If Uber ran a want ad for its CEO vacancy, it might read something like this:
“Wanted: Mature and responsible corporate executive to take reins of undisciplined Silicon Valley company. Should enjoy challenges and rescue missions. Cannot be fazed by entrenched corporate culture. Must be comfortable working with government and regulators. Experience with customer-facing business and vocal online communities preferred. “
And if you were Meg Whitman, you might think it was written for you.
Whitman, the CEO of Hewlett Packard Enterprises (HPE) and former CEO of eBay, is reportedly among the embattled ride-sharing company’s choices to replace CEO Travis Kalanick, the Uber co-founder who stepped down last month under a cloud of controversy.
According to an HPE spokesman, Whitman has no plans on leaving, but if she did, here’s why she’d be perfect for the job:
More than anything, Uber needs to reassure employees and investors that it’s being professionally managed. Under Kalanick, the company grew at a feverish pace, but he encouraged a rule-flouting culture than turned ugly. Whitman is a seasoned professional who can put in place the structures and corporate culture Uber needs.
Whitman was CEO of eBay from 1998 to 2008, growing it from 30 to 15,000 employees. She turned a quirky online flea market into one of the giants of the first dot-com boom, while orchestrating acquisitions of PayPal and Skype.
When she went to Hewlett Packard, she took on a legendary tech brand struggling after scandal and mismanagement, and engineered a separation of its software and cloud-computing business from its printer sales. She understands technology, investors, and deal making, essential skills for Uber’s next chief.
Uber is embroiled in regulatory and legal battles around the world, and its next CEO needs to be as much a lobbyist as an executive. Whitman is deeply immersed in Republican politics, having served as co-chair of John McCain’s 2008 presidential campaign and mounting her own bid to be governor of California in 2010. Neither campaign was successful, but with Republicans now controlling the White House and Congress, she knows all the key players.
Most corporate recruiters won’t say it, but Uber’s image would benefit tremendously from a female CEO. (Whether a female CEO’s image would ultimately benefit from an association with Uber is another matter.) Uber earned a reputation for being hostile to women, damaging its brand among customers, staff, and prospective employees. Hiring a female CEO won’t automatically fix these problems, but it should help change the narrative surrounding the company, critical in a world where riders can easily delete Uber’s app and add a competitor’s. It’s no coincidence that Facebook’s Sheryl Sandberg and Alphabet’s Ruth Porat have also been floated as possible options to run Uber.
Of course, there are good reasons for Whitman to stay away. Joining Uber would mean lending her good name and reputation to an enterprise that may not deserve her help. She could also be be pushed off the glass cliff, a phenomenon where women are recruited to lead failing institutions, only to be fired when they don’t salvage them.
At 60, Whitman is young enough to take on one more major challenge, and old enough to go in with her eyes wide open. If the idea of rescuing Uber from the brink of implosion and turning it into a pillar of American business appeals to her, then she should embrace it.