Uber’s Damage-Control Oddities Raise Same Old Questions about Entrepreneurial CEOs

So far, we’ve had the hiring of a former U.S. Attorney General to investigate sexual harassment claims and an admission by CEO Travis Kalanick that he needs leadership counseling Now, three senior female leaders at Uber have held a press conference to discuss the scandals engulfing Kalanick, as the company’s damage control efforts seemingly get more unusual by the day.

Kalanick wasn’t at Tuesday’s briefing, which was held by board member Arianna Huffington, chief human resources officer Liane Hornsey and the head of the company’s business in the U.S. and Canada, Rachel Holt. Apparently, he was busy interviewing COO candidates and didn’t have time to attend.

The tactic at least showed the company has some strong female leaders in its ranks and is prepared to let them take the lead on combating the company’s sexist culture. Critics, however, might wonder why handling that job was beyond the CEO’s capabilities.

All three women said they supported Kalanick, with Huffington claiming he’s made progress toward becoming a better leader. “The board is confident in Travis,” Huffington said. “Uber and the whole ride-sharing industry would not be where it is today without Travis.”

“THE 40-YEAR-OLD NEEDS TO CHANGE HIS SCRAPPY ENTREPRENEUR STYLE AND START ACTING MORE LIKE THE HEAD OF A $60B COMPANY.”

Although Uber has provided the media with a lot of great theater this year, its troubles with Kalanick really aren’t that strange. Entrepreneurs don’t always make great leaders and many ultimately end up handing over the reins to professional managers when their startups become institutions.

“Founders who intend to remain at the helm through the transition will want to master an ability to set the tenor and sustain a culture that carries hundreds if not thousands of employees in the right direction when the founder’s personal hand will no longer suffice,” Michael Useem, a management professor at the Wharton School recently wrote in his book “The Leader’s Checklist”.

Yahoo founder Jerry Yang and JetBlue founder David Neeleman are among talented entrepreneurs who eventually vacated the C-suite.

Huffington said the idea of Kalanick resigning “hadn’t come up and we don’t expect it to come up.” Still, she acknowledged that the 40-year-old needed to change his “scrappy entrepreneur” style and start acting more like the head of a $60 billion global company.

The press conference came a few days after it was revealed that president Jeff Jones had quit after just six months in the job, potentially complicating efforts to find a new COO to assist Kalanick. Jones said “the beliefs and approach to leadership that have guided my career are inconsistent with what I saw and experienced at Uber.”

The San Francisco-based firm is expected to conclude an investigation into widespread sexual harassment allegations led by former U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder by the end of April, Huffington said.

Hornsey, meanwhile, acknowledged the company had put too much emphasis on the technical aspects of its performance. “The focus of the company has been on the business and not the employees,” she said. “It’s time to rectify that balance.”

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Ross Kelly
Ross Kelly is a London-based business journalist. He has been a staff correspondent or editor at The Wall Street Journal, Yahoo Finance and the Australian Associated Press.

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