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Uber figures it out: Silicon Valley has a management problem

Commentary: Uber’s bad-boy culture puts a spotlight on how Silicon Valley needs to change.

For years we've heard that Silicon Valley has a diversity problem. You know, the message that says:

"We've got to encourage more girls, women and minorities to get STEM degrees."

Sound familiar? It's pretty much the standard talking point Silicon Valley leaders deliver when releasing diversity reports showing that women, African-Americans and Hispanics make up a small percentage of the tech workforce.

Over the past few years, tech's biggest companies -- including Apple, Facebook, Google and even Uber -- have been working to recruit a more diversified workforce and make their corporate cultures more open. But while they've been able to dream up faster chips, smarter smartphones and savvier services, they say it's been a really difficult challenge to find, promote and keep women and minorities.   

Well, good news! Thanks to Uber, the world's most valuable startup, tech has finally figured out what the problem actually is: a management problem.


Former Uber CEO Travis Kalanick shows how not to be a tech leader.

Tobias Hase / AFP/Getty Images

It's not a lack of women or minorities with STEM degrees that's hampering their efforts. It's people like now former Uber CEO Travis Kalanick: "leaders" who are unwilling or unable to build, inspire and manage diverse teams, and who instill corporate cultures that twist and break rules, encourage frat-boy behavior and create a fug of fear for anyone who doesn't fit in -- yet who expect a pass because they're promoting "innovation and disruption."

My fellow Silicon Valley watcher Farhad Manjoo says the blame extends well beyond leadership-challenged execs like Kalanick. It also falls on Silicon Valley's crowd of enablers -- financial backers, board members, advisers and consultants -- who turn a blind eye to bad behavior and empower lousy managers to keep doing dumb things.

TLDR: It's not a diversity or inclusion problem. It's a management problem.

And there's an easy fix: Get some new managers. That's what Uber's been doing over the past month, with more than 20 people shown the door as part of the company's investigation into sex discrimination and unprofessional business practices, led by former Attorney General Eric Holder.

Kalanick initially got his hand slapped. Last week, Uber said he was taking a leave of absence and that the company was searching for a COO to share leadership tasks with him. But five of Uber's biggest investors decided that wasn't enough. So earlier this week, they sent Kalanick a letter -- titled "Moving Uber Forward" -- demanding his immediate resignation.

Uber's board told The New York Times that Kalanick "always put Uber first" and his stepping down as CEO would give the 8-year-old startup "room to fully embrace this new chapter in Uber's history."

Now, I'd like to believe that those investors, reportedly led by famed venture capitalist Bill Gurley of Benchmark, pushed out Kalanick because they were appalled by the sexual harassment, lax ethics and unprofessional culture that Holder uncovered. Or that they were fed up with the wave after wave of scandals, including an intellectual property lawsuit brought by Google-parent Alphabet; battles with lawmakers around the world; and a DOJ investigation into a software tool called Greyball that Uber reportedly used to evade law enforcement.

But I suspect those took a backseat to the 70 billion other reasons for pushing Uber to clean up its act: namely, its nearly $70 billion valuation. Investors, hoping for a successful IPO one day, don't want management missteps to jeopardize the $14 billion they've poured into the company since 2009.

So take heart, all you tech companies out there grappling with the thorny issue of making your cultures more inclusive. Uber has shown the way. If your managers aren't delivering the results you want -- because after all, more-diverse companies do better financially, creatively and operationally -- then it's time to bring in new leaders.

Such an easy fix. Wonder why no one thought of it before?

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