Uber CEO, Travis Kalanick, is now actively looking for a Chief Operating Officer, or as he would like to put it, “a peer who can partner with me to write the next chapter in our journey.” Kalanick co-founded Uber in 2009 and made it the ride-hailing giant that it is now without a 2nd in command. Now, more than ever, perhaps, is the best time to have one.
It’s been a tumultuous ride for Uber (pun intended) the past several months. Troublesome reports around the company’s culture, leadership, and business tactics have surfaced in a worryingly escalating manner since Susan Fowler, former Uber Engineer, blew the whistle. And as, conceivably, a sign of concession, Mr. Kalanick has decided it’s time for some adult supervision – much like how Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg brought in Sheryl Sandberg to Facebook in 2008.
It will be recalled that Ms. Fowler made an entry on her personal blog last February to detail a series of strange incidents over at Uber. To say that these anecdotes point to a norm that is sexist, toxic, and unjust is an understatement. Soon after, similar accounts from both current and previous employees started to come to light.
One stand out testimonial was from Google exec Chris Messina who used to work for Uber as a platform developer in 2016. Upon reading Fowler’s blog, he took to Twitter to express his support saying, “This is outrageous and awful. My experience with Uber HR was similarly callous & unsupportive; in Susan’s case, it was reprehensible.” It didn’t help at all too that prior to this, Uber irked the community when it decided to drop its surge pricing while a taxi protest against Donald Trump was happening. This earned the ire of social media users and a national boycott to #DeleteUber became viral. Kalanick was part of Trump’s economic advisory council – something that didn’t sit well with Silicon Valley as the latter tries to protect its workforce diversity by collectively condemning the travel ban.
Kalanick eventually dropped out of the council. A video of the CEO rudely dismissing an Uber driver’s complaints on how the shift in the company’s business model has driven him to bankruptcy has also gone viral. His infamous line “some people don’t like to take responsibility for their own shit; they blame everything in their life on somebody else. Good luck!” forced him to send an email to all his employees apologizing and admitting “It’s clear this video is a reflection of me – and the criticism we’ve received is a stark reminder that I must fundamentally change as a leader and grow up,” he added. “This is the first time I’ve been willing to admit that I need leadership help and I intend to get it.” It’s worth noting that Kalanick was given by the driver a feedback rating of a single star, per Bloomberg News. If all that was not enough, Alphabet Inc’s Waymo has sued Uber for stealing some of their technology – which the latter denied. Finally, New York Times recently revealed how Uber could have been using a technology called “Greyball” to avoid “undesirables”, mostly government authorities.
At the height of this mess, SVP of Engineering, Amit Singhal, left the company due to a recently discovered sexual harassment allegation filed against him at his previous job in Google – which he failed to disclose to Uber. Kalanick’s VP of product and growth, Ed Baker, also stepped down. What’s left is a massive effort to conduct numerous investigations in response to employee complaints, restructure the company’s employee dynamic, and overhaul existing policies and regulations. Other external priorities are mending relationships with local regulators that they have been allegedly evading and bullying, and redeeming their social and business reputation.
It’s obvious that a clean-up as uphill as this needs some heavy-lifting and for that, a number two not going to be a bad idea. Recode, a search firm has been hired to carefully process potential contenders. A couple of names have been thrown in by the board of executives such as former Disney COO Tom Staggs and CVS exec Helena Foulkes, but Recode said it’s still early to zero in on anyone. This statement may be a double blade as the avalanche of controversies received by Uber also makes it difficult for the company to attract a top name and fill the role. It’s a legitimate question to ask too if Kalanick’s own job is secure considering that he, himself, has put the company at risk over and over again. Sources have said that his job is not in danger as he is strongly supported by allies who control the board.
As it has always been in business, someone’s bad luck is another’s opportunity. As Uber deals with its leadership crises, this red-hot start-up might need to learn a thing or two from boring old firms before Lyft, Waymo, or SideCar steals the show.