Frances Frei is a Professor of Technology and Operations Management at Harvard Business School. She is also the bestselling co-author of two books, Uncommon Service: How to Win by Putting Customers at the Core of Your Business and Unleashed: The Unapologetic Leader’s Guide to Empowering Everyone Around You.
In 2017 she joined Uber’s team as the first SVP of Leadership and Strategy to help the company navigate its public crisis in leadership and culture. She has a popular TED Talk titled How to Build (and Rebuild) Trust which has over 4 million views.
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Frances has always been interested in operations–how things work and how to make things work better. But being interested in operations has led her work to focus on leadership. As she shares, “I pretty quickly came to the conclusion that if it weren’t for the pesky humans, operations would work beautifully. And then I got super intrigued by the humans, and then realized that the humans were led. So then that took me to leadership aspects, but the technology and the operations have stayed strong. So most of the companies I’ve worked with have some, they’re either being disrupted by technology or they’re digitally native. But everything I do is around how to make people and organizations better.”
Leadership is about making other people better
In her book, Unleashed, Frances talks about one of the big assumptions that people have about leadership that is actually incorrect. For the last few decades, the focus has been on building leaders up and getting them to inspect themselves. When actually leaders should be focused outside of themselves–it should be about making other people better first. Leadership isn’t about you, it is about other people.
Leaders should walk into a room and not want everyone to be thinking about them as a leader, but the leader should be the one thinking of everyone else and how to set those people up for success.
The problem with Uber and how they fixed it
While teaching at Harvard Business School (HBS), one of Frances’ students approached her to convince Frances to have a conversation with Uber’s then CEO, Travis Kalanick. Due to several scandals and bad decisions the company was going through a very public crisis at the time in leadership and culture. After Frances and Travis talked for three days, Travis asked for her help and she officially joined the team in June of 2017.
She was prepared to stay until the job was done, and as she shares, they were able to turn things around much quicker than she had expected. At the core of what they did was a massive amount of executive education.
Frances shares the major underlying problem, “Of all the problems that were surfaced, well over 90% had to do with a person and their manager. There were 3000 managers at Uber. So there were either 3000 bad people, or Uber was doing something systematically to not set managers up for success. We very quickly found out that it was the latter. And here’s what was going on, I get hired as an individual contributor, and then the company was growing so fast that like, five minutes later, you got promoted to a manager. You didn’t have any training. And then five minutes after that, by the way, you became a manager of managers. Turns out that management is a skill, a skill that can be taught, but no one was teaching folks. So we had to teach people how to manage, like, how to give effective feedback, how to set goals, all of the basics, including then how to be inclusive. How to set people up for success. So that was one part, is that it was clear that managers were at the tip of the spear where the problems were, but it wasn’t their fault and education would solve it.”
From there Frances was able to get Uber and HBS to partner to create a training platform that was accessible to all 3000 managers across the world. Through this platform they gathered top experts in teams, globalization, leadership, etc…who then taught classes on things like how to build trust, how to set a team of people up for success, and how to design and shepherd a culture. This training continues on inside the company even to this day. And it has had a huge impact on how the company operates.
What to do when company values are weaponized
Frances works with other companies, as she did with Uber, to help fix broken cultures. When asked if there has been anything she has tried that failed, she brought up the topic of weaponized company values. What is a weaponized value, you may ask. Frances explains it as taking an internal value, which may sound like a wonderful thing, and using it in a negative way for your own personal benefit.
She gives the example of a value inside of Uber when she first arrived, which was Default to Trust. Now that sounds like a beautiful cultural value, basically saying let’s give each other the benefit of the doubt. But what was happening was senior leaders were taking that value and throwing it in the face of junior people who started questioning them. They used Default to Trust as, stop questioning and just do what you are told for their own selfish reasons.
The part that failed was that she thought the answer was to re-educate people and change the thought process behind the value that was twisted. But in those kinds of situations, Frances says, the only thing to do is get rid of the value altogether. Once a value has been weaponized there is no amount of re-education that can bring it back to the original intent. Let it go and come up with a new value.
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The three elements needed for successful change
In light of all of the challenging times we are facing around the world–including the global pandemic and the protests in America, Frances shared her advice to leaders on what to do in difficult times like these. There are a lot of CEOs and leaders around the world who are stepping forward and taking action for the better, but in order to make those changes sustainable there are three elements, Frances says, that have to be present. The three elements needed for successful change are:
- Honor the past–Talking about the past in a sincere and detailed way is important in any change whether inside of an organization or a society. You need to say, some of you will remember we did this before, here’s what happened. Here are some good things that came from that, and here are some lessons we learned. Don’t assign blame to individuals, share the good and the bad and the lessons learned. Then explain the changes being made and why they will make things better.
- A clear and compelling change mandate–This is the answer to the question “why now”? This is normally the hardest thing for a company to come up with, because if things are going well, it’s hard to get people to want to change. You have to be able, in a short and concise way show a super compelling reason why change is needed. You have to get people’s pulse up to get their entire heart and soul into the change.
- Have an optimistic way forward–The way forward has to give hope, but it also has to be extremely thorough and detailed. What specific steps need to be taken to get us to a better future?
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