been here for a year or two has progressed through a number of positions. The nature of our business means that each job evolves so fast that the job description of today is obsolete two or three months later.”

For Buteau the challenge of such a rapid up-scale is in maintaining the culture and drive that defines Uber’s workforce. “Change as you grow is unavoidable,” he says. “The challenge is to maintain the spirit of entrepreneurship that is fundamental to our success. But this is why we continue to raise the bar in terms of human capital. Quite simply, if we stop hiring entrepreneurs we stop innovating.”

There is no danger of that happening. The unique proposition of unicorns such as Uber provides opportunities that leaders of the future will find nowhere else. “In a sense we are all leaders at Uber,” Buteau says. “Every new hire is the leader of tomorrow and with our headcount increasing threefold each year, there is unlimited potential for everyone joining us. It’s an exciting prospect indeed.”