One month ago, a social media kerfuffle about the toxic culture at rapidly-growing travel brand Away led to co-founder and CEO Steph Korey stepping aside into a new role she titled Executive Chairwoman. Today, the New York Times reports that Away’s board believes they acted too hastily in accepting Ms. Korey’s role change. They have decided that Ms. Korey will continue to serve as CEO, sharing the role with new Co-CEO Stuart Haselden.
Jen Rubio (left) and Steph Korey (right), co-founders of Away, at the Milken Institute 2019 Global … [+]
If you somehow missed this story as it unfolded in December, Ms. Korey’s behavior toward employees was manipulative and bullying at best, destabilizing at worst, and illustrative of a profound lack of understanding about how to motivate and inspire. After she fired six employees for complaining on a private communications channel about Away’s company culture and leadership, the proverbial pot boiled over. Word of the ongoing drama was leaked to The Verge, which published an article detailing Ms. Korey’s behavior, and social media took over from there.
Within one day of the article’s publication, Ms. Korey issued a public apology, saying, “I am sincerely sorry for what I said and how I said it. It was wrong, plain and simple. I can imagine how people felt reading those messages from the past, because I was appalled to read them myself.”
At the time, Ms. Korey proposed to the Away board that she leave the role of CEO and become Executive Chairwoman. But the title Executive Chair(wo)man is typically an alternate term for CEO, with nearly identical job functions. Away had already lured Stuart Haselden away from Lululemon — prior to the controversy — to prepare Away for a public offering at some point in the future. According to the Times article, “Ms. Korey had already recruited Mr. Haselden to the company to become its president, with the promise that, after a transition period, he would be elevated to chief executive to help take the company public. When the plan changed after the Verge article was published, she (Korey) said she would become executive chairwoman and Mr. Haselden the chief executive. But behind the scenes, she said, she expected both of them to operate pretty much in their original roles, just with different titles.”
Also in the Times article, Haselden stated that Ms. Korey “was very selfless in trying to defuse the firestorm of social media.” That seems a bit disingenuous, given that she considered the role she stepped into to be the equivalent of the role she stepped out of.
On one side of this narrative is a community of past and present Away employees – many of whom continue to leak evidence to support The Verge article – who contend that Ms. Korey’s leadership and the culture she created was injurious to employee wellbeing. On another side of this narrative is a chorus of commentators observing that Ms. Korey is being held to an unfair standard of behavior based on gender, considering that similar behavior is generally deemed acceptable when observed in male leaders. Both are valid.
The third face of this triangle is Ms. Korey and Away’s board, who resisted defensiveness in the early days, but are now disputing The Verge’s story and have hired an attorney (Elizabeth M. Locke, who litigated a successful defamation suit against Rolling Stone for it’s story about an alleged gang rape at the University of Virginia). This seems somewhat less justified based on the amount of source material that has been leaked to the public and the content of Ms. Korey’s immediate apology.
The Oxymorons: Regulating Open Communication and Enforcing Collaboration
Away is a company populated with millennial generation employees and led by a millennial generation CEO (Ms. Korey is 31 years old). One of the most talked-about characteristics of millennials as a generation is that they prefer to work in collaborative environments, using collaborative tools. Ms. Korey and her co-founder Jen Rubio implemented that most millennial of collaboration technologies — Slack — in order to create a transparent, collaborative work environment. But its implementation was rule-based, rigid, and distrustful. Like what one might expect an OK Boomer to set up.
If you are not familiar with Slack, it is a cloud-based application that makes information-sharing easy. It facilitates sharing of files, tasks and timelines, and helps teams be more efficient. A Slack environment is made up of channels, which can be used for a variety of purposes. A department might create a channel for its members, cross-functional teams can set up channels to manage projects and initiatives, study groups can be formed to reinforce learning, and special interest groups can create channels to share their enthusiasm about a particular topic or activity.
At Away, employees were forbidden to use email to communicate with one another, and were discouraged from using direct messaging and private Slack channels. Ms. Korey said that she and Ms. Rubio established these rules because “Slack affords levels of inclusion and transparency email simply doesn’t. With email the original author gets to pick who is included in the conversation and whose voices won’t be heard.”
In theory, this is correct. Email is inefficient and opaque — a terrible substitute for group communication. But good ideas, when taken too far, lose much of their inherent goodness.
Communication does work best when it is candid and inclusive. But is impossible to command people into open and transparent communication. Genuinely transparent companies achieve that result through creating cultures that make it safe to be open and honest, and consistently reward the behavior. Communication and collaboration quickly wither in an environment of management overreach. When employees are micromanaged right down to the individual message or email, the result is distrust. Even if Ms. Korey never said a harsh word to her employees, this set of rules would inevitably lead to the opposite of her expressed goal.
You Can’t Make Someone Else Accountable
Good leaders establish goals and objectives, support them with metrics, and create cultures in which successes and failures are objectively analyzed. They reward achievements, and make every setback a learning opportunity. In these conditions, people have the tools they require to be accountable.
Nearly all the reporting on Away reveals a workforce that consistently worked weeks-long stretches of 16-hour days with no days off, and teams that sacrificed holidays and vacations to meet customer expectations. Stories abound of employees working until 1AM, going home, then working some more on their laptops. Every impression is that the average employee at Away is a high-performer, and high performers tend to be accountable.
The people who hurt us the most are the ones we love; the ones we want to please. The things that seemed to hurt Away employees the most, the things that pushed them to the point of outrage and resentment, seem to be when Ms. Korey used their inherent accountability against them as a form of manipulation. An example of this behavior is the following Slack message sent by Ms. Korey at 3AM last February (the emphasis in the following quote is hers):
“I know this group is hungry for career development opportunities, and in an effort to support you in developing your skills, I am going to help you learn the career skill of accountability. . . What you are accountable for is solving the problems of customers struggling to reach us on live platforms . . . To hold you accountable – which is a very important business skill that is translatable to many different work settings – no new pto or wfh requests will be considered from the 6 of you until we reach 5 consecutive days of all our attempts to reach cx on live platforms being successful.”
In the book Good to Great, Jim Collins described accountable leadership. He said that great leaders look out the window to give credit to factors outside themselves when things go well. And when things go badly, they look in the mirror to take responsibility, never blaming others or bad luck. You cannot make someone else accountable. But you can create an environment that fosters accountability, and model it yourself.
First You Solve the Process, Then You Solve the People
So why were Ms. Korey’s employees working insane hours, sacrificing their personal lives, and still failing? Why did Ms. Korey have to send out messages like this:
“OK, I want to be clear: If there is a risk that not 100% of calls and livechats will be answered on any day, then the management . . . should be in the trenches answering calls and livechats. If you all choose to utilize your empowerment to leave our customers hanging . . . you will have convinced me that this group does not embody Away’s core values.”
“If whoever is doing these luggage tags is brain dead enough to package up and send a tag that clearly has incomplete letters it seems extremely unlikely to me that a retraining on SOPs if (sic) going to be a sufficient set of next steps.
“we need to reach out to customers who are wondering where there (sic) tracking number is since it’s been more than one business day. . . this is not a level of thoughtfulness we expect from a Manager.”
Or why did her managers have to send out messages like this:
“This past month has challenged us all in ways we never expected when we walked in the doors of Away. I think you all knew you were walking into something special, but I never could have accurately outlined for you what this ride would be like because I am still uncovering new twists and turns and seatbelts and emergency brakes myself. Beyond the sheer number of hours that you have worked and cases you have resolved, the thing that blows me away is how you have all stayed so positive, so optimistic, so light, and so honest amongst challenges from every different angle . . . I just went through where we’re at with Steph and we talked through what it would take to get us back to that normal place, so we can all have the January we held on to as the light at the end of the tunnel. At first, I looked at the information I was sharing with her and I cried at my little kitchen table. I cried because I’m tired. I wanted to go to the gym and not be talking to my CEO, and I wanted to enjoy the last day of the year with the people I love and according to how I thought it would be in my head. And then I got on the phone with her so we could look away from the numbers and talk about the human factors that have contributed to this volume of work we’re facing and find a solution based in human reality.” Then she goes on to ask the team to work on New Year’s Day.
These messages (and others like them) were not just the natural consequence of company growth. Yes, Away was growing rapidly, but one of the responsibilities of a Chief Executive is to make sure the organization is prepared for growth – to lay the track before the train.
When a new product has already been launched to consumers, and only afterward you find out you have a problem with it, that suggests lack of control over the New Product Development (NPD) process. When customer experience staff doesn’t have a mechanism for receiving information from operations staff about expected ship dates, that suggests lack of process integration between operations and sales (essential for smooth company operations and satisfied customers). When you tell your wildly enthusiastic customer base that you will customize their luggage – but you haven’t ensured your operations area is adequately staffed and trained — that suggests lack of operations planning.
When a company is not run well, process deficiencies are often blamed on people. Ms. Korey’s concern – for her customers – was surely in the right place, and her frustration must have been immense. Her error wasn’t in wanting to resolve all the problems. It was in failing to recognize that once problems have avalanched due to inadequacies of planning and management, it is extremely difficult for employees to compensate. Rapid growth is one of the most dangerous things a company can do. To do so successfully – without bleeding out the bottom line or exploding in an article in The Verge – requires tremendous planning, discipline, flexibility, and a deep appreciation for process control and project management.
Ambitious people don’t grow into ambition as they get older. They’re born that way. So when the opportunity to lead something materializes, they jump in, even when they’re not prepared. Ms. Korey has apologized, she has reported that she’s working with an executive coach, and she has expressed a desire to change. But the best possible indicator that the company will get better – that Ms. Korey will get better – will be her working relationship with Mr. Haselden and evidence that she is seeking guidance from those who can truly challenge her.
It is noteworthy that, when asked in an interview for Fortune, Who were your mentors? What did they teach you? Ms. Korey responded, “Throughout my career, I’ve found peer mentors to be the most valuable, because your peers can truly understand where you’re coming from and give the most relevant advice.”
There is some truth to that. But it is also true that few peers will push as hard as a superior. Peers tend to tread lightly when criticism is needed. Peers seldom have the hard-won experience that helps to mold a great leader.
There’s an old adage that says the higher you fly, the more you get shot at. Some of the criticism leveled at Ms. Korey just comes with the territory. Some of it is certainly unfair, because it is true that female leaders are excoriated for the same behaviors that men are congratulated for. And some of it most certainly is true. But if Ms. Korey is as smart as she appears to be, she will use this painful experience to her advantage, and become better. Better at understanding the nuts and bolts of growing a company. Better at fostering a culture of transparent and productive communication. Better at embracing the knowledge that a great company only becomes great on the shoulders of impassioned, motivated employees who feel valued. And better at realizing that leadership is never an entitlement and always much more than a job. It is an immense responsibility to those whom we choose to lead.