Could the end be near for Uber CEO Travis Kalanick? After a long string of public disasters -- the massive sexual harassment charges, videoed dress down of an Uber driver by Kalanick, employees reportedly jumping ship, and steady stream of executives leaving, the gig-economy poster child had been reeling.
Now, over the weekend, there have been reports that Kalanick may take a "leave of absence" and that Chief Business Officer Emil Michael, a controversial figure in his own right, will resign.
Combined with other recent events, this smells like a massive house cleaning. What makes it seem a bit shocking is that Kalanick, with some people close to him, holds majority voting control. It should be impossible to make him do anything he doesn't wish to. But when the people who have invested literally billions of dollars get scared that all their money could go down the drain, we're no longer talking about business as usual.
Uber may be the ultimate PR nightmare. The list of things done wrong is not a collection of garden variety goofs. In addition to the ones above, here are some others:
- the time Michael reportedly suggested digging up dirt on journalists who criticized the company (without that being enough to get him fired)
- charges that Uber used big data to avoid law enforcement in regions the company didn't have permission to operate in
- the lawsuit that Google-associated self-driving company Waymo filed against Uber for allegedly stealing technology
- allegations of using psychological tricks to manipulate its drivers
- criticism that Uber raised prices during the London Bridge terrorist attack
- the report that Uber fired 20 employees as a result of its sexual harassment investigation
Not only is it an astounding collection of bad choices and actions, but it's amazing that you could collect all of these under one company that is still losing billions of dollars a year and keep a CEO in place. Firing 20 people when there are claims of a culture of sexual harassment isn't enough -- especially when just last week the company fired an executive for allegedly obtaining the medical records of a woman in India who claimed that an Uber driver raped her. Hiring a former Apple executive to help Uber burnish its image and a Harvard Business School professor to help mend things seem secondary.
The issues Uber faces aren't faux pas. This isn't bad luck or unfortunate circumstances. The company was built on the strategy of ignoring regulations to push into markets. It's designed from the ground up to flout rules. When that is your mental framework, a lot of things can go wrong.
That type of cultural issue goes right up to the CEO. This isn't something that can be tidied up or decorated. Now combine that with the question of whether Uber can ever become profitable and the moneyed set in Silicon Valley that bet heavily on the company must be sweating. And while Uber is getting rightly knocked about, its main competitor in the U.S., Lyft, is benefiting from the errors.
Back in March -- it seems so long ago -- I speculated on some CEOs who could replace Kalanick. Why does it seem that Uber's board is likely putting together its own list of potential nice CEOs and a single naughty one who may be taking that leave of absence?