If anyone in this world deserves to be a CEO somewhere, it’s Facebook chief operating officer and Lean In author Sheryl Sandberg.
And if there’s one place that needs someone like Sandberg in the CEO job, it’s Uber. Big, bold, and troubled to a fault, it’s desperate for leadership, diversity, and the business skills needed to keep it ahead of the curve while it aims to repair its image as a deeply sexist workplace.
But Sandberg leading Uber would be the worst sort of leaning in. Why? Because women in CEO roles start at a disadvantage when they are brought in as nurses to rush to the aid of a sickly culture, or as babysitters meant to buttress a male founder who acts like an overgrown child.
Companies that do this can claim to have broken the glass ceiling, but that’s not the only mess the new female CEO will need to sweep up. As she works to get her new company back on track, she will be all the while marching right up to the edge of the proverbial glass cliff, until she is thrown over by an impatient board or by frustrated investors who don’t understand why she failed in her role.
It’s true that it’s not only women who get recruited for big turnaround jobs. If that were the case, there would be far more women running big companies today. But studies have shown that when the going gets tough, we are more inclined to seek a female savior than a male one—although strangely this only tends to hold true when the tough times occur under male leadership.
Women, meanwhile, are frequently more inclined to want to clean up messes—or at least are more inclined to be willing to do so.
There’s a fabulous passage in Mika Brzezinski’s book Knowing Your Value in which Elizabeth Warren, then overseeing the creation of the US Consumer Financial Protection Bureau and now a US senator, talks about a strange realization she had while serving as an associate dean at the University of Houston. It came over her when she had to find an instructor for the worst course at the worst time in the worst location—an assignment that she had reluctantly volunteered to take on in previous years when she’d been asked to fill it. Here’s what she found when it was her turn to find an instructor for it:
Warren says, “Every single woman could be leveraged into teaching the lousy course at the lousy time in the lousy room. Men would just say, ‘No. That’s not convenient for me.’ I thought, ‘This is astonishing!’”
I ask Warren, “It never crossed your mind to say no?”
“Never,” Warren says.
“Partly I felt lucky to be there; partly, I’m the cooperator, you know, let’s get the job done. Someone needs to do this. Someone needs to mop the floor. Okay, hand me the mop.”
Asked to mop up a mess as big as Uber is, a lot of women might feel lucky for the opportunity, especially considering that only 6% of CEOs in the Fortune 500 are female.
There would be plenty of other reasons to take on the job, some of which could yield big gains for women in the realm of business. Female executives are frequently criticized for lacking “the vision thing,” and Uber, for all its faults, remains an extremely visionary company. Succeeding here would help put to rest the persistent stereotype that women are better doers than thinkers. And if a company as big as Uber, in a sector as culturally influential as Silicon Valley, were to thrive under a female CEO who perhaps could find a way to build a better workplace for women (or even better, women and men), the corporate world as a whole would be much better off.
For Sandberg specifically, the top job at Uber would be nice recognition of the work she has put in as Mark Zuckerberg’s number two at Facebook. The pay would no doubt be great.
But as much as I’d hate to see a woman turn down a vacant CEO job at an important company in the global economy, I hope Sandberg holds out for something better—perhaps Disney, which is drawing up plans for an orderly CEO succession while its business is on an upswing. Or maybe Sandberg will someday start a company of her own.
It’s no surprise to hear that Uber wants her now. But the investors and board members who kept enabling Kalanick after his behavior overshadowed his brilliance might never have tolerated so much corporate rot if they were certain there wouldn’t be a woman around later on to clean up the mess.