Still Believe Uber Should ...


Back in March when Uber shared it was searching for an exec to ride shotgun with Travis Kalanick in hopes of modulating the CEO’s behavior, I suggested that the recruiters should take a look at the talent pool of PR executives.

My point was that critical areas like brand management, the relationship with drivers and this thing called leadership — not operational issues — were crushing Uber. Rather than following the conventional path of plucking someone who’s good with an abacus, checking out the PR ranks could provide the ideal candidate or candidates.

Because when you aggregate the Uber debacles and stuff hitting the fan, the missing quality in the management team becomes clear —


Definition of empathy

Who better than an executive with communications experience to address the empathy void? Who better to help to rebuild the corporate culture and make damn sure that the decisions and actions from management align with what’s being communicated both internally and to the outside world?

Now we learn that Mr. Kalanick will embark on a soul-searching leave of absence as the Board bulldozes what’s left of the management team and starts anew.

As Uber retools its management team,  the argument for making an executive hire from the PR pool has only grown stronger. Contrary to the perception of some, PR professionals can walk, chew gum and talk — moving that said gum to the side of the mouth — at the same time.

PR people have the smarts to figure things out.

They know how to build relationships.

They know how to communicate.

Again, underscored by empathy.

The investigation from the law firm Covington & Burling released yesterday called for Uber to focus on four themes: tone at the top, trust, transformation and accountability.

This isn’t about dealing with spreadsheets or software or surge pricing when it rains.

This is about dealing with people.

Here’s what I wrote back in March —

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 Wirednailed 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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