A Case for Uber’s ...

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Uber’s CEO, Travis Kalanick, posted on the company’s website last week that the hunt is on for a No. 2 executive:

“We’re actively looking for a Chief Operating Officer: a peer who can partner with me to write the next chapter in our journey.”

While hiring a No. 2 doesn’t guarantee a change in a leadership trajectory — hello Mr. Pence — it strikes me as a low-risk proposition for Uber. It’s hard to fathom such a move making things worse.

Yet, I question whether a chief operating officer (Travis, no need to initial cap the position) is really what Uber needs.

Is Uber’s business model so broken that it won’t eventually mint money?

Is Uber’s IT infrastructure sputtering as the company scales?

When we gain windows into the internal workings of Uber, these aren’t the types of problems we’re hearing about on a consistent basis. Instead, the issues revolve around  Kalanick’s combative nature in barging into cities and dealing with the people, often government officials, who make the rules for transportation services. We see a video of Kalanick crushing an Uber driver with the vigor of Marine boot-camp sergeant who just broke a shoelace. If you don’t have time for the entire video, you can jump to the “good stuff” around the fifth minute.

We read a blog post from Uber programmer Susan J. Fowler who details a corrosive and sexist corporate culture that threatens Uber’s corporate reputation and valuation.

I’ve always felt that communications at its best serves as the conscience of a company. In such a scenario, the chief communications officer takes responsibility for ensuring that the company’s behavior aligns with its brand and aspirations.

That’s what Uber needs more than a senior executive to sign off on a purchase order for another server in Romania.

Media story after story have criticized Uber for its clumsy communications. A recent story in Wired nailed it (suggesting Kalanick himself should be replaced):

“But Uber doesn’t suffer from an operations problem. To the contrary. The company excels at operations. Uber suffers from an image problem coupled with a culture problem.”

That’s why Uber should tap the pool of PR executive talent to fill this No. 2 role.

If there were ever a company where communications — defined broadly to include both internal and external communications — could be a game changer, it’s Uber.

I recognize that reshaping a corporate culture as described by Ms. Fowler is bigger than communications. It cuts to the heart of what type of company Uber wants to be when it grows up. Yet, the right PR executive is absolutely equipped to navigate these waters. Their very success depends on being able to see and anticipate situations through the eyes of others.

I’m not saying an empathetic point of view is a magic wand, but it certainly paves the way for course corrections. And counter balances Kalanick who deemed “stepping on toes” as a core value at a company retreat a couple years ago (source: Financial Times).

As for those calling for Kalanick’s head on an engine block, it seems to me that he’s earned the chance to change his ways. He’s certainly not the first CEO of a startup to mess up on the job though you can’t chalk it up to impetuous youth. The guy is 40 years old.

In a nutshell, the key to Uber’s long-term success comes down to trust.

Do customers trust Uber?

Do drivers trust Uber?

Do employees and potential employees trust Uber?

A chief communications officer is in a better position to help the company rebuild this trust than the most gifted chief operating officer.

Of course, this assumes that Kalanick will listen to counsel. If not, there’s always reverse psychology.


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