From the start, Uber has been a bit of a “different” company. This disregard for convention has been what’s made the company stand out, but it’s also raised a lot of eyebrows and a decent amount of criticism. Uber CEO Travis Kalanick has recently announced that he shall no longer be serving as CEO, and in an unusual move, has neither mentioned a successor nor a return date. Rather, he said the company would be run by his direct reports, so he’ll still be involved in executive decision-making.
This raises the question of how long a company valued at more than $60 billion currently under investigation for harassment and discrimination will be able to operate without an active CEO. Nonetheless, it seemed essential that Kalanick step down from the position, since he was the symbolic centerpiece of a media storm against the company. Even if 2017 isn’t even half-way done, it’s shaping up to be a rough year for Uber. I wrote before about the backlash the company faced for breaking the strike set by the New York Taxi Workers Alliance in response to Trump’s travel ban. In February, former Uber engineer Susan J. Fowler wrote about what she called a “very strange year” working at the company, describing the prevalence of sexism, harassment, toxic politics, and high turnover, particularly among other women. The post went viral, and turned into a PR nightmare for Uber as other former employees spoke out about their negative experiences with the company.
While a headless company sounds pretty outrageous, and quite frankly is, it isn’t unprecedented. It’s not uncommon for CEOs to take a leave of absence, such as Oscar Munoz of United Airlines (although his temporary retirement was in 2015 because of a heart transplant). Ron Wainshal of Aircastle took time off in January to focus on his health. But these are both for medical reasons, and Kalanick seems to be in perfect physical condition, although his mother died last month in a boating accident. So in that regard, this is an unprecedented move. Kalanick will still be involved in the leadership behind the curtain, but it might not work. Kalanick is a major symbolic force behind Uber. Just look at the problems that Apple has dealt with following the death of Steve Jobs. Nonetheless, Kalanick’s move could benefit the company, and you can’t say that Uber hasn’t had foresight in their actions.