New Uber CEO Dara Khosrowshahi (Drew Angerer, AFP)
San Francisco - Unity vs change. That’s the tension facing Uber chief executive officer Dara Khosrowshahi.
The incoming chief spoke at Uber’s San Francisco headquarters
Wednesday, with former CEO Travis Kalanick perched nearby. Board members
Arianna Huffington and Ryan Graves were also present. It was one happy
family. Selfies were taken.
During his remarks, which leaked - first as tweets, then in reports,
later as audio, and finally, on Uber’s own website - Khosrowshahi
described his conversations with various board members as part of the
CEO search. Khosrowshahi acknowledged what each of them brought to the
process, concluding: “I know there’s a lot of criticism around the
board. I love our board. They picked me, so, awesome, best board in the
world. Incredible judgment.”
Khosrowshahi gave Kalanick a hug during the meeting and playfully
teased him, saying they only spoke over FaceTime audio for fear that a
reporter was tapping the phone. Throughout, the message was clear:
That unity will be tested once Khosrowshahi starts work on Tuesday. For
one, what will Khosrowshahi do about Benchmark’s legal battle with
Kalanick? The situation de-escalated somewhat this week when the case
was sent to arbitration, hiding it from the public eye.
READ: Uber's Kalanick prevails in having Benchmark suit arbitrated
Still, it will
be difficult for Khosrowshahi to avoid weighing in on the ongoing feud
between two of the company’s board members. More important than
boardroom infighting, however, is the substance of their disagreement.
It’s a question of how bad things at Uber really got.
What, then, will Khosrowshahi do about Uber’s very own Chekhov’s gun?
That is, the private results of former US Attorney General Eric
Holder’s report on Uber’s culture. The company released Holder’s
recommendations, which were vanilla except in that they seemed to hint
that the company needed to do everything it could to minimise the power
of Kalanick, without actually prescribing his removal. (That, as you
know, happened anyway.)
The actual findings of the company-commissioned investigation, which
posed questions about everything from a visit to a karaoke bar in South
Korea to accusations made by former employee Susan Fowler, were never
The report went to Uber’s board and has been tightly held,
even within the company. Very few people have seen it. Uber has declined
to say whether Khosrowshahi has actually read the report.
The company hasn’t apologised for everything that went on or
acknowledged the extent of the problems outlined by Holder’s
investigators. I’m continuing to learn about things former Uber
employees relayed to Holder’s team, which have yet to become public.
“I am going to be totally transparent with you. I’m not going to
bullshit you,” Khosrowshahi told employees at the all-hands meeting.
“I’ll be absolutely honest with you and be completely straight and
authentic with you. Hopefully that will allow me to deserve the same
right back from you.” One gesture of transparency, anti-bullshitting or
whatever you want to call it would be to release the report to employees
and the public.
The company has not fully grappled with what went on there. Accounts
vary as to what else the report actually covers. Kalanick loyalists
argue there isn’t much left secret. If so, what’s the harm? Redact the
names and personally identifying information, and release the document.
If it’s worse than we’ve been led to believe, as Benchmark suggests it
is, then the first step to make amends is admitting where you’ve messed
You might say I’m being naïve here. What company would release
damaging information on its own? But there’s a very real risk that the
report comes out in one of the many court cases Uber is involved in. And
it’s the right thing to do.
Uber’s legal challenge is enormous. I can’t underline that enough.
Uber faces two Justice Department inquiries, one over Greyball and
another over potential foreign bribes. The self-driving car fight with
Waymo goes to court in October.
Uber is also facing a lawsuit over
Kalanick and others’ handling of an Indian rape case. Executives,
including Kalanick, questioned whether the rape took place, even after
the victim’s Uber driver had been convicted in court. Courtroom brawls
are bloody, and Kalanick will be at the center of it.
What is Khosrowshahi’s endgame with Kalanick? On the one hand, many
employees are loyal to the co-founder. After all, Kalanick’s smarts and
hustling turned Uber into a massive global business. He built the
company in his own image. Even if Khosrowshahi wanted to, how much can
one person change the culture at a company of more than 15 000?
Rejecting Kalanick wholesale would be difficult.
On the other hand, if Kalanick continues to be a central figure in
Uber’s many legal and ethical quagmires, at what point will the sins of
Khosrowshahi’s predecessor become their shared burden?
During Uber’s all-hands meeting Wednesday, Khosrowshahi quipped that
Matt Cohler, who represents Benchmark on the board, played “bad cop.”
Cohler asked Khosrowshahi if he would guarantee that he would still be
at Uber after six months. Khosrowshahi framed his reply in terms of
persistence and strength of character: “I'll show you my mettle.”
you have to wonder whether Cohler was really asking: What will you do
when you find out how bad it really is?
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