The signs were there more than a week ago that big Uber investors might be fed up with CEO Travis Kalanick. Between the sexual harassment charges, the lawsuit by Google over alleged theft of self-driving technology, long litany of bad actions leading to bad PR, and continued losses of billions of dollars a year, frankly there was little else to be done.
The glories of Uber's growth, its pugnacious attitude, the audacious vision of remaking transportation in its own image -- all were part of the company's success. And yet, as we all learn over time, what drives the good can also enable the bad. Uber has been as notable for its flaws and massive mistakes as it has for success. Much of that is tied to both Kalanick and the spirit of Silicon Valley that he seemed to embody.
Cultural change is tough to achieve without the full participation of everyone at the top of a company. Sometimes a CEO has to go to rescue the business. But that is a drastic last step. What would life be if you couldn't grow to meet the challenges? Kalanick could have taken some steps to head off what become inevitable. Maybe another CEO in the Valley, or some entrepreneur elsewhere, will be able to learn from Kalanick's failure and begin to make necessary changes now.
Here are some of the ways Kalanick could have turned things around, both for himself and the company.
Loved something more than Uber
When five major investors insisted that Kalanick step down on Wednesday, the former CEO had long discussions with some of them and agreed to leave. In a statement, he said, "I love Uber more than anything in the world and at this difficult moment in my personal life I have accepted the investors request to step aside so that Uber can go back to building rather than be distracted with another fight."
No doubt that entrepreneurs are passionate about their companies, but loving the business more than anything? More than family? Principles? Life? People? Working hard is important, but you need balance. The business should never be what you love most in the world. If it is, then chances are that you'll fail to find restraint when necessary and invoke that approach from everyone around you.
Focused on flaws of the corporate culture
The driving corporate culture helped move Uber along its path toward success. And yet, there were deep problems, as evidenced by everything from the sexual harassment issue to clashes with authorities, claims of using apps and data analysis to avoid law enforcement, and questionable tactics the company reportedly used against competitors, and even toward its own drivers.
Culture is something that is created, but no creation is perfect. As entrepreneurs work to improve their companies, they also need to be introspective on the corporate level and look at the flaws that will need improvement.
Avoided ultimate power in the company
It's become practically de rigueur for tech company founders to insist on ultimate power, even as a company goes public. The theory is that the founder has a secret insight to take things forward and needs the flexibility to make decisions that will bring success.
But if you're going to be creative and innovative as a CEO, that sort of power can actually be self-defeating. Albert Schweitzer, the great humanitarian doctor, had also been a world-renown musician who wrote a biography of Johann Sebastian Bach. Part of Bach's creativity over such a volume of work had to do with working within constraints. Ultimate freedom can lead to new things, but it can also leave so many choices that it paradoxically becomes more difficult to make decisions and achieve things. Also, ultimate power discourages collaboration, which is the very thing you'll need to lead a company.
Put employees ahead of himself
Kalanick apparently saw Uber as an extension of himself. His characteristics became those of the company. In a way, everything became about him, and that led to some of the deepest problems as was obvious in the video in which Kalanick berated an Uber driver.
Leadership in a company isn't about giving orders and taking credit. Instead, you create a vision and goals and then do everything in your power to help all employees do what they must to arrive at the final destination. You also listen to employees because they often have vantage points that let them see problems that might be invisible to you. Give respect and support and you'll get it in return.
Take diversity seriously
Lack of diversity and massive problems with gender inequity and sexual harassment have been an ongoing tale across the tech sector for years. They hurt individuals, promote problematic attitudes in society, reduce access to the best talent, and narrow the range of experiences and insights available to companies that need to operate in a world much broader than a group of young white males.
Many of Kalanick's shortcomings are expressed succinctly in this one area. That could be said of virtually any tech company, and all of them have fallen down on these fronts for many years. Can you image how much success the industry might have if it broke out of this limiting and ugly mold?
Find a path to profitability
What tipped the scales in the case of Kalanick was that investors were scared. Uber depends on continued growth to eventually take control of entire areas of transportation to reset its pricing and become profitable. The company is currently losing billions a year. The approach harkened back to the dot com era and presumption that profitability wasn't something to worry about.
That left investors in a tricky position. What they might have (wrongly) ignored if profits were strong and the future bright went out the window as their investments were threatened.
Get outside of Silicon Valley
The tech industry, especially in the confines of Silicon Valley, is like any self-reinforcing society. The shortcomings of high tech companies industry are something that can come to look normal. A concentration of similar views can also produce blindness to systemic problems and viewpoints as well as blindness toward what broader markets need. It's like the business equivalent of politicians who are always in Washington, D.C. and fail to grasp what much of the country is going through.
It's too late for Kalanick, but not for others in the tech community to get out of their comfort zone, see what the vast majority of people in markets want and need, and to change direction.