Why Ruth Porat Should Be Uber’s Next CEO

June 24, 2017, 2:16 PM UTC

Travis Kalanick was ousted in a boardroom coup on Tuesday by Uber’s earliest investors. Now, the ride-sharing giant needs a new CEO (in addition to a new COO, CFO, and other positions). The coup was not bloodless. Longtime board members Bill Gurley and David Bonderman were both casualties, and will be replaced by Matt Cohler and David Trujillo. While the new board members continue representation for the same investors (Benchmark and TPG Capital respectively), that change is the first step to a larger Uber culture turnaround, and will allow for new personal relationships to grow. Given that Travis Kalanick maintains majority voting rights and will continue to remain the chairman of the board, this is an important consideration. In order for the board to resume normal functioning without everyone at each other’s throats, the feuds must subside.

The next CEO will have to navigate a political, business, and legal minefield: At the executive level, there are multiple fires that need immediate addressing. First, the toxic internal culture that allowed sexual harassment to flourish unimpeded needs reformation, and that starts at the top. Second, Uber is bleeding money despite its large revenues. Gross profitability is achievable, but requires an experienced hand to bring costs under control. Third, Uber needs to IPO soon. Bill Gurley has been publicly agitating for years about this, but an IPO cannot happen until costs are under control and confidence in the leadership is restored. Last, there is also the Waymo lawsuit. If the wrongdoing goes beyond Anthony Lewandowski, it needs to be made clear who was responsible. Whatever it is, any party to any theft of IP from Waymo needs to be excised from the company, and fast. If Uber is to have any chances at a successful autonomous vehicle program, it cannot be weighed down by lawsuits for years.
Ruth Porat could be the solution to this conundrum. She has had two years as the CFO of Alphabet, where she has imposed cost controls on Larry and Sergey’s “other bets” to wide acclaim from Wall Street. Prior to that, she was Vice Chairman of Investment Banking and then CFO at Morgan Stanley. If anyone can navigate an IPO that must both resolve all the complex liquidation preferences in Uber’s late stage rounds of financing, and sell the final product to Wall Street, it is someone with that depth of experience. And appointing a woman at the highest level of the company would signal that the company is sincere about changing its culture.
Porat’s name has not come up in the executive search rumors so far. The existing speculation has focused on COO candidates. Sheryl Sandberg, is of course, touted as the dream CEO. The bad news for Uber: Sheryl Sandberg is everyone’s dream candidate for every position, and she’s not available. Almost any CEO job in America would be a step down from her current role as COO of Facebook. Beyond that, she’s in line for the de facto CEO position of Facebook if Mark Zuckerberg takes the leave of absence he’s rumored to have carefully negotiated in the event of a 2020 presidential bid.
Other available COO candidates include former Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer, former Zenefits CEO (and former Paypal COO) David O. Sacks, and former Twitter COO Adam Bain. But Mayer is not exactly riding high after Yahoo was sold for parts to Verizon. And in general, free agents are free agents for a reason—Uber needs some someone who can hit the ground running.
There are a few advantages to picking a CFO, rather than a COO, as Uber’s new leader. The CEO job would be a step up for Ruth Porat, unlike for Sheryl Sandberg. The path from CFO to CEO is not as easy as it is from COO, so this kind of opportunity won’t come to her often. A deal structure that ensures she gets a giant payout for steadying the ship through a successful IPO seems like something the Uber board would take right now, as the flip side is a flameout where nobody gets paid.
The Waymo lawsuit is the biggest sticking point with Ruth Porat, given that she currently is on the other side of that fight. But I think it presents a Nixon-to-China opportunity. What Uber needs to do is cut out all the wrongdoers, root and stem from the company, and settle the suit with Alphabet immediately. With Kalanick gone, the executive team is in disarray, so there’s nothing to protect with a long drawn out coverup. The Waymo lawsuit is clearly about genuine wrongdoing, not tripping up a competitor with needless litigation (Alphabet is an Uber investor through its venture financing arm GV). Who else could credibly commit to cleaning this up than the Alphabet CFO herself?
Arjun Narayan is a software engineer who lives in Brooklyn.
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