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Uber Taps Harvard Business School's Frances Frei To Turn Company In Right Direction06:01
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Frances Frei (Courtesy of Uber)MoreCloseclosemore
Frances Frei (Courtesy of Uber)

It's been about six months since Frances Frei was hired by the notorious ride-hailing company Uber to fix its corporate culture. Her official title is senior vice president of leadership and strategy, which means she's responsible for trying to change the culture in an organization that's been rocked by scandals.

To put it mildly, Uber has had a rough year: The company's founder and CEO Travis Kalanick was forced to resign after pressure from top investors; allegations of sexual harassment spread after a former female engineer wrote a blog post about her experiences; and a previously undisclosed data breach was reported -- meaning that millions of people had their personal information stolen, and Uber kept the hack a secret.

Frei was recruited from Harvard Business School, where she's taken a leave of absence from her role as the senior associate dean for executive education. At HBS, Frei was involved in trying to give the MBA program a gender makeover; she's credited with helping the school become more inclusive of women.

BostonomiX caught up with Frei on one of her recent swings through Boston (yes, she still commutes weekly between Cambridge and California because of her family), and we asked her about lessons learned from HBS to Uber.

Uber A 'Hot Mess'

Frei admits her job is "hard." In fact, when she first signed up for the gig in June, she bluntly told the Harvard Gazette "it was a hot mess."

But that was part of the allure for her. She says she likes "surfacing problems."

"I like doing hard things," she said. "[And] I like doing things that uniquely require me." And Frei believes the problems at Uber uniquely required her. She's built a career off of changing organizational behavior and insists no company's culture is beyond repair.

At Uber, she said there were a few leaders who had let the "early days of the company's brashness against regulators" seep into the overall culture, but they're now gone from the company.

"When I got there ... morale was low," said Frei. "I heard from many many people that if they got into a car that was driven by an Uber driver, they wouldn't admit that they worked for Uber."

In essence, Uber was the pariah of Silicon Valley.

So, Frei decided to alter one small aspect of culture: She began wearing an Uber T-shirt every day --a simple gesture of pride.

"The cool thing is I'm seeing more people at the organization do it," Frei said. "It might be a silly artifact, but I actually think it's deeply meaningful because it means people are walking out in the world and wanting the world to know that they work at Uber."

The Frei Solution For Uber

Frei came up with three recommendations for Uber.

  • Recommendation No. 1 - Get the senior team to operate as a team:

According to Frei, the senior team had been interacting one-on-one with the former CEO Kalanick, but not collectively as a team.

"That might be great for speed but not so good for quality," she said. "I'm not even sure in the end it helped speed ... because you have a lot of do-overs."

Frei laughs and says cooperation probably seems like a minor issue, but it's helped Dara Khosrowshahi, the new CEO, dramatically — people no longer work in silos.

  • Recommendation No. 2 - Train effective managers:

In an attempt to clean up the mess at Uber, employees were asked to submit emails critiquing the culture. More than 3,000 emails were collected from staff, and according to Frei, almost every negative email involved a manager interaction.

She said the company had "severely undertrained managers."

"These folks had been promoted at such a fast rate because of the unprecedented growth and they weren't hiring from the outside," Frei said. "So, you'd get put into a place of manager for the first time, and then before you know it, you're managing managers, and then you're managing managers of managers."

Frei sees this as a fixable problem in a company that experienced a surreal level of hyper-growth. But, it's complicated because of Uber's size.

The company now has some 15,000 employees around the globe, and 3,000 of them are managers.

  • Recommendation No. 3 - Clarify strategy:

Frei said Kalanick, the company's old CEO, had a strategy in his head, but because there was hardly any coordination among the senior leadership team, that strategy was never clearly articulated to other people.

"You would watch all the discretionary decisions going on throughout the organization, and it's as if they're all beating to a slightly different strategic drummer," Frei said. "So, people were making slightly different trade-offs based on their local context as opposed to the context of the organization."

Frei is hoping Uber will develop a deeper understanding of its long-term strategy in 2018 — that's the goal.

HBS Lessons 

Trying to change the culture at Uber is an interesting case study, but for Frei, it's no comparison to a legacy institution like Harvard.

"Harvard was born before the country," Frei said. "I'm undaunted by changing anything ... I'm an operations professor, I've never seen a diagnosis for which we can't bring a prescription."

For years, Harvard Business School had seen an achievement and satisfaction gap between men and women.

"Men had higher grades and men had higher self-reported satisfaction," Frei said. "It had existed for so long that I think folks just had come to accept the rationales."

But Frei, who was in charge of the required curriculum, was unconvinced that this situation was permanent and unchangeable. She joined HBS administrators in making systematic changes - changes that she says meant that within one year essentially all the gender gaps among students had dissolved.

Subsequently, they focused on the faculty, which has been more of an uphill battle.

The most recent statistics show that 199 of the total HBS faculty are men, while 67 are women.

Women have historically not been promoted as quickly as men. And Frei said that raised an important question: are we making biased decisions, or are men more prepared than women?

"I am undaunted by either answer because I know how to solve either," she said. But, too often, Frei says, people assume the disparity is because of bias - it's uncomfortable to think otherwise -- and so they'll mandate unconscious bias training, but if bias is not really the root cause, then they'll waste a bunch of money and generally not get the results they wanted.

In her case at HBS, administrators discovered men were more prepared than women. On average, men received higher teacher ratings from students.

"It turns out if a woman came to HBS and taught well, she remained teaching well. Same for a man," Frei said. But the difference was that if a man came in and struggled, he got better. They noticed that if a woman was struggling, it seemed less likely that she would get better, and self-consciousness made them worse.

So, administrators decided that instead of making women watch videos of themselves teaching (as had been the norm to improve your teaching style), they would give women a quick debrief — essentially a coaching session. And Frei noticed that through these coaching interactions, women seemed to improve at the same rate as men.

Culture Shouldn't Be Homogeneous 

For Frei, culture isn't static. It can improve but also deteriorate at any company. And part of making sure it doesn't regress is about creating "inclusive diversity."

"Just having diverse people, usually lets us feel like it's victory, and it's not," Frei said. "We have to explicitly manage for the inclusivity."

So, for example, on the second day on the job at HBS, she changed the maternity leave policy.

"I had spoken for years to so many women who felt that when they got pregnant, it made them take a step back," she said. "And I saw so many women delay being pregnant 'til after tenure."

Frei insists it's uninteresting to focus on assimilation in the workplace — in other words, how men and women are the same.

"If you want diversity to work, it's not — take difference and try to homogenize it," she said, adding that many corporations coach people on how to fit in, which, in her opinion, is a bad idea that creates redundancies.

Culture shouldn't be homogeneous.

"If there is the Uber way, we're a little bit in trouble," she said.

This segment aired on December 21, 2017.

Asma Khalid Twitter Reporter
Asma Khalid formerly led WBUR's BostonomiX, a biz/tech team covering the innovation economy.

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