Just Who Has the Right Skills to Turn Uber Around?
Experts says that communication and a capacity for empathy is a good place to start.
Last week, Hewlett Packard Enterprise CEO Meg Whitman decided to clear the air. The executive took to Twitter -- an account that largely hadn’t been active since 2011 -- to make this statement about whether she would step into Uber's CEO position vacated by Travis Kalanick.
(3/3) We have a lot of work still to do at HPE and I am not going anywhere. Uber's CEO will not be Meg Whitman.— Meg Whitman (@MegWhitman) July 28, 2017
Her answer was a resounding no. So who is it going to be? Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg and GM CEO Mary Barra apparently aren’t interested either. Two of the names that have floated to the surface are Jeffery Immelt, who will leave his post as CEO of GE this week, and Mark Fields, who was CEO at Ford.
Kyle Jensen, associate dean and director of entrepreneurship at the Yale School of Management, says he thinks that those leaders would be sensible choices.
“Each is a Silicon Valley outsider and each presided over complex multi-national operations, which is relevant as Uber races Lyft and others around the globe," Jensen says. "Unfortunately for Uber, its culture was ill-shaped by the leadership of founder Travis Kalanick. Uber is in the enviable position of leading the ride share market, which will provide some breathing room and time to instill more sound ethics in the organization. Until the culture is fixed, it will be a tax on the company.”
The search continues for a new person to helm the embattled ride hailing company, but reports indicate it hasn’t been the smoothest transition. And that’s before you get into turning around a company that has spent months beset by scandal.
As Kalanick remains on Uber’s board, how much of an impact the former CEO will have on the day-to-day operations of the company remain somewhat unclear, but it would seem that he isn’t quite comfortable with the idea of taking a backseat to new leadership.
According to Kara Swisher in Recode, some are concerned that Kalanick is “trying to game the outcome in his favor, after he told several people that he was 'Steve Jobs-ing it.' It is a reference to the late leader of Apple, who was fired from the company, only to later return in triumph.”
In April, Uber’s valuation was hovering around $50 billion -- still high, but a significant dip from the $70 billion valuation that made it the most valuable private company in the world. For the members of the board who have put money and time into the growth of the company, finding a new CEO isn’t just about righting Uber’s cultural woes but also getting a return on their investment.
“This next CEO could potentially be the CEO to take the company public,” notes Dr. Marsha Ershaghi Hames, managing director of strategy and development at LRN, a firm that specializes in helping companies build cultures and systems of leadership that promote ethical behavior. But in order for the new leadership to succeed, it can’t just be about the money.
“We're in this era where we're doing well when we're doing the right thing,” Ershagi Hames says. “My advice to whoever is leading the recruitment and evaluation for the next Uber CEO is there isn't going to be one individual or one silver bullet. That individual put into the position of leadership needs to lead by building trust, by driving an open and transparent dialogue, by being willing to listen first and by connecting profit with purpose.”
One of the central tasks that a new CEO will have to contend with is recreating the company’s culture. The investigation conducted by former attorney general Eric Holder highlighted the most toxic elements that need to be removed in order for Uber to move forward, but Heather Huhman, career expert and the president of Come Recommended, says that it can be tough to impose a new culture, especially if it is seen as coming from an outsider.
“Culture is discovered rather than created -- and a new leader will need to listen very carefully to the people inside Uber to find the stories and values that they can amplify to propel them forward," she says. "This will be the defining trait of the right person -- that they are able to find a voice for the people that are there, rather than bringing all the ideas from outside. These are hard questions that the company needs to grapple with, and they will require an extremely skilled listener and communicator to turn the ship.”
Brett Stephens, the CEO of executive search and leadership consulting firm RSR Partners, agrees. He says that he thinks the main trait that a successful CEO leading a turnaround must have is a capacity for empathy.
“Uber is a perfect example of how artificial intelligence and digital disruption are quickly recalibrating the CEO’s desired skillset,” Stephens says. “These chief executives need to be experts in collaboration, engagement and human interaction. This ability to connect with others will likely be the defining leadership trait of our generation. If deployed adeptly, empathy will enable a new CEO to not only excel at reshaping the company, but also build a culture that empowers employees, strengthens the company and rewards investors.”
While Uber’s first era was marked by sharp elbows and a win-at-all-costs mentality, for the company to succeed in its next chapter, the person at the helm will do well to listen rather than talk.
Nina Zipkin is a staff writer at Entrepreneur.com. She frequently covers leadership, media, tech, startups, culture and workplace trends.