IMD Professor Reacts
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Jeff Jones at Uber: What's the real story?

Professor Michael Watkins on the departure of Uber's president

When the going gets tough, do the not-so-tough get going? Such may be the case with Jeff Jones who, after just 6 months as President, has departed Uber. The reason, according to sources cited by Recode, is that “Jones determined that the situation at the company was more problematic than he realized.”

More problematic that he realized? Tougher than he expected? Wow, it’s hard to know where to begin, but let’s give it a shot. I see at least three possible explanations for this abrupt departure:

Explanation #1: Inadequate Due Diligence. A simple failure to do the necessary due diligence about the culture before taking the job is the most benign potential explanation for Jones’s move. Is it possible that he decided to join Uber without realizing that the company has a brass-knuckles culture? It happens, and, if so in this case, let’s hope he does a better job vetting his next role.

Explanation #2: Opportunism and/or Risk-aversion. Faced with increasing bad press, and a much more difficult path to success, did Jones opt to jump from the ship rather than try to salvage it? Many leaders would view the opportunity to turn a troubled Uber around as a golden one. Imagine being the leader who succeeded in creating the new-Uber. But was this not worth the risk for Jones? And why did he feel the need to stake out the moral high-ground in justifying his departure, saying, “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.”

Explanation #3 – Lack of Leadership. Finally, is it possible that Jones knew that he didn’t have what it takes to confront the tough issues at Uber? There are hints that some observers think this in the Recode article, “Jones’s decision to leave Uber likely won’t surprise people who worked with him at Target. ‘Jeff does not like conflict,’ a source previously told Recode.”

Can you imagine a leader who doesn't deal well with conflict? I can't.

Perhaps there is an alternative explanation for why Jones to decided to depart from Uber in the way he did. I’d like to think so, but I’m having a tough time coming up with one.

Michael D. Watkins is Professor of Leadership and Organizational Change at IMD. He co-directs Transition to Business Leadership (TBL), a program designed for experienced functional managers who either have recently transitioned or will soon transition into a business leadership position.

Michael Watkins

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