For the embattled former CEO, the real work begins.
Travis Kalanick, the bad boy genius behind Uber, has resigned as CEO. The New York Times broke the story, citing a letter from five of the company’s biggest investors—Benchmark, First Round Capital, Lowercase Capital, Menlo Ventures, and Fidelity Investments— delivered to Kalanick, demanding that he resign immediately. Kalanick will remain on Uber’s board, but it’s a difficult way to end his run: According to the Times, the letter was titled “Moving Uber Forward.” The influential and tolerant investors who bid up the company to a $70 billion valuation have finally spoken.
It’s hard to know what to make of the suddenness of the move, though things have clearly escalated of late. After reviewing this timeline of controversies at the company, it’s hard to believe that any executive could have survived this long. Uber has weathered nine scandals – and that’s just this year! The list includes a blog post detailing a culture of sexual harassment at the company written by a former engineer, an investigation by the U.S. Department of Justice into a software tool that allowed Uber to evade law enforcement in places where the service wasn’t approved, and the dismissal of an executive who illegally obtained the medical records of a woman who was raped by an Uber driver in India.
But as my colleague Geoff Smith suggests in his must-read take on the matter, this kind of “seismic shareholder revolt” feels like it might be about something else. “Uber’s investors have been well aware of Kalanick’s vision and his management style from the start, after all, even if they underestimated the whirlwind of negative publicity that they could generate,” he says in today’s CEO Daily. “But it’s hard to avoid a suspicion that Uber’s business model is simply not living up to its initial hype.”
This is what’s hard to parse. If, in fact, that the only reason Kalanick was removed was because of Uber’s declining business model, a fact merely complicated by the exposure of otherwise acceptably repugnant behavior, then perhaps no lessons will be learned. Uber board member Ariana Huffington, for example, argued persuasively for Travis 2.0 to return, tanned, rested and ready. (Not everyone shared this opinion: “It simply ignores how radioactive Kalanick has become and how much his deeply influential presence continues the contamination,” Recode’s Kara Swisher said.)
Regardless of the motivations behind his removal, Kalanick, who was rocked by the loss of his mother in a recent boating accident, now gets to have the redemption he needs, if not the one he planned. For that, I wish him well. The company is in the process of bringing on new employees, including some exciting fresh hires. But it has serious work to do if it wants to separate itself from a culture that allowed it to go down so many ethical wormholes. I asked my colleague Adam Lashinsky, author of Wild Ride: Inside Uber’s Quest for World Domination, what he thought of Kalanick’s departure. His book makes it clear that Kalanick was always the company’s greatest strength and its biggest problem. For the first time, the company’s future is no longer tethered its bad boy founder.
“I think the company can change. It’s full of people who’d like to be part of a company with a purpose and that succeeds,” Lashinsky told me. “The opportunity for the next CEO to put her or his imprint on the culture will be considerable.”
For his part, Kalanick now recognizes that Uber 2.0 doesn’t depend on him. According to Lashinsky, “He has now acknowledged that, in fact, his transformation is not essential to the success of the company going forward.”
For a man who was once the poster child for outsized success, that may be the hardest work of all.
Ellen McGirt is a senior editor for Fortune and writes raceAhead, a daily column on race, culture and inclusive leadership.