Uber just can’t seem to get a break. Since February 19 when Susan Fowler – a former Uber engineer – published an explosive account of sexism in Uber’s workplace, the bad news flowing out of Uber has evolved from a trickle to a torrential storm.
Thankfully, Uber’s board has not turned a blind eye to the revelations. They are weighing a leave of absence for the embattled CEO – Travis Kalanick. Kalanick should do the smart thing and volunteer to step aside – at least for a while – before he is instructed to do so by the board.
Control the PR nightmare
The recent revelations that have been flowing forth are in fact detailing events that happened in the past. The use of the Greyball tool, geofencing of Apple’s engineers, and mishandling of medical records took place in 2015.
But the recency of these releases, coupled with the latest developments such as the Uber versus Waymo lawsuit, or the departure of Finance chief Gautam Gupta, serve to reinforce the impression that Uber is filled with jerks whose leaders allow, and even encourage, this behaviour.
At the heart of this debacle sits Travis Kalanick, who rightly or wrongly, bears the brunt of the public’s ire.
For Uber to control the PR nightmare, it needs to put out the fires from its past mistakes, show that it’s aware of the need for change, and take concrete action to prove its sincerity.
Kalanick is the common thread tying together these needs, and stepping aside gives his team the breathing room they need to put out fires. Furthermore, Kalanick’s pugnaciousness and competitiveness is the stuff of legend and widely known. His leave of absence will signal Uber’s commitment to right their ship without any interference from a CEO who enabled these past mistakes to take place.
It would be even better, PR-wise, if he were to leave voluntarily to demonstrate his commitment to change and signal his awareness that the change must come from himself. It’s an extraordinary act of contrition that could stop the negative media cycle in its tracks.
Should he leave entirely?
In the first place, the company’s bylaws ensure that no one can make Kalanick leave but Kalanick. But as CEO he holds the final responsibility for any mistakes that Uber makes.
Having said that, as CEO he also deserves credit for the US$69 billion juggernaut that Uber has become. It has shaken up a staid industry and sparked a wave of startup fever in popular consciousness.
Further, he has publicly affirmed his commitment to change and Uber’s board appears to be fully aware of their need to keep a watchful eye on the changes to be made.
Given these circumstances, it’s too soon to decide if he and Uber are too stubborn to improve. After all, everyone deserves a second chance.
What next if he steps down?
The solution to this has the benefit of being tried and tested – hire a professional CEO and wait for Kalanick to mature.
It worked for Larry Page at Google and Steve Jobs at Apple, and it will probably work for Kalanick. Additionally, it may also be good for Uber as its immediate priority now is less about breaking new ground by developing new products but to solidify its businesses and stem the burn rate.
These are undertakings that an experienced, professional CEO will be best for.
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