Ex-Uber boss Travis Kalanick is ‘Steve Jobs-ing’ the search for a new CEO

Travis Kalanick
Travis Kalanick, former CEO of Uber. Robert Schlesinger/DPA/PA Images

Uber’s search for a new CEO is full of Machiavellian drama.

The company’s ex-chief executive, Travis Kalanick, might have stepped down from the top position, but he’s angling for a glorious return, according to a report in Recode.

Kalanick reportedly told several people at the company that he was “Steve Jobs-ing it”, a reference to the late cofounder of Apple who was fired from the company, but later returned and turned it into the world’s most valuable firm.

Kalanick wasn’t fired, but he resigned last month after months of problems at the company, mostly related to its “bro” culture. The crisis blew up in February when former Uber employee Susan Fowler alleged persistent harassment and sexism at the company, and kept blowing up after a video emerged of Kalanick shouting at an Uber driver; an Uber executive was fired after he reportedly accessed the medical records of a victim who had been raped by an Uber driver in India; and the company used secret “Greyball” software to dodge city regulators.

Now the company is on the hunt for a new leader, and Kalanick is apparently meddling in the process and trying to ensure an ultimately favourable outcome for himself.

Uber is still whittling down candidates for the CEO role, and whoever takes the job will have to take Kalanick’s reported plotting in their stride. According to Recode, Kalanick is one of the most off-putting factors for anyone thinking about taking the job.

Recode spoke to three people contacted for the CEO job, all of whom cited Travis as one of Uber’s biggest continuing problems. “Man, he’s brilliant and so important, but who wants to deal with Travis?” one said.

According to the report, Kalanick has returned from a brief break away from Uber to try and take part in the company’s day-to-day operations. Uber’s had to reinforce a policy where all the company directors only get access to the same limited amount of information about its everyday operations. Part of the problem, according to some, is that Uber has been Kalanick’s “life” — and it’s been hard to let go.

Japanese tech giant SoftBank’s involved in the drama too

Japanese internet giant SoftBank is reportedly thinking about taking a multibillion dollar stake in Uber. And even that’s fraught with complications. According to the New York Times, Uber’s board is still considering whether the investment is a good idea. SoftBank has invested in a bunch of Uber’s direct competitors, after all.

But that’s not all. SoftBank’s involvement could further muddy the waters in terms of who’s in power. It’s possible that Kalanick would use the investment to dilute other shareholders’ power, and turn SoftBank chief executive Masayoshi Son into an ally who favours his return.

It’s unlikely we’ll see Kalanick return as CEO any time soon, since he just doesn’t have the backing of the board. But it looks like the drama will continue for a while yet.