How Travis Kalanick Can Pull Off a Steve Jobs Comeback
According to Recode’s deep dive into to the chaotic current state of Uber, the messiest aspect appears to be the meddling of co-founder and former CEO Travis Kalanick. The story reports Kalanick saying that he’s “Steve Jobs-ing it,” referring to the Apple co-founder who was also pushed out as CEO of his company, but returned for a much more successful second run.
Kalanick may love Jobs, but he’s not following his idol’s path at all. Instead, given his current involvement, Kalanick should tell people that he’s “Schultz-ing it.” While Howard Schultz officially relinquished the CEO job at Starbucks in 2000 (under no pressure), and then returned to that role eight years later to “rescue” the languishing coffee company, he never really stepped that far away. Even though Schultz excluded himself from some meetings, he remained chairman and an everyday presence at Starbucks, not to mention the architect of the rapid expansion strategy that backfired on the company.
Schultz-ing it might feel essential to Kalanick in the short term. But he would be wise to instead follow Jobs’s actual path. Here are the steps Kalanick should take:
1. Go away
If you need to, curse over your shoulder as you depart. But to return, you first have to leave. Unlike Schultz, who relinquished the CEO role when he enjoyed a sterling reputation and Starbucks was clicking, Kalanick is perceived a big part of Uber’s problems. Consequently, his ongoing involvement is viewed as counter-productive meddling, and he needs to make a clean break.
This will be difficult for Kalanick, not only because of his obsession with the details of Uber, but even more so because he remains on the board and controls the majority of voting shares. But Kalanick will never be truly “invited” back if he doesn’t distance himself, and allow the incoming CEO to truly run things. If he stays entangled, Kalanick will be viewed simply as an impediment to the new management team and a part of any future failings.
Kalanick should also understand that his involvement will continue to be heavily scrutinized. Unlike Schultz, whose shadow managing went largely undetected, Kalanick lives in the tech world fishbowl and his every interaction will quickly leak, given all the recent and impending unhappy departures at Uber.
So Kalanick would be wise to take several months leave as he had originally planned, before returning to function simply as a regular board member, focused on governance and not operational management.
2. Fill your biggest gaps
Jobs did not mellow while he was away from Apple. But he did become a much more strategic businessman, a skill that was perceived as missing in his initial tenure.
Kalanick’s flaws are now better known than those of any other business leader not currently occupying the White House. The sound bite summary of his deficiencies is that his hyper-aggressiveness was essential to the startup but is now toxic for a $70 billion global company.
Kalanick must now give genuine thought to how much he wants to learn from his specific failings. He also must be honest with himself about how much he actually can change his fundamental personality. To pretend to become a Zen master would be inauthentic. Learning how to channel his intense drive into better leadership behaviors, on the other hand, would be far more credible.
3. Succeed at something else
One of the big reasons Jobs was invited back to Apple was that his success with Pixar reminded people of his early magic. Kalanick’s success doesn’t need to happen in tech or even business, as victory in the philanthropic or societal realm would be even more impressive.
4. Be patient
Just as it was with Jobs, Uber will not ask Kalanick back—even a reformed Kalanick 2.0—unless things get really desperate.
Yes, the problems at Starbucks were not that bad when Schultz returned. But Schultz simply couldn’t endure seeing his company sputter, and his position as a highly influential board chair allowed him to basically ask himself back. Kalanick does not enjoy that same influence at Uber, at least right now.
For Kalanick to return, his successor must ultimately become mired in quicksand, similar to John Sculley’s struggles at the Jobs-less Apple. Given Uber’s current challenges, the potential of such a dire fate is strong. The incoming CEO will likely make some initial changes that will improve Uber’s profitability and relationships around the world, but ultimately the potential for cratering is high.
Even so, Kalanick must begin resisting his urges to rescue his baby too early, and instead wait for a genuine invitation.
5. Bring the future, not the past
If invited back, Kalanick will need to hit the ground immediately with a clear plan, something Jobs and Schultz each did on their early days after returning. Kalanick will have a very short window to prove that he’s bringing back the boldness, but without the toxins. His plan must not simply revert to his old approach, but must actually move forward with a clear-eyed strategy, as if he were completely new to Uber.
Kalanick must decide if coming back as CEO would be actually be worth it. While the Apple analogue might seem especially dreamy to Kalanick, he should remember that the Jobs comeback story had plenty of dark, harrowing chapters that would have overwhelmed a less obsessive zealot.
In fact, he needs to remember that Kalanick-the-shareholder will be much wealthier if the need never arises for the return of Kalanick-the-CEO.
Paul Pendergrass is a communications advisor who writes about business and communication.