Uber Says it’s Time to Stop Tolerating Brilliant Jerks

How much are you willing to put up with from a talented employee? That’s a question that, as a manager, you’re bound to face sooner or later. It’s a question the Uber board of directors is faced with right now.

Arianna Huffington, an Uber director, is leading a search for a new executive to serve under cofounder and CEO Travis Kalanick. In explaining the reason for the search, Huffington stated there was no room for “brilliant jerks” at Uber.
That’s quite a statement from a board member of a company that many believe is being led by exactly that. According to a 2014 article in Business Insider written by Alyson Shontell, “a word that came up again and again in interviews” when describing Kalanick was “asshole.” Another quote from the same story, “Sometimes assholes create great businesses.”
So Uber has a problem. The company garnered significant negative press after a former engineer blogged about systemic sexual harassment at the company. And while the company was purportedly looking into the allegations, a video of Kalanick was released showing the CEO in a heated exchange with an Uber driver who was questioning the company’s approach to paying drivers. The video didn’t reflect too well on the company’s CEO. After the video came to light, Kalanick admitted he needed to “grow up.”
Here’s the problem: Kalanick is an aggressive but successful entrepreneur. Uber, launched in 2009, has grown to more than $5 billion in revenue in just a few years. And despite the fact that the company lost more than $2 billion last year, it’s still valued by some at $70 billion. Yes, that’s billion with a “b.” As an investor in Uber, would you be ready to rid yourself of the CEO who led this meteoric rise?
So when Huffington says there is no room for “brilliant jerks” at Uber, does that include the CEO? Will the Uber board really put its money where its mouth is? Should it?
Every company serves multiple constituents, and all are important. In every business decision, customers, employees, investors, vendors, and the public must be considered. And what’s good for one may not be good for another. Balancing the wants and needs of each constituency can be immensely tricky.
On one hand, you have a bright and aggressive executive who is leading one of the most successful tech-enabled startups off all time. On the other, you have someone who is commonly considered an ass and has been in charge of the company while some very disturbing behavior has been alleged.
If you’re an investor, you have to like the value Kalanick has helped to create, but do you care about the cost at which it comes? As a customer, you might really like an often less-expensive alternative to a taxi, but you may object to how others are being treated to get that ride. If you’re an employee who has been subjected to the sexism and harassment described at the company, you likely aren’t a fan. But if you’re one of many who have stock options in the company, you might be willing to ignore some poor behavior in exchange for the value you’re going to receive. The drivers, who are contractors of the company, may also be a mixed bag. Some feel they’re being squeezed by the company, which has routinely reduced what it has paid them, while others are happy to have flexible employment in which they can control when and where they work.
You see, it may not seem apparent what to do with a “brilliant jerk.” Does the “brilliant” outweigh the “jerk”? It probably depends on whom you ask. But for me, I tend to agree with another CEO of a high-flying company, Netflix, when Reed Hastings said, “Do not tolerate brilliant jerks. The cost to teamwork is too high.”
I also believe the saying, “You are the company you keep.” That means I wouldn’t want to be an investor, employee, or vendor of Uber. Easy for me to say—I’m none of the above, but I am a customer. It’s time to rethink that.