Should the CEO Be Fired? That Depends

In the wake of multiple problems splashed across headlines worldwide, speculation has run rampant that Uber co-founder and CEO Travis Kalanick may be on his way out. Issues include claims of sexual harassment at the company, massive loss of users and even a widely circulated video of the billionaire getting in a fight with a driver over fares for black cars.

In an article on Mashable, 5 Ways to Save Uber From Itself, the number one suggestion to save the global company is to fire Kalanick. “If you cut off the head, the body can function … at least temporarily,” the writer claims. Other business analysts claim that while he was once the ride-sharing company’s biggest asset, he is now their biggest liability.

But is firing the CEO the best solution? I advise companies that the decision to fire a CEO is never a simple one and should not be done in haste. There are several factors to take into consideration. And firing a CEO can often set the company back, especially in a time of difficulty.

A recent article in Fast Company, “Why Uber Shouldn’t Fire Its Bad Boy CEO,” made the case that Uber may actually benefit from keeping Kalanick in the CEO’s chair.

The article references this article on the Harvard Business Review, “Holes at the Top: Why CEOs Firings Backfire,” which explains why CEOs are often swiftly shown the door when times are bad.

“When companies do well, their CEOs are showered with money, perks, and adulation. When they do poorly, they’re given the blame—and the boot.”

The writer, Margaret Wiersema, is a leader in corporate strategy and CEO replacement and succession. She studied all instances of CEO turnover for a period of two years and found most CEOs were replaced not by the board after careful thought and deliberation, but at the insistence of investors upset over returns.

She compared performance of the companies from two years before a dismissal to two years after, compared performance with industry averages and then compared the performance of companies whose CEOs had retired as opposed to those whose had been fired.

Wiersema came to the same conclusion that I have after decades of working with companies in turmoil. “Most companies perform no better – in terms of earnings or stock-price performance – after they dismiss their CEOs than they did in the years leading up to the dismissals. Worse, the organizational disruption created by rushed firings – particularly the bypassing of normal succession processes – can leave companies with deep and lasting scars. Far from being a silver bullet, the replacement of a CEO often amounts to little more than a self-inflicted wound.”

I’ve seen companies where CEOs were fired for far fewer infractions. For example, perhaps the CEO didn’t make the numbers for a year or two. The business was still profitable, but it was below expectations and not as profitable as projected. Those CEOs often get fired within 3-6 months, rarely leading to the increase in profits that was hoped for. As for Kalanick, while Uber may be in a public relations crisis, and thousands of users have protested conditions at the company by following the instructions on the social media hashtag #deleteuber, the company is still growing. The head of North American operations claimed growth during the first 10 weeks of 2017 was better than the first 10 weeks of 2016. So maybe he is here to stay. At least for now.

Firing a CEO is not an easy or simple decision and shouldn’t be rushed, especially if big changes are being made to turn a company around. Those changes can take time.

Ultimately, it’s up to the board of directors. They have to make the decision based on a number of factors. But more often than not, it pays to keep the CEO because he can be a part of the solution, even if he was originally perceived as part of the problem.

My book “How Not to Hire a Guy Like Me: Lessons Learned from CEOs’ Mistakes,” is now available as an ebook.

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