To say Hewlett Packard Enterprise CEO Meg Whitman has the board of Uber over a barrel now that former General Electric CEO Jeff Immelt pulled out of its highly dysfunctional CEO search effort this morning is perhaps too much.
Let’s just say that she’s driving the car, deciding on the route and not paying for the gas. This, even though she has not formally presented her vision to the board or even re-entered the process.
While sources close to the board insist that it remains a two-way CEO race — there is apparently another candidate who is still unnamed — others think Whitman is now in a pole position to extract a lot from Uber’s directors.
That’s even though she had publicly said she did not want the job two weeks ago in a tweet and in an interview. She had initially very much wanted the job and Uber was very much interested in her, especially because it has wanted to appoint a female CEO.
That’s due to the reports of widespread sexism and some sexual harassment under the leadership of ousted CEO Travis Kalanick, which was borne out by a recent investigation by the board.
Whitman was nervous about that, as well as the possibility of more undiscovered problems at the company. “It’s one thing to have hair, but this company is a hairball,” said a source, reflecting a common issue for everyone who has thought about making a bid for the CEO role at Uber.
After news of Whitman’s candidacy leaked out — here and elsewhere — the ensuing circus that resulted made her pull out of the running. Walking back her firm public statements about not being the Uber CEO will take superhuman PR work (good luck, Henry!).
While others have reported she is definitely accepting the job, the board has not voted to offer her the job as yet and she is still working out issues she has, said sources familiar with her thinking. She has communicated a number of changes at the car-hailing company that she would require to consider any offer lobbed her way.
That includes, most of all, an understanding that ousted Uber CEO and current board member Travis Kalanick will not be as deeply involved in the company as he has been. “His title is as ‘founder’ and that is what he needs to be,” said one person with knowledge of the situation. “That means he would be a great resource to any CEO and a helpful director, but not in any operational role.”
Whitman has much experience in this situation, having replaced eBay founder Pierre Omidyar when she took over there at the dawn of the internet age. But the soft-spoken and unfailingly dulcet Omidyar is not exactly like the face-like-a-fist, dukes-up Kalanick.
And, to be fair, it is not a small thing to fix since Kalanick has been meddling in the company’s business, according to numerous sources internally, since he was ousted two months ago by a group of shareholders. So much so that a group of top execs prepared a formal letter to the board to ask that his role be circumscribed.
Immelt had been Kalanick’s choice, said sources, and he had been willing to allow more involvement by Kalanick in Uber’s business.
Other sources said that they expect Whitman to tap into Kalanick’s expertise quite a bit too, and that she is likely to try to form a closer relationship. Whitman considers Kalanick a deeply talented visionary, although also thinks he needs to learn to be a better manager.
“To Meg, Travis is both a challenge and full of promise,” said one person familiar with Whitman’s thinking. “She’d be dumb not to work with someone whom a lot of employees still revere.”
Whitman is very familiar with Kalanick and the company as an early investor. Earlier this year, she had spent a lot of time with Kalanick and other execs trying to help them right the wobbly ship.
“She likes Travis,” said another source. “But she is appropriately wary of the mess that has been created and who is responsible.”
In that vein, also of concern to Whitman is the crazy dynamics of its board, a legitimate worry to have.
Most problematically, Kalanick and Uber’s major investor Benchmark have been embroiled in an increasingly ugly public legal battle, initiated by the Silicon Valley venture firm, which has put the other board members in the crossfire and often at cross-purposes.
Whitman wants to end all that too, by rejiggering the board and more strictly limiting its role in the operations of the business. At any other company except Uber, this is the typical way boards operate, but its board has become a corporate version of the Kardashians on a really bad day.
In addition, Whitman wants wide latitude to appoint management and rethink the structure of the business, which is also a common desire of execs taking over troubled companies.
Money, of course, is no object — Whitman is very wealthy already, although she would be in line to garner billions more if she successfully got Uber to an IPO. Her political ambitions have been muted of late — she unsuccessfully ran for governor of California as a Republican and has been on a lot of short lists for vice president. But her vehement opposition to President Donald Trump during the campaign — stronger than pretty much any tech exec — got a lot of positive notice among those not happy with the current administration.
A successful stint at Uber could certainly help those prospects a lot, which is why it will be interesting to see what Whitman does today. The Uber board was scheduled to vote today, but that might be delayed as it negotiates with her.
Given she is a public company CEO, any announcement about her probably has to be done by tomorrow morning when the markets open, so get ready for more later today or early Monday.
Like I said, Whitman is certainly driving the process now, but not for long. The question is: Does she want to?
This article originally appeared on Recode.net.