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Behind Uber’s messy CEO search is a divided boardroom


PHOTO: Eric Piermont/AFP/Getty Images

Things over at Uber Technologies Inc. remain insane. First, I reported Tuesday that Hewlett Packard Enterprise Co.’s Meg Whitman was a candidate for Uber’s vacant chief executive officer job. Then Thursday afternoon, I said General Electric Co.’s Jeffrey Immelt was also on the shortlist. By Thursday night, Whitman wrote on Twitter that she wouldn’t be Uber’s next CEO. “We have a lot of work still to do at HPE and I am not going anywhere,” she wrote.

Whitman’s tweetstorm was a disappointment to some people over at Uber. She put out her statement just as Uber’s board was starting its quarterly meeting. The company hopes to lock in a CEO by early September. The big question is whether the board can get on the same page. Getting a majority of the eight-person group to support a single candidate is looking to be difficult.

Even after the venture capital firm Benchmark helped orchestrate the ouster of former CEO Travis Kalanick, a feud has persisted. The situation does not seem sustainable. Swapping out Benchmark’s board seat with another partner—Bill Gurley for Matt Cohler—did not resolve the tension. The new CEO may need to push one side out of the company for his or her own sanity. Kalanick does not seem at peace with his own resignation. He wants to find a road back to Uber beyond just his board seat. Some of Kalanick’s strongest critics have argued to me that Kalanick would prefer a weak CEO just to increase his chance of making a comeback.

There’s also the looming question of whether SoftBank Group Corp. will cut a giant check for Uber shares. That deal, as Bloomberg first reported, could be a mix of primary and secondary investment. The SoftBank investment is being talked about like it could be the deal to end all deals. The investment could coincide with or precipitate a truce with Ola in India or Grab in Southeast Asia—together, the companies have raised billions from SoftBank. At the same time, the Japanese investment firm could buy shares from some of Uber’s unhappy early investors. Would Benchmark hand over its board seat to SoftBank’s Masayoshi Son if it could sell a sizeable sum of its stake? If founder-friendly Masa got a board seat, would he vote with Kalanick?

These are the questions people close to Uber are asking.

With Whitman’s decision to take herself out of contention, I don’t think that simply clears the way for Immelt. There are other candidates in the mix. We just don’t know who they are yet. Whitman seemed like a plausible option who had at least some serious supporters on Uber’s board.

At this point, after months of scandals, I think a lot of Uber employees are just ready for a live, human CEO to guide them out of the wilderness. The question is whether the board will be able to agree on one.

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