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Uber’s CEO says ‘I need leadership help.’ What should it look like?

"I need leadership help," Uber CEO Travis Kalanick wrote in a post on the company's web site. (Danish Siddiqui/Reuters)

The first step to solving a problem is admitting you have one. And on Tuesday, Uber CEO Travis Kalanick did just that, making an unusually public call for help after a dashcam video of a heated exchange with one of his company's drivers went viral online.

"This is the first time I’ve been willing to admit that I need leadership help and I intend to get it," Kalanick wrote in a post on the company's web site to employees and titled "A profound apology."

"To say that I am ashamed is an extreme understatement," he wrote. "My job as your leader is to lead...and that starts with behaving in a way that makes us all proud."

Kalanick is a CEO with a pugnacious reputation. And the remarkably candid statement is a rare admission of vulnerability from the top of a booming start-up that has disrupted the transportation industry. Coming a little over a week after a female engineer made explosive allegations about a sexist culture at the company and a pair of early investors called on the company to fix the "toxic patterns" in its culture, Kalanick said he was ready to not only change, but also to mature: "It’s clear this video is a reflection of me—and the criticism we’ve received is a stark reminder that I must fundamentally change as a leader and grow up."

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What kind of help Kalanick intends to get is unclear. The company declined to comment on the statement, and did not immediately respond to emails with questions about the aid he was seeking or current practices. But management and corporate governance experts expect that the company would add some array of seasoned leadership coaching, veteran executives to round out Kalanick's team, new members to Uber's board -- or all of the above.

"He obviously feels there’s a gap somewhere and therefore, any one of these -- or all of them -- would probably be good steps to take," said David Yoffie, a professor at Harvard Business School who has studied technology companies. 

In whatever form help arrives, it will come at a critical time for the ride-hailing firm. Valued at some $70 billion and considered a hot IPO prospect, it has been buffeted by controversy after controversy in recent weeks, making the stakes for Kalanick high. A #DeleteUber social-media boycott of the ride-sharing app cropped up following President Trump’s travel ban after customers misperceived the company's actions as an effort to profit following the executive order.

Kalanick stepped down from President Trump's advisory council amid pressure from employees to push back on the administration's immigration policies. Following the bombshell post from former engineer Susan Fowler alleging a chaotic and sexist workplace, a New York Times follow-up story described the company as having a "Hobbesian environment" where an "aggressive, unrestrained" culture thrives.

Though Silicon Valley is famous for bringing in executives who serve as "adult supervision" in fast-growing startups, management experts say that for Kalanick, assistance is more likely to come in the form of a leadership coach or expanded help on the company's board. Kalanick's challenges, says Rob Enderle, a technology industry analyst, aren't about strategy or expertise on the company's core business. "It’s not that he doesn’t understand the business," he says of Kalanick. "He’s missing business fundamentals." 

The challenge will be finding the right advisers. Bringing in a respected, retired CEO who's managed a fast-growing tech business as an adviser is a likely answer. "It can't be an age peer" Enderle said. "It can't be someone who might step in and take their job."

Several mentioned someone like John Chambers, the former CEO of Cisco, and mourned the loss of Bill Campbell, the late, revered former Intuit CEO and late Apple board member who was known simply as "Coach" by many in Silicon Valley. "The Valley is in desperate need of more Bill Campbells," Yoffie said.

CEOs also have to be willing to accept the help.

"When you are seen as somebody who is damaged, you have to find religion" and make substantial changes, said Bob Sutton, a professor at Stanford University who wrote a widely read book on uncivil workplaces called "The No A--hole Rule." He believes Kalanick needs a coach and "he needs to find some humility."

The company could also add board members, leadership advisers say. Uber's board includes heavyweight names such as TPG Capital's David Bonderman and Benchmark general partner Bill Gurley. The Huffington Post founder Arianna Huffington, who has been involved in the company's internal investigation after Fowler's claims, is also a member; former Obama adviser David Plouffe and Didi Chuxing founder Cheng Wei have non-voting roles. But management experts say the board is missing a current or former tech CEO who has been in Kalanick's shoes running a disruptive, fast-growing Silicon Valley company. Investors, Yoffie says, "are good for many things, but they don't always provide that CEO to CEO discussion of 'I've been there -- think about this, try that.' "

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Freada Kapor Klein, a partner at Kapor Capital and an early investor in Uber who wrote a blistering open letter to the company after Fowler's allegations emerged, said in an interview that when it comes to diverse and inclusive cultures, "Uber has been pretty far behind in an industry that is far behind.”

Some tech companies are only beginning to adopt the tools and protocols that the rest of corporate America began to incorporate 15 years ago, and she hopes Uber's efforts to get help aren't one-off programs. "There's a history of wasting money looking for quick fixes and magic bullets and one-off solutions." She thinks adding more rigorous metrics could make a difference. "I think there is still room for somebody to get it right."

For Uber, it could take time. "Frankly, fixing the culture of a company is an extremely complex, long-term endeavor, and you usually want to do it with the goose that laid the golden egg," said Nicholas Donatiello, a management lecturer at Stanford University. "It is not unusual for fast-growing, entrepreneurial companies to find themselves with cultures that have been double-edged swords for them. The culture that may help a company get to the point where Uber is may not be the culture to take Uber forward." 

--with additional reporting from Elizabeth Dwoskin

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