As Uber president Jeff Jones quits, CEO Travis Kalanick ignores the toxic context

Photo: Travis Kalanick (Mike Windle/Getty Images for Vanity Fair)

The bad news at Uber keeps on coming. This weekend, its President of Ridesharing and second-in-command, Jeff Jones, quit after only six months. This was an opportunity for Uber’s founder and CEO, Travis Kalanick, to take responsibility for problems that contributed to this departure. He failed.

The context for the Jeff Jones departure

First, some background. Here’s what Kalanick said in a blog post as he hired Jones on August 30, 2016:

Jeff, your Uber is arriving now

I’m excited to announce that Jeff Jones, Chief Marketing Officer at Target, will be joining Uber as President, Ridesharing. Jeff will be responsible for Uber’s operations, marketing and customer support globally. . . .

As we move into the next phase at Uber, one in which we will build a global brand infused in every customer interaction, I cannot think of a better person to lead us on this journey than Jeff. He has a long track record of working with the best: he’s held leadership roles at the best creative agencies (Leo Burnett), consumer products companies (Coca-Cola) and retailers (Target and Gap).

We first met in February at TED immediately after my talk. Within minutes we were debating how Uber could improve its reputation. And since then we’ve discussed everything from profitability to brand love and how to differentiate our driver experience most effectively. It’s super clear to me that Jeff understands scale, operational excellence, innovation and storytelling—and that he’s up for learning and testing his limits. Most of all I love Jeff’s optimism about, and enthusiasm for, our mission.

Apparently, despite Kalanick’s earlier statement, the optimism of Jeff Jones did have some limits. Here’s his statement from this weekend on departing Uber less than six months after joining the company:

I joined Uber because of its Mission, and the challenge to build global capabilities that would help the company mature and thrive long-term.

It is now clear, however, that the beliefs and approach to leadership that have guided my career are inconsistent with what I saw and experienced at Uber, and I can no longer continue as president of the ride sharing business.

There are thousands of amazing people at the company, and I truly wish everyone well.

Let’s be clear about this. The number two executive at Uber, a respected manager who was previously the CMO of the huge retailer Target, now says his beliefs and approach are inconsistent with working at Uber. Executives who leave companies rarely shoot their way out of town, but this is close. Given Uber’s recent reputation issues, this statement demands a public response.

Kalanick doesn’t even acknowledge that this is unusual

Here’s Travis Kalanick’s email to staff on Jones quitting, with weasel words highlighted:

Team,

I wanted to let you know that Jeff Jones has decided to resign from Uber.

Jeff joined Uber in October 2016 from being CMO at retailer Target. In 6 months, he made an important impact on the company—from his focus on being driver obsessed to delivering our first brand reputation study, which will help set our course in the coming months and year.

After we announced our intention to hire a COO, Jeff came to the tough decision that he doesn’t see his future at Uber. It is unfortunate that this was announced through the press but I thought it was important to send all of you an email before providing comment publicly.

Rachel, Pierre and Mac will continue to lead the Global Ops teams, reporting to me until we have signed a COO. Troy Stevenson, who leads CommOps, and Shalin Amin who leads brand design will report to Rachel Holt. Ab Gupta will report to Andrew MacDonald.

Thanks,

Travis

The problem with short statement is what it doesn’t say:

  • It doesn’t address that six months is shockingly short for a hire about whom they previously said “I cannot think of a better person to lead us on this journey.”
  • It focuses on the accomplishments in those six months.The audience is not Jones, but the other employees. They want to know why Jones left, not how great he was during the short time he was there.
  • No one reading this cares about Kalanick’s need to send an email because “this was announced through the press.” They want to know why it happened, not why it made Kalanick have to send an email.
  • It doesn’t address the statement by Jones that his beliefs and approach to leadership are inconsistent with Uber’s. In other words, it ignores the 2,000-pound “Why” sitting in the middle of the table.
  • Uber’s reputation for being an asshole is now established through a series of poor, and very public, conflicts. This departure reinforces that reputation, and Kalanick’s note does nothing to indicate that he has learned or is addressing that reputation in the wake of Jones’ departure.

Put simply, Kalanick takes no responsibility for hiring a talented executive and then having the guy quickly and nastily quit. I wonder how long this conflict has been going on. (I was unable to find a photo of the two of them together anywhere on the Internet).

When you write, especially to employees, your audience reads your words in the context of a long and detailed relationship. If you ignore that context, you lose all credibility. That’s another tough lesson for Uber and Travis Kalanick.

One response to “As Uber president Jeff Jones quits, CEO Travis Kalanick ignores the toxic context

  1. Travis Kalanick is and always has been an asshole. At Red Swoosh he talked and behaved like a sexist asshole. From the earliest days, Uber has had the reputation of being an asshole company, full of sexist, macho, highly competitive assholes.

    So Jeff Jones must have known when he joined Uber that he was joining a bunch of sexist assholes led by an even more sexist asshole boss. He must have known that his “beliefs and approach to leadership” would be at odds with those of his boss and the majority of his peers and subordinates. It makes one wonder what his reasons for joining Uber under these circumstances were. One of those reasons might be that Jones’ career at Target had stalled and that he thought he’d do better at an asshole company where his natural charm and ability would swiftly carry him to the top. When that didn’t work and he was passed over for the COO position just opening up, he resigned, stabbing his boss in the back on the way out.

    Looked at from that point of view, Kalanick’s email begins to look like a cover-up. He is trying to cover up the error he made in hiring – with great fanfare – a highly respected manager who, almost from the word “Go”, proved disappointing at Uber. He’d hired a man whose reputation proved overblown and who simply didn’t have the ability and drive to proceed further in the company. So he wrote a nice farewell letter which covered up his error and damned Jeff Jones with faint praise.

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