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Uber has hired HBS’s Frances Frei as a top leadership and strategy exec to fix its management mess

The well-regarded academic, who has focused on gender and diversity problems in the workplace, will also have to deal with results of an internal investigation, which is about to be released.

Can Harvard Business School’s Frances Frei fix what ails Uber?

Uber has hired well-regarded management academic Frances Frei as its first SVP of leadership and strategy, in a high-profile bid to make a series of changes inside the troubled car-hailing company to turn around what many consider a broken organization.

Frei will commute to San Francisco from Cambridge, Mass. — where she has worked at Harvard Business School and lives with her wife and children. Her charge is broad, with everything from training managers and top executives, to helping human resources head Liane Hornsey with recruiting and creating a zero-tolerance policy on sexual harassment, to turning CEO Travis Kalanick into the kind of executive that befits a company that is worth close to $70 billion and on a path to IPO.

Frei, who is the author of “Uncommon Service: How to Win by Putting Customers at the Core of Your Business,” has been consulting with Uber for several months already, and said she was enticed to come on full-time because of the major challenges the company faces.

“[Uber] feels for me, given all the bad circumstances, as sanded, and that it is ready to have some education painted on it,” she said in an interview this morning, in what is an arguably unusual metaphor. “My goal is to make this a world-class company that can be proud of itself in the end, rather than embarrassed.”

That embarrassment, in fact, is to come this week, when parts of a report that was delivered last week to only the subcommittee of the board — Arianna Huffington, Bill Gurley and David Bonderman — is likely to become public, at least to employees.

The key figures here are former Attorney General Eric Holder and Tammy Albarran, partners at Uber’s law firm, Covington & Burling, who have been conducting a wide-ranging investigation into the company’s internal culture. According to many sources, Albarran has done much of the heavy lifting in the interviews that have taken place.

Sources also add that the Perkins Coie law firm has been helping with some parts of the investigation, including individual questionable incidents that have resulted in many firings already.

In any case, a redacted version of some sort — likely the recommendations and not the actual findings — is expected to be delivered to employees by Kalanick at some point. There is an all-hands scheduled for tomorrow, but sources said that since so many key figures still have not seen the report, full revelations could take longer to be unveiled.

This timing has also been subject to debate by board members, especially since Kalanick’s mother was killed recently in a boating accident and his father remains in critical condition at a Fresno hospital from the same incident.

Kalanick has been at his father's bedside most of the time, which is why some thought that there should be a delay in airing the report out to allow him some time to cope with the tragedy. Others think the best action is to keep pressing on, so that the issues raised by the report could be dealt with as soon as possible.

Earlier, the company’s leaders had said that it will release part of the report publicly. Uber confirmed that it intends to make the recommendations public, but could not comment on whether any of the findings will be released.

That’s why there is also a definite external and public relations element to the Frei hiring. Her tenure at HBS has been marked by her role in the famous and somewhat controversial effort to turn around that organization and give it what the New York Times dubbed a “gender makeover, changing its curriculum, rules and social rituals to foster female success.”

Frei herself got some pushback there for her use of the word “unapologetic” about those changes. “The interventions had prompted some students to revolt, wearing ‘Unapologetic’ T-shirts to lacerate Ms. Frei for what they called intrusive social engineering,” wrote Times reporter Jodi Kantor.

Well, Frances, welcome to your biggest challenge ever. That would be Uber of San Francisco, which has been mired in a burgeoning set of controversies around a range of issues that erupted after allegations made in an explosive blog post by former engineer Susan Fowler about sexism and sexual harassment.

Which is to say that a deeply inexperienced, siloed and yes-men management and a culture crack-addicted to breaking the rules, even the good ones, has led to a variety of indiscretions and outright bad behavior that have gone unchecked for far too long. And it’s not just sexism and sexual harassment that rears its always ugly head, but also a sense that too many of those above are just as flawed as those below. Which leaves the feeling that there is no one in charge who can stop it.

If you read Fowler’s piece carefully, it was much more about core management fuck-up-ery at the company, which seems to have been run in a “Game of Thrones” style, than about anything else. While the charges of pervasive sexism and too much sexual harassment are certainly serious, what ails Uber is a corporate structure that needs drastic overhaul.

It’s fair to point out that lots of Silicon Valley companies have had and continue to have these very same issues — from Google to Facebook to Microsoft to Apple. But none has those faults in the kind of unctuous quintessence you find at Uber.

That’s what I discussed with Frei this morning in a long interview about what her role will be, including the optics of bringing in a woman to clean up the mess made largely by its men. I found Frei to be as earnest and indefatigable as her reputation, and quite willing to make trouble, wearing an Uber-branded shirt despite all the negative comments she now gets when people see it.

“I don't want to be insulated,” she explained, adding that it gives her ample opportunity to hear what people think about Uber. “I can ask everyone for feedback and, especially from drivers, get novel ideas that I pass on to the right team.”

Frei started consulting at Uber from her perch as senior associate dean of executive eduction at HBS, where she worked on expanding the famous business school’s programs in Cambridge and internationally. There she also worked on the process of fixing HBS’s gender-equity problem, and also on things like putting practices in place to put more women on boards.

Her work at Uber increased as she spent more time with Kalanick, she said, especially since it gave her the chance to create a better leadership team.

Frei is not shy in noting that the current one has not been up to snuff. “What has been lacking for him is a team he can rely on,” she said, noting that was Kalanick’s fault, too. “I think that it never made it to the top of the priority list.”

Among things that more experienced execs put in place and Uber top management did not, Frei ticked off: No professional offsites (Note to Frances: Famously wild parties in Miami and Las Vegas do not count), no clear weekly agendas and no clear accountability to each other. Also an issue, a top leadership with far too many vacancies, including CFO, COO, CMO, general counsel and, oh yeah, head of engineering.

And even more issues: Inexperienced and untrained managers throughout the organization, with either too few employees or too many. Uber now has about 3,000 managers for its 14,000 employees, which is a lot, since the ratio is usually one to eight.

Frei said she would focus a lot on coaching and getting people trained. “I want to show people the pebbles in front of them that they might see as boulders and help sweep them away,” she said. “The people who have left have largely attributed it to bad interaction with managers, and that has been unfair to put those managers in place without any training or skills and no development.”

In her strategy job, one challenge is to get execs and employees to row in the same direction. “It should be a good direction, and we have to overcome the ethos of being seen as pioneering,” she said, noting that can degenerate into doing the same thing over and over. “At 14,000 people, there is a question of how much re-pioneering is needed over getting strong systems in place.”

She said that so far in her talks with employees, about “95 percent” of them welcome the fixes, even if a recalcitrant and powerful group of people like things the way they are.

Also on Frei’s plate is diversifying management, which Uber has come to later than other companies. “The path I always see is that companies start out homogeneous and then try to have a diverse group,” she said. “But then they don't manage it, and it performs worse, unless you also teach the skills of inclusivity.”

The same is true, she said, of Uber’s board, and she is pushing to add more independent members that do not have an employment or financial conflict. “The accountability has to expand to the board,” said Frei.

While she demurs on whether she worried that coming to Uber might hurt her reputation, she insisted that “really awesome people want to come here.” Then she added her reason why: “Honestly, it could go either way ... but you could be part of the inflection point of it going even higher.”

Her biggest job for sure is Kalanick, a CEO who has a pugnacious reputation and also an emotional quotient that clearly needs an upgrade. While his type is not uncommon for Silicon Valley, most leaders in his league have evolved — from Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg to Snap’s Evan Spiegel to Microsoft’s Bill Gates.

“I have spent a lot of time with him, and he has said he wants help and is willing to take it from a leadership team,” said Frei. “We will not win with a silo-maker CEO, and he very readily said, ‘I don't have all the answers and I need help.’”

While Frei acknowledged that such talk is cheap, she noted that Kalanick has “enormous strengths, and where there are weaknesses, we have to make it up for him ... because his problems and problems with the company are identical.”

She noted that getting the notoriously singular Kalanick to rely on others is a challenge (and to stop him, in my humble opinion, from relying on his bro-pals).

“I think the key is a really strong leadership team; that he uses them and then he can do what he chooses to do,” said Frei. “But I have yet to meet a person who wants to evolve at a faster rate.”

Frei said that the standing issues around sexism and sexual harassment are Uber’s most glaring problem, caused in part by an absence of constraints. “What I stand for is super clear,” she said. “On my watch, if there is something like that is going on, there will be swift and strong action.”

Step one, she said, was to “make it discussable and have processes,” which Uber had inexplicably not done. “Sexual harassment creeps in and it never creeps out,” she said. “It is an organizational manifestation we have, and we just can’t have, even if there is just one ... the best organizations are ones built for women to thrive.”

So why should anyone believe her or anyone declaring change is afoot at Uber, when its history tells a different story?

“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.”

Her goal for the company, Frei said, is the same as she has for Kalanick: “He and Uber can wobble, but not fall down.”

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