Ridesharing startup Uber is shifting gears and appointing its first-ever senior vice president of leadership and strategy: Massachusetts management academic Frances Frei, a Harvard Business School (HBS) faculty member and author of Uncommon Service: How to Win by Putting Customers at the Core of Your Business.
Frei has been consulting with carsharing startup Uber for several months, so she’s no stranger to the myriad challenges currently plaguing the company — not least of which are the allegations of sexism and sexual harassment detailed on the blog of former engineer Susan Fowler, which have unspooled into a string of related issues and controversies.
Enter Frei, famous (or infamous) for her efforts to give Harvard Business School a “gender makeover,” per The New York Times. Frei revised the school’s “curriculum, rules and social rituals to foster female success.” Some students pushed back, calling Frei’s efforts “intrusive social engineering,” but the senior associate dean for executive education stood firm and “unapologetic.”
She’s going to need that chutzpah when she gets to San Francisco (Frei will be commuting from Cambridge, Mass., where she lives with her wife and children). Because at Uber, sexual misconduct was just the symptom.
The disease? According to Recode, blame inexperienced, in-group-style management (think buddies rather than bosses) with a Swiss cheese structure at the top: the company had no CFO, COO, CMO, general counsel or head of engineering.
Part of Frei’s charge will be to train managers and top executives, including CEO Travis Kalanick, a singular type whose personal leadership shortcomings are mirrored in the larger structure of his company. She believes the key will be surrounding Kalanick with a strong leadership team and convincing him that it’s alright to use them, even if he then makes the final decision himself.
Frei will also be instating a zero-tolerance policy for sexual harassment.
As Frei takes the wheel, she hopes to be a pipeline for feedback from carsharing drivers and riders, both present and former.
“I don’t want to be insulated,” Frei said. “I can ask everyone for feedback and, especially from drivers, get novel ideas that I pass on to the right team.”
Frei knows she can’t change Uber’s reputation overnight, and it’s going to take more than an apology to do it. She’s ready for the challenge and is in it for the long haul.
“We need to take repeated action, and I don’t think words can fix that other than continued observation of good behavior,” said Frei. “It is going to take a while for everyone to believe — some believe on faith, some on evidence.”