But though Uber’s troubles tended to trace back to Kalanick in some way, they also went beyond him: Last week, at the same meeting that it was announced that Kalanick would be going on a (then-temporary) leave, a different board member made a sexist comment that resulted in his own resignation soon after. “Uber has demonstrated that its problem is not only about a single figure—a reputational cancer that could have been cut away—but that the cancer has infected the rest of the body,” says Audra Diers-Lawson, a professor of public relations strategy at Leeds Beckett University. “Because the bad behaviors have extended beyond just the CEO, a new negative expectation is probably being formed and this is fundamentally damaging to the company.”
According to Diers-Lawson, Kalanick’s ouster was absolutely the right decision for the company, but it would have been better if it had done so when problems were nascent. “In 2015, the company had the opportunity to genuinely mitigate the damage of his influence on the corporate culture and the company’s reputation as the first wave of this crisis hit the public eye,” she said.
Uber certainly isn’t the only, or first, tech startup with the problem of a young, brash CEO who creates a unique and disruptive product, but cannot seem to make the leap to successful management. A New York Times article from April dubbed this phenomenon the “bro CEO,” citing examples such as Quirky, a gadget-pedaling platform that raised $185 million before being undone by the questionable behavior of its 20-something CEO and founder, and an HR startup called Zenefits, which was once valued at $4.5 billion but ousted its young male CEO amid both criticisms about the company’s frat-like culture and allegations that the company had engaged in cheating on licensing courses. While the company still exists, it is severely diminished and only a fraction of its former size.
But though CEO problems are somewhat common, Uber is a special case. The company, though it’s never actually turned a profit, is flush with investor cash and wildly popular. But beyond that, the timing of Uber’s drama hits right when the public and investors are more engaged than ever in a conversation about the role of corporate culture in the health of a company and the economy more widely. According to Kropp, in 2010, fewer than 40 percent of company earnings calls took the time to discuss issues such as talent or corporate culture; now that figure has climbed to more than 60 percent. That’s because more people today believe that culture is a critical factor in whether a company can attract the right employees and turn a profit.
Now that Kalanick’s gone, there are still some significant structural challenges for the company to overcome. First, there’s the question of what happens to the upper echelons of Uber’s management. The company has long been without a chief operating officer, a vacancy that many experts, and the Holder report, have suggested desperately needs to be filled. As Quartz reported, some tech startups have filled this role with someone who is all the things that the CEO is not. Facebook’s hiring of Sheryl Sandberg in 2008, for example, is widely seen as a brilliant and effective hire that complemented the company’s CEO Mark Zuckerberg, with Sandberg’s experience and corporate diplomacy tempering Zuckerberg’s relative inexperience and sometimes tough management style. But hiring for the COO role, particularly one who will work as a part of a management team, might be difficult without a CEO.