You can draw a straight line from Uber's scandals to Kalanick. Uber's critics say he's directly responsible for creating the toxic cultural cesspool that's been generating all of these scandals. His win-at-all-costs mentality helped Uber cement its lead in the ride-sharing industry, but it's also turned Uber into an example of everything that's wrong with the tech industry.
But as Uber matured into a globe-spanning, $70 billion behemoth, stories of the company’s aggressive, macho culture ran up against evolving expectations for what is acceptable behavior in a tech industry finally grappling with sexism. Now, in the wake of a series of metastasizing scandals, a once unthinkable question is being asked: will Uber’s board fire Travis Kalanick?
Uber doesn't have any problems with its business. Despite the negative press, it continues to gain more users and expand its footprint in cities around the world. It's burning a ton of money, but it's winning. Uber's problem is entirely with its culture. Davey Albey at Wired writes that the only person who can save Uber from itself is Kalanick—and he can only do that by stepping down.
In that light, Kalanick’s commitment to bring on a new COO leaves Uber in an awkward position that doesn’t address the fundamental problem. It’s too small a public act to be an effective statement, and it carves out a position for someone to address operational issues that don’t exist. “Uber needs a complete turnaround and not merely a tweak,” says Sullivan. Only one person can turn things around at Uber. And his best chance of doing that comes when he steps aside.
Kalanick's supporters say he's the one who made Uber into what it is and he's the only one who can change its direction. Taking on the taxi industry and car giants was a gargantuan task. Kalanick is a good and capable CEO, he just needs a better leadership team to help correct Uber's direction and hiring a chief operating officer is a good first step in that direction.
“I think Uber is a really special company,” says the CEO of a finance-related tech platform. “Being able to grow it so fast and scale it so much was really hard, and people don’t appreciate that enough. On that level, I’d give Travis a lot of credit.” On the other hand, “Too much to me, it feels like the only leader at Uber is Travis. I don’t think that’s true, but that’s what it looks like to people. He does need a COO to help him run the day-to-day execution. I like how [Facebook CEO Mark] Zuckerberg has done it—he’s still in charge, it’s his vision, but it also feels like Sheryl Sandberg and the other great leaders around him are making the day-to-day happen. I’m not sure if that exists at Uber.”
If critics are right that Kalanick is completely responsible for Uber's culture, then that means Kalanick is the only person who can change the culture. No one else knows Uber better than him.
And a sports-tech CEO puts it this way: “Him stepping down would be the worst outcome, because the only person that could really change it is him. If they put in someone else, does that person really have the power to change the culture? I think that’s unlikely.”