When Replacing Travis, Don't Fight the Last War

The board made its move. Travis is out.

The job openings at Uber now include CEO, among the many other c-suite openings. Power, in all walks of life, shifts constantly based on a host of tangible and intangible factors, so a change in leadership at Uber after eight years of operation and after eight months of public turmoil probably isn't that shocking.

But just as the worst generals are those still fighting the last war, if the Board's criteria for a new CEO mainly revolves around finding someone to compensate for Travis' shortcomings, last night's coup will end up doing far more harm than good.

The inclination of Uber's board's will be to pick someone who will be well received by the media and by Uber's critics - someone who can successfully hire a seasoned management team, implement the recommendations of the Holder report, and take the company public. That's all necessary. But it's not enough.

Replacing Travis with a slow and steady bureaucrat would be a major mistake. The new CEO has to both credibly walk in with public trust and be able to match Travis' pace of innovation, expansion and growth.

Think about what Uber has accomplished in just eight years:

  • Created an entirely new, better model for taxis and transportation worldwide
  • Allowed people to get a car to take them wherever they want to go just by pushing a button
  • Allowed millions of people across the world to use their own cars to make money
  • Made dangerous cities, especially outside the U.S., dramatically safer to navigate
  • Created a culture where drivers and riders are far more inherently polite because they're rating each other
  • Gave people a compelling reason to leave their cars at home and not drink and drive

Yes, the culture at Uber is a mess. Yes, all of the Holder recommendations are needed. Yes, seasoned leadership at the top is needed. That's all undeniable. But playing it smart does not just mean playing it safe.

For Uber to be what its investors bought into, the new CEO has to not only be able to lead the company into the next set of ideas and innovations that you and I can't even imagine, but to see that world now.

The first time I met Travis - back in 2011 - he told me about a world where no one will own a car, all cars will drive themselves, and you'll get a car at the push of a button. He saw that - and then he did more than anyone else in the world to make that happen.

The next CEO of Uber - whoever she or he is - has to have that kind of vision. They can't just be someone who'd easily make partner at a law firm.

I've been holding equity in Uber for well over six years. Of course I want liquidity. Every investor does. But I know why I believed in Uber then and I still know that Uber is only Uber if it remains the company that sees the future of transportation before anyone else.

None of that involves going through the motions, checking the boxes or playing it safe. There's no reason Uber - or any company - can't have an inclusive, tolerant, generous, transparent culture and still innovate like crazy and keep changing the world.

But just as generals tend to focus on correcting their mistakes from the last battle, if the Board is mainly playing to win a few press cycles and pick a CEO that no one finds objectionable, they're going to lose the war.

The board took on a massive responsibility last night - replacing Travis Kalanick. Innovation and responsibility are not mutually exclusive - on either end. Don't just play it safe. Remember what got us this far. And get it right.

Published in Inc.

Bradley Tusk