Uber has a leadership void at a time of crisis
The C-Suite at Uber just got even emptier.
Travis Kalanick informed employees Tuesday that he plans to step aside from running the company indefinitely in order to grieve for his mother, who recently died in a tragic boating accident.
“If we are going to work on Uber 2.0, I also need to work on Travis 2.0 to become the leader that this company needs and that you deserve,” Kalanick wrote in a memo to employees.
The announcement came moments before Uber held a staff meeting to discuss recommendations from a months-long investigation into Uber’s office culture conducted by former U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder.
Among other suggestions, the report recommended reevaluating Kalanick’s responsibilities at the company as well as “enhancing board oversight” and boosting the board’s independence.
Kalanick said his “leadership team” will be running the company in his absence, with occasional input from him. But there is a glaring problem with this plan: Uber’s bench of top executives is light — bordering on nonexistent.
“Uber is a company without a COO, CFO, CMO and soon to be SVP of Business,” James Cakmak, an analyst with Monness, Crespi, Hardt & Co, wrote in an investor note Monday.
Shortly after the note, Emil Michael, Uber’s SVP of business and Kalanick’s right-hand man, left the company.
“Who’s left?” Cakmak added in the note. “Just the CEO, Mr. Kalanick. So, there really is no top brass at Uber.”
Put another way: a $68 billion startup with 14,000 employees and more than one million drivers seems to have almost no one at the steering wheel.
Reps for Uber did not respond to a request for comment.
In typical startup fashion, some C-Suite and board positions went unfilled for years.
“It’s a reflection of what you see in many founder-run companies: The founder has been given a lot of control,” says Jason Schloetzer, a professor at Georgetown who studies corporate governance. “There’s a lot of faith placed in his abilities to innovate and manage the firm as it continues to grow.”
Other top positions were vacated this year as Uber was hit by one negative headline after another.
Uber’s president quit in March due to concerns over the startup’s management culture. Its top finance exec left last month amid efforts to drive down its significant losses. Even the head of its self-driving car operation — an effort seen as Uber’s future — was recently fired.
That only makes it harder to push out Kalanick. He built Uber into a juggernaut by fundraising aggressively, dodging regulators and focusing on growth at all costs. It’s unclear who, if anyone, at the company would be fit right now to succeed him.
A source at Uber previously told CNN Tech there is a key effort underway to fill top leadership positions around Kalanick with seasoned executives. The hope, according to some Uber investors, is these executives can keep Kalanick in check.
Uber recently hired Frances Frei, a Harvard Business School professor considered to be a thought leader on organizational change, to take over as its SVP of leadership and strategy. It also poached Apple’s star executive Bozoma Saint John to take over as its first chief brand officer.
Uber has said it’s in the process of trying to hire for key positions including CFO, general counsel and COO. Kalanick said his goal for the COO role is to find “a peer who can partner with me to write the next chapter in our journey.”
Right now, it’s a little too lonely at the top.