Travis Kalanick: Am hiring a COO to help me

Uber CEO Travis Kalanick just told his employees at an all-hands meeting this morning that the company is seeking a No. 2 executive to help him manage the troubled car-hailing company.

Kalanick formally announced the effort as part of a slide presentation about the company’s business at its San Francisco headquarters, said those present.

(Update: Uber released a statement by Kalanick saying what we just said above: "This morning I told the Uber team that we're actively looking for a Chief Operating Officer: a peer who can partner with me to write the next chapter in our journey.")

The move by the embattled Uber leader comes as Uber conducts a wide-ranging internal investigation into allegations of sexism and sexual harassment, as well as substantive management issues that have painted the company as a goat rodeo when it comes to its treatment of employees. Which is to say, very out of control.

Uber has officially hired a search firm — it was down to two finalists yesterday, and I will update when I hear which one has won the assignment. While a wide range of candidates are being considered, sources said Uber’s board would prefer a woman exec for the job, echoing Mark Zuckerberg’s move to bring in Google’s Sheryl Sandberg to Facebook in 2008 when the social network giant was facing rougher waters.

In comparison, though, Uber’s troubles today are more like a tsunami, which is likely to make it more difficult to attract a top name. Still, among the dream candidates of Kalanick: Former Disney COO Tom Staggs and CVS’ star exec Helena Foulkes.

In addition, Uber is also looking to fill the board seat vacated by Google exec David Drummond, and it is zeroing in on mostly women candidates.

Meanwhile, the investigation of the serious charges of sexism and sexual harassment, being conducted by Uber’s outside counsel and former Attorney General Eric Holder, continues. Holder reports weekly to a subcommittee of three board members: Arianna Huffington, TPG’s David Bonderman and Benchmark’s Bill Gurley. The last two directors have significant stakes in Uber.

Holder’s report is expected in six weeks or so, said sources, while Huffington and Uber HR head Liane Hornsey are working on a series of new practices and rules for the company related to employee management. That includes releasing a diversity report and also creating more clear ways staff can lodge complaints about a range of issues.

This is all a clean-up effort to help Uber recover from a series of hits of late, including an explosive blog post by a former engineer, Susan Fowler, who wrote about a company that operated like a bro-geek version of the Wild West. (I won’t go as far as calling it like HBO’s robot-violating “Westworld,” but you get the idea.)

The Fowler revelation was followed by the departures of two top execs, engineering head Amit Sighal and product head Ed Baker, after reports by Recode about their questionable behaviour related to women. There are other similar issues with execs that are being investigated now, said sources.

Kalanick definitely pulled the trigger on Singhal and sources said he also was not averse to Baker’s leaving, as evidenced by no laudatory CEO thanks-for-all-your-hard-work letter to the staff for him. Such new rectitude has been unusual for Kalanick, given how loyal and tolerant he has reportedly been to a range of what Huffington described as “brilliant jerks” at Uber.

No longer — including himself, apparently. Kalanick has been on an I’m-so-sorry tour of late internally; he was also was wounded by a video released last week of him arguing with an Uber driver and generally behaving like a corporate toddler.

Oh, and before that, Uber got into hot water when a viral social meme #deleteuber broke out over whether the company was trying to take advantage of protests over the Trump administration’s immigration ban at New York’s JFK airport. That was not so, but Uber got dinged by app deletions anyway and also again when Kalanick stepped down from Trump's business council in response to that. Many called him opportunistic rather than idealistic for doing so.

All in all, a bad few months for Uber. Kalanick now seems to know he has put his company and himself at risk, although multiple sources said his job is not in danger. That is largely because he and allies essentially control the board of Uber, so Kalanick is safe.

For now, that is, said one person close to the situation, unless more ugly revelations come out. “He knows he needs help,” said the source.

That will presumably come in the form of a new COO, as well as new advisers to coach him. While the legendary CEO-fixer Bill Campbell recently died, sources said that Kalanick wants to reach out to a number of other CEOs for guidance, including people like Workday CEO Aneel Bhusri.

This obviously begs the question of what to do about all the current confidantes of Kalanick, as well as other top execs. Emil Michael, Uber’s business head who got into trouble several years ago after making idiotic threats against a female reporter, is very close to him, as well as Uber founder and non-executive board chairman Garrett Camp and longtime Uber exec Ryan Graves.

Also in question is the status of Jeff Jones, a big hire from Target, who is now Uber’s president and oversees a lot of the company. He has become an important moderating force inside of late, but a new COO would obviously outrank him.

What’s important today is the concession by Kalanick, one of many of late. He has long resisted a No. 2 exec and has preferred to operate as the only top gun at the company.

Now, there will be a new sheriff in town. The question is: Who will be able to handle the old one?

The Information reported this weekend about Uber’s possible search for a COO, which Kalanick just unveiled publicly.


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