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When Jodie Auster landed the job of her dreams as General Manager ANZ at Uber in 2018, she had no idea a sexual harassment scandal would engulf the company on a global-scale just three weeks later.
“I thought at the time, I’ve got a couple of choices,” she told Brooke Boney as a recent guest on Future Women’s Next Generation Innovators’ Podcast. “I can get out of here and say, ‘Well that was the wrong place to join’ or I can really stand up and be part of the change that’s necessary in this business.”
Auster chose the latter. In fact, she didn’t just stay. She listened, and was part of changing the global culture from the ground-up. Rewind to 2007 and her decision not to run from Uber becomes much clearer. Auster was at a professional crossroads. She had been working as an emergency doctor and was looking to transition into business, so enrolled in an MBA at Melbourne Business School. From there, she would go on to consult for Bain & Co, land her first job in the world of tech at start-up Scoopon, and later take the leap to Silicon Valley to rapidly grow another start-up, Thumbtack. But the lessons she learned in the emergency room have been vital to her success.
“[Working in emergency medicine] taught me a lot of things at the time that I didn’t realise would be really powerful in a different context,” she said. “I think the first one was keeping cool under pressure. You know the things you see and the things you have to deal with in an emergency department are sometimes terrifying. So if you make a mistake in business I always had that reference point of, ‘well nobody died, everything is going to be OK’. So that’s really helped me support my team through any mistakes we make.”
Auster also uses two “really powerful ways of thinking that are taken from medicine” when dealing with the pressure of heading up the Australia and New Zealand arm of one of the biggest tech disruptors in history.
“One is triage so that’s basically prioritisation,” she explained. “In an emergency it’s very important to say, ‘Is this a life threatening situation?’ and then to drop everything and deal with it right now. Or is it just noise and you probably don’t need to look at it ever? Using [triage] in a fast moving tech business particularly is really important because you get a lot of non-urgent interruptions that could completely derail your day. Recognising that you shouldn’t disrupt your day to day attention to those has been really important.
“If you make a mistake in business I always had that reference point of, ‘well nobody died, everything is going to be OK’. So that’s really helped me support my team through any mistakes we make.”
“The second thing is something I’ve labelled hypothesis-driven problem solving, which is having an answer right from the beginning – and then being selective about the information that you get to prove or disprove that hypothesis. It’s quite a fast way to getting to the right answer, because the alternative is go find all the facts and eventually work out what the answer is. This way, you’re standing at the end of the bed, you’ve read two sentences from the nurse and you’ve had a five minute conversation with the patient, what do you think they have? And therefore what physical examination are you going to do? What needles and radiation are you going to expose them to, to prove or disprove that? And taking that into business has been an incredibly efficient way of solving problems when you’ve got a lot to do.”
Both sound like tools that make decision-making much easier, but what does ‘hypothesis driven problem solving’ look like in practice?
“What line of business should Uber go into next [is a good example],” Auster said. “There are a million answers to that question and you could probably spend a lifetime researching all the things you could sell, and whether you should do it, before eventually popping out with an answer. By the time you come up with that, your competitors have probably already done it. So you instead start with a hypothesis that says, ‘the next line of business we should go into is…’. Start with that statement at the top of the page, and you’ve had a hunch – you’ve probably had a few signals that have made you put that at the top of the page, which is based on your core competencies as a business. So ‘we are good at this’, ‘it plays into our platform strategy’ but then you write a bunch of things underneath it that say what would have to be true for that statement to be the right answer. So it would be things like, ‘the vehicle and battery technology will exist in the next two years’ or ‘the demand for this type of product is sufficient for it to be a good idea commercially’. You probably have five or six statements underneath that say, ‘if these things were true then that hypothesis would be true’. And then you can, selectively, under each of those statements, work out what facts you need to collect to see whether these things are true.
“So you can fit it on a page and it’s a much quicker, more effective and targeted way of saying, ‘is my hypothesis right?’ In the process you might discover you’ve actually hit something that’s a hypothesis killing fact. So then you think, ‘OK my hypothesis is wrong’ and you move on to the next thing and you haven’t spent years trying to find which business to go into. The only watch out really is confirmation bias. That’s looking for things that prove an idea you want to be true. So when you use this method you do have to be really careful that you’re not just trying to prove that your idea is the right idea. You have to do enough diligence.”
Hear more from Brooke Boney’s conversation with Uber’s Jodie Auster by subscribing to and downloading the Future Women Next Generation Innovators Podcast.
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