Why Uber Was Right Not to Hire a Female CEO
After a lengthy search, Uber has finally landed on a new CEO: former Expedia (EXPE) CEO Dara Khosrowshahi. In his first week, he faces a handful of corporate nightmares, ranging from infighting board members to a lawsuit from Alphabet, Inc. over driverless cars to suspicions from foreign regulators about Uber’s business practices. He also inherits the fallout from months of negative headlines and the company’s ailing corporate culture—begging the head-scratching question: Why would anyone want that job?
According to many sources, Uber’s search for a new chief was narrowed down to three top candidates, including HP (HPE) CEO Meg Whitman, former General Electric (GE) head Jeff Immelt, and Khosorowshahi. Many of us hoped Uber would select a woman CEO to lead the beleaguered organization out of scandal. On the surface, hiring a woman seemed like the obvious strategy for replacing Uber’s former head bro in charge, Travis Kalanick. The public might have perceived the appointment of a female leader at Uber as a giant leap forward for the organization, which is still reeling from the side effects of intense sexual harassment investigations, sketchy global business practices, unhappy drivers, discrimination within the company ranks, and sexist behavior within its board. But Uber’s new CEO is a man.
While Khosrowshahi does little to improve perceptions of gender inclusiveness at Uber, he does add a new perspective to the company’s leadership, which is an imperative for Uber to rescue its brand. Hiring a woman for Uber’s top job could have made the company telegraph an enlightened and transformed brand image, but such a move could have just as easily backfired by appearing insincere and banal. Uber didn’t need to add one more potential scandal to an already lengthy list. Khosrowshahi’s appointment appears to be a compromise from a deeply divided board, but he’s likely the best candidate to extinguish the raging dumpster fire at Uber.
An Iranian immigrant who faced significant discrimination throughout his life, Khosrowshahi has an impressive resume. During the past 30 years, he’s been an investment banker, CEO, and CFO. He has lots of tricks up his sleeve, and he’s going to need them all to help the company overcome its business challenges and repair its brand. When Khosrowshahi became CEO of Expedia in 2005, he took big risks to patiently rebuild the company’s entire business model from the ground-up, shifting from the “merchant” practice of reselling hotel rooms, to an “agency” model, in which Expedia actually gets paid on commission for connecting guests with rooms via the site. His patience in identifying and repairing problems at their root could be helpful for Uber as it rebuilds.
Khosrowshahi is also credited with having a calm and collected demeanor and deep connections within the tech industry—both potential leadership assets for a recovering Uber. The new CEO has a long punch list that includes filling up the executive ranks, fending off regulators and lawsuits, mending relationships with drivers, managing an unruly board of directors, and ultimately turning a profit. But perhaps his greatest assignment will be to repair the broken corporate culture that seems to be at the core of all Uber’s troubles. If Uber’s current brand were a person, it’d be that obnoxious, smart-alecky teenager who walks across your flower beds, flipping you the bird at you when you tell him to stay off your lawn. For Uber to compete effectively on a global stage and grow into its potential as a company with an estimated $70 billion valuation and a keen desire to go public, it needs to grow up fast.
Corporate culture is indelibly linked to an organization’s brand. A brand is the relationship and experience a company creates for everyone with whom it interacts, at every touchpoint—in Uber’s case, that’s employees to drivers, drivers to riders, employees to employees, and so on—so you can’t have a brand without a culture. When your culture is in distress, so is your brand. It’s been well acknowledged that Uber has a sick corporate culture that’s persisted unchecked by leadership for many years.
Khosrowshahi, with everything he’s experienced, what he stands for, and what he can do, will help Uber exit its witless, mulish adolescence and develop into the mature young it needs to become. In addition to having a proven track record in leading companies through change, Khosrowshahi was one of the first executives to openly condemn President Trump’s January 2017 travel ban. He’s also a polished and disciplined adult—the perceptual antithesis to Kalanick’s “tech-bro” persona. While Khosrowshahi may have been the compromise candidate, here’s hoping he’s the complete package in a CEO to lead Uber out of its crises.
Deb Gabor is the author of Branding is Sex: Get Your Customers Laid and Sell the Hell Out of Anything, and founder of Sol Marketing.