When Uber recently hired former Orbitz CEO Barney Harford to be its new Chief Operating Officer, I swore at my laptop. The choice brought back memories of last August, when founder Travis Kalanick was replaced by Dara Khosrowshahi amid scandals, reports of a sexist culture and allegations of driver abuse. I grumbled about that hire, too.
To me, one of those jobs had to go to a woman. Nothing against Khosrowshahi, who’s super-qualified and seems like a wise, values-driven, self-aware leader. Or Harford, who by all accounts is a brilliant ops guy. But in the age of #metoo and Harvey Weinstein, with sexual harassment no longer being tolerated even in the Silicon Valley boys’ club, it seemed obvious that one of Uber’s new leaders should be an Ovarian-American. When the announcement of a new Uber COO broke, I dared to hope.
But I was wrong. Uber’s board made the right call for the company’s brand and culture. Hiring a woman as CEO would’ve been the PC thing to do, but it would have backfired and sent the wrong message. Here are 3 savvy leadership lessons you should take away from Uber’s gutsy, counterintuitive hires:
1. People respect tough calls, but not pandering.
Hiring Khosrowshahi took courage, and the overall response was respect. If Uber had brought in a woman to fill Kalanick’s shoes–no matter how accomplished–she would’ve been delegitimized instantly. Everybody from Wall Street to Sand Hill Road would’ve dismissed the choice as a transparent attempt to roll female customers while convincing the press call to off their dogs. Could a woman step into today’s bromantic Uber culture and take the company to the next level? You bet your app. But the woman who does it should earn the gig on merit. She shouldn’t be a diversity hire.
2. Leaders hold the people responsible for a problem accountable for fixing it.
So far, Khosrowshahi has made a terrific impression. He’s said all the right things, is politically progressive, and Expedia (which he ran before coming to Uber) has no gender pay gap. Awesome. But it’s the fact that he’s a man that’s critical to Uber’s survival. Why? Because if Khosrowshahi can instill a healthy, inclusive culture in the company, the world will hail it as a genuine, permanent change of heart that Uber’s dude-dominated workforce supports.
If a female CEO did the same thing, many would condemn it as a coerced, hypocritical PR stunt and insist that the company’s enlightened ways would evaporate as soon as a male chief executive took the wheel again. And they might be right.
Men made Uber a mess. For the brand to remain credible, men have to clean it up. The cleaning lady should not pick up after them.
3. Leading means giving the public a mea culpa from time to time.
After defying the calls to pick a woman CEO, people were sure the long-rumored COO job would be filled by a female. Mashable, Business Insider, Huffington Post and others had been making their pitch for a woman COO since March. So Uber took some heat for Harford. Or, as The Verge put it, “Ex-Orbitz CEO Barney Harford, a white man, named to position that once was supposed to go to a woman.” That stings.
But it’s okay. There comes a time when a brand that’s done wrong has to stop making excuses, step up and take its tongue lashing without complaint. To its credit, Uber’s leaders have done that. Now if the company chooses a woman to fill its next senior executive opening, nobody can claim she was hired for anything but her exceptional qualifications.
Uber, the next move is yours.