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How Uber is trying to fix itself

Uber SVP of leadership and strategy Frances Frei talks with Recode’s Kara Swisher in this live episode of Recode Decode.

Uber driver in an Uber shirt in front of a black car Geoffroy van der Hasselt / Getty

When Harvard Business School’s Frances Frei joined Uber in June, she thought fixing its epic cultural crisis might be the result of thousands of toxic employees. But in fact, Frei said on a bonus episode of Recode Decode, hosted by Kara Swisher, Uber’s problems are neither unusual nor unfixable.

“Every single challenge I saw, I had seen at another organization, but the context was super novel,” Frei said. “They honestly did not seem — the challenges seemed outsized to them. I often go through the world [saying] ‘You think you have a boulder in front of you and I can help you understand it’s a pebble.’ They had a lot of pebbles and maybe not the wherewithal to sweep them away.”

Frei had studied leadership and diversity in an academic context at Harvard, demonstrating that when less-vocal students were given a better chance of being heard, satisfaction of all students increased across the board. At Uber, Frei discovered that employees want to do the right thing but have been historically deprived by management.

“I read the newspapers and I thought there was no chance they were going to be the good guys,” she said. “No chance. And then every single person I spoke with, I then started looking for, ‘Where is the toxicity?’ and I found a lot of people looking for the secret memo on how to behave. If you gave them the secret memo, they behaved that way.”

“Everyone who has a problem with the organization, chances are it was an interaction with their manager,” she added. “I came in expecting to see 3,000 bad people managing. 100 percent not the truth. Management is a skill that can be taught, and they were not taught it. Some people literally had dozens of direct reports, which is an impossible thing to manage.”

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Even Uber ex-CEO Travis Kalanick could be redeemed, Frei said, but whether he stays on the company’s board is not her call. She noted that he told her he would choose Uber’s interests over his own, and that she believes him.

“I think Travis wants the best thing for Uber and I think the new CEO can gain a lot of wisdom from Travis, but should be super clear that there’s a new CEO,” Frei said. “I think he should make the decision that he wants [about continued involvement]. He’s a board member, he’s the history of the company. I would not presume to make the decision for him at all.”

Frei stressed that she does not believe in a “savior CEO,” and that moving past Uber’s difficult 2017 — and improving Silicon Valley as a whole — will mean “capitaliz[ing] on the moment where people feel safe speaking up.” She described her job as restoring balance and happiness to all of Uber’s constituencies, from riders to drivers to employees, and although she declined to set a specific timeline, Frei indicated that significant progress had already been made and the storm will have long since passed in a year’s time.

“I’ll be completely honest: I give people a lot of credit for slope of improvement,” Frei said. “I really do. Uber meets my bar today because of its slope of improvement.”

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