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Uber Hires Harvard Business School's Frances Frei To Address Leadership Issues


One of the biggest companies on earth is basically a headless beast right now. We're talking about Uber on this week's All Tech Considered.


SHAPIRO: More than a dozen executives have left the ride-hailing company this year. One of the people brought in to fix this problem is Frances Frei. She's an associate dean at Harvard Business School, and now she's also Uber's senior vice president of leadership and strategy. Welcome to the program.

FRANCES FREI: Thank you so much for having me.

SHAPIRO: You're a business professor. Have you ever seen a company this large without a chief executive officer, a chief financial officer, a chief operating officer? I mean, this is a company valued at roughly $70 billion, and the executive tier is nearly empty.

FREI: So what you want me to say is unusual, and I will. It's unusual. I will say when you look back in a period of time, you will see that it will be a matter of months because the - it will have gone from the beginning of June to - and is it that unusual over a period of months - probably not. But yeah, this - listen; it's why everyone is working so diligently to do it. The cascading of events has been quite unusual.

SHAPIRO: As long as we have you here, would you like to make any news about who the CEO might be?

FREI: That's - that is really quite adorable of you.

SHAPIRO: (Laughter) We tried.

FREI: Yeah. No, it's good. I really - I reward you for trying.

SHAPIRO: (Laughter).

FREI: And Uber - like every other company in the world, the board hires the CEO. And they are doing a very good job of keeping it close to their vest on what they're doing.

SHAPIRO: It seems that the founder and former CEO, Travis Kalanick, does not want to entirely let go of this company that he created. Do you see a role for him in the future of Uber?

FREI: It will be entirely his decision. You know, he had stepped down before he - you know, to take some personal time. I believe he still needs that. And I think the company needs to move forward with a new CEO.

SHAPIRO: Do you think his understanding of what went wrong at the company and your understanding of what went wrong at the company are similar?

FREI: So my understanding of what went wrong - and I arrived in a full-time nature in June. So the interesting thing about the historical context of the company is it began getting public notice, you know, the severe public notice and the significant public notice in February with a blog. It's my understanding that everything that has come out since then happened before then, if that makes sense.

SHAPIRO: I just want to note the blog post you mentioned was by a former Uber employee who says she was sexually harassed.

FREI: Yes. And didn't just say that but had said, you know, her experiences were just horrible and pointed to many bad things, including sexual harassment, but also just severe, severe breakdowns in management processes.

SHAPIRO: When you say the bad things that we hear about all happened in the past, it suggests that there has been a wholesale culture change at Uber that I don't think...


SHAPIRO: ...We've seen.

FREI: No, no, no. So I'm really not trying to say that. What I'm saying is that - so when we heard in February about the blog report, we immediately took action and brought in the Holder organization to do...

SHAPIRO: This is Eric Holder, former attorney general. Yeah.

FREI: Yeah, who did quite an exhaustive - I'm going to call it excavation of the past as well, which is why, I think, everything is now surfaced. And it's not like they were waiting until June when the report was going to be done. They started addressing them. But I want to be super clear we have begun addressing, I think, all of it. But we are by no means done addressing any of it.

SHAPIRO: There is a sort of truism in Silicon Valley that investors have often told our reporters, that the way to build a startup is to find a genius and get out of his way. And that was the story of Travis Kalanick. And I wonder whether Uber proves the conventional wisdom wrong.

FREI: Oh, so here's the beautiful thing. There are two schools of thought. One is that once you have a culture, liquid cement is poured on it and you really can't move it very much. I don't subscribe to that school of thought. I subscribe to the school of thought that culture manifests from how we think. And how we think influences how we behave. And our culture needs to adapt to the internal and external shifts.

So if you look at all great companies, no chance they have the same culture that they had, you know, in a previous growth period or a previous regulatory environment. The beautiful thing about culture is it's a living, breathing organism. So of course a company needs a different culture at 15,000 people than it does at 3,000 people. Now, what I would say is we did not give enough attention as we were growing to things like culture. It is now on everyone's mind.

SHAPIRO: Having been involved with many different companies facing many different challenges, how does this compare to anything else you've seen in your career?

FREI: (Laughter) No, it's exact - it's the right question. And it's - you know, moving from Harvard was a very big deal. And I didn't think I ever would, quite honestly. But here's what I saw at Uber. Every one of the challenges, every single one, I had seen at another organization. And I'd seen another organization overcome it. So it's not that Uber has novel challenges, but the context is absolutely novel. The hypergrowth, the stage set where the CEO and the board dynamics - all of the context is enormously novel.

And here's my take on it. If we can overcome these challenges in this novel context - of which I am entirely optimistic we can and that we will thrive and have much better days in front of us - if we can overcome it in this context, it kind of gives license to every other organization who's confronting a subset of these challenges to also have optimism about overcoming them.

SHAPIRO: I think a lot of Uber passengers say we vote with our wallets, and given all of the stories we've heard about the culture and practices of this company, I'm going to take my business somewhere else. What would you say to those customers to win them back at this point?

FREI: First of all, I love competition. And I really like people caring about how employees are treated, which is essentially the culture. I like it very much. And what I would say is if - you can either wait for the slope to be improving, which is happening now, or you can wait for a destination. Either way, I actually like holding a high bar. I feel confident - well, I know we have to earn people's respect back by doing the right thing. We are furiously doing the right thing all day, every day. I hope we get a second visit from them.

SHAPIRO: Frances Frei, thank you so much for joining us.

FREI: It's really a pleasure. Thank you for having me on the show.

SHAPIRO: Frances Frei is Uber's senior vice president of leadership and strategy. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.