If you want to believe Uber can turn its fortunes around and become a great and good company, don't read today's New York Times. According to Mike Isaac, the search for a CEO to replace Travis Kalanick is in full swing, and among the candidates under consideration is former Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer.
The idea of Mayer as the executive who can come in and solve Uber's gnarly culture problem while steering it to profitability and an eventual IPO is so laughable, you almost have to think it was put forth by Kalanick, who is participating in the search, in the hopes that his successor will flame out so badly the board will have no choice but to beg him to come back. Whatever her qualifications for other CEO jobs, she is a uniquely poor candidate to run a company with Uber's particular set of challenges. Here's why.
She's an enemy of transparency.
It took a series of whistleblowers and leaks, beginning with a tell-all blog post from former engineer Susan Fowler, to expose the scope of the problem with harassment and discrimination at Uber. A reflexive belligerence toward outside scrutiny allowed the toxic culture to fester for as long as it did. In response to critical reporting by Pando Daily editor Sarah Lacy, Uber's then-No. 2 executive, Emil Michael, suggested siccing investigators on her to collect dirt. It was also Michael who tried to stop Kalanick's ex-girlfriend, Gabi Holzwarth, from going public with a story about the time Kalanick and Michael accompanied a group of Uber employees to a brothel bar in South Korea.
Uber needs a CEO who will embrace the sunlight cure. Mayer is the opposite of that. At Yahoo, she conducted a war against leakers, determined above all to keep unflattering tidbits from reaching the inbox of Recode editor-in-chief Kara Swisher. She even went so far as to have the company sue a former employee who leaked transcripts of meetings to an author writing a book about her. Mayer's allergy to bad news has been costly: After she failed to disclose massive data breaches affecting more than 1 billion Yahoo users, Verizon demanded a $350 million reduction in its acquisition price for Yahoo.
She's critical of feminism.
Mayer is a woman. You have to give her that. Hiring someone who's not just another tech bro would send a positive signal. But there's good reason to doubt Mayer will be especially sensitive to the abundant issues facing women, or other underrepresented groups, at Uber. "I don't think I would consider myself a feminist," she said in an interview for the 2013 documentary Makers. "I certainly believe in equal rights...but I don't have sort of the militant drive and the chip on the shoulder that comes with that. I think it's too bad, because I think feminism has become, in many ways, a more negative word."
If that's how Mayer sees women who fight for their rights rather than just believing in them, you can see why she was so quick to excuse Kalanick by saying he had no way of knowing what was going on in the ranks at Uber. Mayer was also roundly criticized when she built a nursery in her office so she could bring her infant to work right after rescinding Yahoo employees' ability to work from home.
She has less-than-stellar personal skills.
An engineer at heart, Mayer has often been criticized for treating colleagues and underlings in a way that came across as rude, cold, or imperious. Profiles of her invariably mention her habit of keeping people waiting for hours outside her office before their appointments. Mayer's pre-Yahoo career at Google reportedly came to a halt after engineers on her team went to then-CEO Larry Page and threatened to quit en masse if they had to keep working for her. "The feedback from a lot of people was that she wasn't a team player, that she was counterproductive, and that it was all about what was best for Marissa Mayer," one told Vanity Fair.
There are plenty of CEOs in Silicon Valley who are more comfortable interacting with code than other humans. But Uber's employees don't just need a CEO--they need a true leader, who can restore their sense of mission and assure them their concerns are shared. It needs an empathy all-star.
On top of it all, she wasn't a great CEO at Yahoo.
Mayer made about $239 million in her time at Yahoo, largely through bonuses and stock grants. During her tenure, the company's share price tripled. But almost all of that run-up had to do with her successful management of Yahoo's stakes in Alibaba and Yahoo Japan. Arguably, credit for that sort of financial engineering should go to Yahoo's then-CFO, Ken Goldman, not Mayer, who sold herself to the board as an engineer, product person, and strategist. When you look at the initiatives Mayer undertook on those fronts--making Yahoo a player in long-form TV, increasing its share in mobile search, attracting Millennial users with the acquisition of Tumblr, building new media brands around big names like Katie Couric and David Pogue--they were all costly failures, if rounding errors in the context of the Alibaba stake.
Some analysts were willing to give Mayer a pass on all this because turning around Yahoo was always a low-percentage bet. It had been sliding into irrelevance for too many years. By stepping in at Uber, she would again be taking over a company in a tailspin. Not every executive of her stature would be up for that kind of challenge. That may, in fact, be her best qualification.