Uber CEO Travis Kalanick is going to correct his increasingly erratic management style and rescue the nearly $US70-billion value of his company by hiring a COO, Business Insider’s Biz Carson reported on Wednesday.
Biz points out that the uber-precedent for this move is Facebook bringing in Sheryl Sandberg, a Google veteran, to be the adult in the room and get Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg in shape to launch a billion-dollar IPO in 2012.
Since then, when a Silicon Valley tech CEO’s personality becomes a problem for investors who have sunk vast sums into a startup, bringing in a professional COO to get things on track has been called “getting a Sheryl Sandberg.” She was that good at making Facebook the juggernaut we know today.
So Kalanick and his probably very concerned company board are looking for their Sandberg. But one might suggest that they don’t need to look very far. Sandberg might not be aiming to leave Facebook, but you could argue that if it means saving Uber, for the good of Silicon Valley, she should.
Uber is Silicon Valley now, much as Facebook was Silicon Valley in the early 2010s. It was imperative that Facebook stage a successful IPO in 2012, and it’s increasingly important for Uber to provide investors with an exit at some point in the future. Kalanick doesn’t want to take the company public, but he won’t be able to keep it private forever, and after Snap’s IPO, the tech sector can again see, as it did with Facebook, that the good-old IPO route can be lucrative.
Uber must survive
Beyond how Uber pays off investors, it’s important that the company simply make it through any economic turbulence that’s ahead. Facebook survived the financial crisis, as did Tesla (IPO: 2010). Uber is so valuable and has upheld investment enthusiasm in Silicon Valley for so long now that it needs to remain viable.
The company and Kalanick’s behaviour has threatened that. Sure, Uber had a spectacular rollout of its self-driving technology in Pittsburgh, but it suffered an embarrassing retreat after its lawbreaking debut of the same tech in San Francisco. What’s more, Uber has been accused of fostering a sexist, discriminatory culture and just last week it was revealed that Kalanick personally lambasted a driver for complaining about price cuts.
It’s time for this to stop and for Kalanick, at 40, to grow up. Sandberg has already proved that she can guide an immature young man into a leadership role and help create a company with a market cap of nearly $US400 billion. She would have her work cut out for her: Zuckerberg was only 23 when Facebook went public, Kalanick may be more set in his bad ways.
But then again, Sandberg, who’s 47, wouldn’t take any guff. “Lean In,” Sandberg’s bestselling book about women and their careers, means LEAN IN — it’s as much as a philosophy of life as it is a way of advancing female ambition.
She’s also quite well off financially. Sandberg was rich when she joined Facebook, and she’s much richer now. This would grant her a crucial level of independence with Uber. As a member of the Disney board, she’s also seen one of the most polished of CEOs, Bob Iger, in action (in fact, she was once talked about as an Iger successor).
OK, so this one is sort of a long shot. Sandberg recently and tragically lost her husband, Dave Goldberg, who died last year. She’s among the top women leaders in tech — and really, just one of the top leaders, period. She has nothing to prove and is certainly entitled to simply live her life and raise her kids, having already helped to build two of the dominant companies in Silicon Valley.
Facebook and Uber are also very different operations. Google and Facebook at least had certain elements in common, which helped Sandberg to maximise her contribution to create a vibrant advertising business for Zuckerberg. And while Facebook was, early on, dorkily boyish, Uber is toxically fratty. But at a level, a business challenge is a business challenge, and both companies are undergirded by software and computer science. The core issue now for Uber is putting a responsible adult next to Kalanick — so much the better if the adult is an impressive and accomplished woman.
Besides, Uber needs her — and Silicon Valley urgently needs Uber to negotiate its latest crisis without having to take the extreme step of demanding that Kalanick, whose personality is fused with the company for better or worse, step down. It’s about time someone with powerful organizational experience and a hugely successful IPO under her belt made Kalanick get his act together.
Sandberg, who at one time worked for former Treasury Secretary Larry Summers, was once rumoured to be interested in entering politics. But that was before Donald Trump won the presidential election and the GOP took over Washington. So Sandberg, whose politics are aligned with Hillary Clinton, has far less of an incentive to do that these days.
The obvious question is “Would she even consider leaving Facebook to rescue some of Silicon Valley’s biggest investors?” That would be a tough one for Sandberg to answer. And Zuckerberg would I’m sure be dead-set against losing her. But then again, she could also spend a year or so shaping up Uber and return to Facebook.
Maybe she’s looking for another challenge, maybe she isn’t. But it shouldn’t be hard for Uber to figure out who Kalanick’s Sandberg, in a perfect world, would be.
This is an opinion column. The thoughts expressed are those of the author.