Back in March, Uber CEO Travis Kalanick said "I need leadership help," issuing a call for assistance amid a crisis that included a viral video of him berating a driver and explosive accusations of a sexist workplace culture. The comment invited plenty of questions about what that could mean: A veteran tech executive to serve as the resident grown-up? A female chief operating officer along the lines of Facebook's Sheryl Sandberg? New board members?
Uber, which said Tuesday it had fired 20 employees after a harassment probe led by the law firm Perkins Coie and has been beset by a series of problems including an exodus of top executives in recent months, had an interesting answer to those questions this week. It said it's hiring a Harvard Business School professor to come aboard with the title "senior vice president of leadership and strategy."
Frances Frei, a widely respected management professor who was the senior associate dean at HBS for executive education, traded in a months-long consulting gig at Uber to go in-house. Frei, who helped lead a controversial initiative to deal with gender issues at HBS, will be charged with fixing Uber's leadership problems, which include gaping holes in a thinly staffed executive team, a culture that's been described as not only sexist, but unrestrained, and a CEO whose pugnacious style and reputation for pushing limits has raised questions about the company's ability to change with him at the helm.
Hiring an executive straight out of academics is not unheard of -- Harvard Business School professor Leonard Schlesinger served in operating roles at Au Bon Pain and L Brands, and another HBS alum, Gary Loveman, ran the casino company Caesar's Entertainment until it entered bankruptcy in 2015 -- and professors are known to get executive-level offers, even if they don't often take them. But recruiters said that while executive coaches are common, it's pretty rare for those who've spent their careers in academia, even if they have consulting experience, be hired in-house.
"This is actually a pretty conventional thing to do -- except the coach usually remains external and without the implied direct authority to act," said Steve Mader, a former managing director of the executive search firm Korn Ferry. He thinks Frei has potential to succeed, however: "All she needs are a few early casualties of battle and she'll have their attention."
For an HBS professor, Uber is likely to be the ultimate case study. Indeed, Frei said in an interview with The Washington Post, her colleagues have been sending her "many, many requests to be the first one to write it." We spoke with Frei about her mandate at Uber, how her experience at HBS could inform her steep challenge there, and whether she thinks the company can really change with Kalanick in the top job. The interview has been edited for space and clarity.
The company said yesterday that the actions as a result of the harassment probe would "give a strong message that these actions need to be taken seriously." Why was it important, from a culture change perspective, to communicate those firings publicly?
I think that the team had committed to be public about its actions. I do think it’s important to have accountability, internally and externally, and that’s what Liane [Hornsey, Uber’s head of human resources since January] has shown. Uber is very much in the public right now, and I do think that it’s important for us to reveal that we’re accountable, as opposed to simply saying that we’re accountable.
Do you expect there to be more firings?
The processes Liane has put in place are there for the long run. I hope that there is less and less and less need … but the organization now has strong and swift processes embedded in it. With certainty, we will not shy away from accountability.
Some people think that filling a position like yours is a way for a company to signal that they are doing something about an issue. Recode's Kara Swisher wrote “there is also a definite external and public relations element” to your hiring. How do you plan to make sure people don’t see it that way?
That’s a very fair question. The three things I’m going to work on are what I diagnosed as I was doing my due diligence. One is to have a super well-functioning leadership team. If we don’t, I didn’t do what I was brought here to do. [Another is] for us to educate managers on the act of leadership. I’m starting that next Thursday in San Francisco and the following week in Amsterdam. And then, for us to have a really coherent strategy that everyone understands. So I guess if those three things don’t happen, people would be able to make the argument you’re making. For me, personally, no one has ever thought I was P.R. before. I’m a very direct doer, and frankly not used to the public spotlight.
Do you think the culture can really change as much as it needs to with Travis remaining at the helm?
This is an organization full, full, full of earnest, smart people who want to change the world and want to be part of an organization that’s world-class. So we’re going to provide the ability for them to do it. The culture is a reflection of the founder and the CEO. And in my time that I’ve spent with Travis, I hold him in very high esteem. The culture needs to live beyond one person. It really needs to be a reflection of the leadership team. So absolutely, yes, will we see a cultural change that Liane has begun.
But with Travis at the top, given what kind of culture existed under his leadership?
Emphatically yes. Emphatically yes, we will have a culture that we’re all proud of with Travis as the CEO. I don’t mean to be over-stepping my bounds there. The organization has been too reliant on the CEO as an individual for an organization this size. It absolutely needs a leadership team. We have a collection of individuals that has not worked as a team. And that’s what I’m putting my first attention to. As soon as we have that, that will unburden Travis from having to be as deeply involved in things that he has and free him up to be a founder-CEO.
What did you think of [board member] Arianna Huffington’s statement in March that [sexual harassment] is not a systemic issue, but that Uber had some “some bad apples"? Do you agree?
Sexual harassment is a horrific, horrific thing. No organization wants it to occur. I definitely don’t want it to occur in our organization. And one act is an act too many.
I think our obligation is to create the conditions for it to be rooted out and addressed immediately. If you ask me 'do we have the ability to do that?' One hundred percent. We have Liane. We have me. Travis has given us full license to do it. With certainty, we want to be held accountable for it.
Do you think the underlying nature of the culture at Uber created an environment where these cases happened, and is that a systemic issue that has to be resolved?
It’s a fair question. By my being here so new, I can’t say. I can give you a parallel. On every university campus on the planet this is being grappled with today: How to create the conditions so that our daughters — and frankly, our sons — are not subject to this in any way, shape or form. In my experience there are two things that happen. We create the conditions for good people to behave badly, or we create the conditions for bad people to thrive. We have to quarantine the bad people, and we have to set the conditions for good people to not go near that facet of themselves. That’s what we’ve been doing at Harvard. That’s what every campus is working on.
While my history with this particular organization isn’t deep, I won’t be surprised if that's the same diagnosis. We might not have historically set the conditions in the absolute way we wanted to, and we are absolutely committing to do it right now.
What did you learn in your gender initiative at HBS that can be applied at Uber? How do you get past resistant employees who may be like the students at Harvard, who the Times reported wore “unapologetic” T-shirts in response to what they saw as “intrusive social engineering”?
By addressing the center, not the holdouts. At HBS we had a clear achievement gap and satisfaction gap between men and women. That is, men had higher grades and higher self-reported satisfaction. And as soon as we realized that and it was on our watch we were piloting things and trying things until we found what works. I think any time folks undergo significant change it’s impossible to get permission from 100 percent of the people involved. If we’re going to lead significant change efforts, it’s our obligation to learn what’s in the best interest of the organization, and then to be pretty fearless in doing it and realize that some people are not going to offer their permission.
I love the word 'unapologetic,' by the way.
There’s been a lot of speculation about what kind of person would work well with Travis in the COO job — a veteran hand, a female executive, or someone who fits the Silicon Valley “grown-up” archetype? What kind of person do you see working well in that job?
The COO is not coming in to pair with Travis. The COO is coming in to fill out a very, very crucial part of a scaling organization that is operating in so many different nations. We have a rare opportunity in that we’re bringing in a COO, a CFO, a day-to-day legal executive. Not only do we get to bring in great people in their own right, we get to bring them in as a set of complementary folks. But to be clear, each and every one us that gets brought in, we’re here to be of service to the organization. We’re not here to simply pair with Travis.
What are some of the specific management practices or organizational tools that you think Uber needs most to improve?
Here are things a world-class organization with a $70 billion valuation usually has: Super strong leadership training. An absolutely well-integrated senior team that is responsible for the entire organization collectively and serves as a role model for how teams should behave. A coherent strategy, so that if you stop anyone in the hall they can tell you what it is, and it will guide their discretionary behavior.
Through no individual’s fault, and likely as a manifestation of pretty startling growth, I would say those three things are conspicuously absent in June 2017. We will address them. The clarity with which their absence is now conspicuous — it’s all there. And now, it’s on our watch.
Can you think of a case where a troubled tech startup was able to reset the culture successfully? It's hard to think of a startup that's growing this fast and that's already this big that was actually able to do that. Are there any models out there for you?
One of the reasons I’m so interested in this organization is the context is quite novel. I think the challenges aren’t novel, but the context is. Cultural change? Of course we have lots of case studies. Rapid growth? Of course we do. But I do think this is a novel context, in that there is not an easy parallel in any company or industry that I’m aware of. That’s kind of cool.
Look at how fast we’ve grown. Look at how many countries we’re in. Look at how novel the regulatory context is. Look at the rate of investment in the competitors … I can’t see a replica anywhere else. But we can certainly learn lots of lessons from the experiences of others and then knit them together for ourselves.