On this special bonus episode of Recode Decode, host Kara Swisher interviewed Uber’s new SVP of Leadership and Strategy Frances Frei onstage at the Ericsson campus in Santa Clara, Calif. Frei — an incurable optimist — is sure that Uber’s culture can be redeemed and repaired, and that the company will become as beloved as it is necessary. Swisher — pessimist extraordinaire — isn’t so sure. And yet the two carry out a lively conversation that covers academia, diversity, wardrobe and toxic Silicon Valley behaviors. Questions from the audience follow.
You can read some of the highlights from the interview at that link, or listen to it in the audio player below. We’ve also provided a lightly edited complete transcript of their conversation.
If you like this, be sure to subscribe to Recode Decode on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Pocket Casts, Overcast or wherever you listen to podcasts.
Kara Swisher: Hi, I’m Kara Swisher, executive editor of Recode, you may know me as a professional Arianna Huffington impersonator, how are you everyone? But in my spare time I talk tech and you’re listening to Recode Decode, a podcast about tech and media’s key players, big ideas and how they’re changing the world we live in. You can find more episodes of Recode Decode anywhere you listen to your podcasts or on Apple podcast, Google Play Music, TuneIn, Stitcher or SoundCloud and more, or just visit recode.net/podcasts for more.
Today we have a special bonus episode for you. Last week I spoke to Uber’s new Senior Vice President for Leadership and Strategy Frances Frei. We talked about what Uber is going to do now that CEO Travis Kalanick has stepped down, Frei’s work around diversity at Harvard and the larger epidemic of sexual harassment in tech. We taped this in front of a sold-out crowd on the Ericsson campus in Santa Clara, California. We hope to do more of these live Recode Decode tapings so it was really great seeing so many of you there. Let’s take a listen.
I like saying “sources close to the situation” when I write stories. Now, today, we actually have a source, an actual person, she’s not a source close to the situation, she never leaks anything to me, it’s really irritating. One of the things we’re doing with Recode Decode is we’re trying to have really substantive conversations with leaders of all kinds, on all kinds of subjects. Recode Decode is doing well financially and also with the audience because I think there’s a real hunger there for real conversations that we do at the Code Conference and also all year round.
There’s all these voices that need to be heard and need to have to cogent conversations longer than 14 seconds. I spend a lot of time sometimes on TV talking about all kinds of tech issues and there’s nothing wrong with television, but some of the discussions nationally and locally have degenerated into just screamfests. People don’t have real conversations about difficult issues. I think it’s really important in this day and age when everything seems to be 140 characters of idiocy, every four seconds — and that’s just from the president. You knew I had to, right? I’m hoping he says nothing about John McCain, I’m so sorry he’s so sick.
It’s really important to take a little time and really talk about big issues. I really appreciate Frances Frei for coming here from Uber. As you know, Recode has covered Uber pretty tough, pretty tough stories, I think they’re fair, but a lot of them aren’t pretty and the subjects we’re talking about aren’t amenable to the cheerleader society of Silicon Valley. It’s really great that Frances has not just — it’s not brave to come here, I’m not that scary — but that she has the ability to come here and really talk about important issues we need to talk about. Without further ado, Frances Frei.
Frances Frei: Hi everybody.
Thank you for coming. Nice t-shirt.
Yeah, thank you. It’s cool.
You wear one every day, right?
I do. When I joined Uber I didn’t intend to wear a t-shirt every day, but I will tell you that when you change your shirt to a t-shirt you can’t wear pants, so I have to now wear jeans every day. And then if I wear jeans I have to wear comfortable shoes, so my wardrobe just got a lot simpler for this. This is the vestige of Harvard, the jacket.
Well done Frances, thank you for that explanation.
I’m wearing the t-shirt until everyone at Uber is proud enough to wear the t-shirt.
I’ve had to stop wearing my Uber t-shirt, I’ll be honest with you.
It’s a performance measure for me.
Okay, let’s start with that. First of all, actually I do want to start with that and then I want to explain what you do. Why are you wearing a t-shirt every day? You get a lot of feedback when you’re wearing an Uber t-shirt these days.
And if I don’t get it I ask for it. I think it’s an important company, it’s an organization filled with mortal beings who want to do the right thing and we should do the right thing.
Why wear the t-shirt? What are you trying to get? A response from people? Have people yell at you? What?
Oh, no, and I have to tell you I get lovely reactions, maybe because I ask people for feedback, so before anyone can say anything to me I ask ... I’ll go into a car and say, “I work at Uber, do you have any feedback for us?” People have feedback and really great suggestions.
It’s largely positive all throughout the country or not?
You can either give positive reinforcement, keep doing what you’re doing, or constructive advice to do things a little differently. I’d say there’s constructive advice in there a lot.
Any bad incidents over an Uber t-shirt?
Anything that you were surprised by?
I’m surprised by how much everyone wants Uber to succeed and they’re pretty pissed off that we have stumbled.
Okay, all right, so we’re going to that. First of all, let’s explain what you do. You are an academic; you’re from Harvard, which is apparently some university in Boston.
You’ll have to ask them.
You know what I do with Harvard people? Sometimes when people say, “Oh I went to Harvard” — because people from Harvard tell you they went to Harvard within 14 minutes usually, 14 to 18 minutes — so when they go, “Oh I went to Harvard” — this is 30 years later for some people — they go, “I went to Harvard.” I say, “Where’s that?” And they’re like, “Boston.” And I go, “MIT, what a great school.”
It is a great school.
And they’re like, “No, Harvard.” And I go, “Yale is so good.” And it can go on and on. I’m thinking how stupid can you be to have gone to Harvard and not understand that I’m trolling you?
Harvard said no to me five times, if you ever want to talk about that.
You’ve been working at Harvard doing what? Explain to people what you did there before this new job.
I’m a professor in the technology and operations management area, taught service management to a third of the audience, and then I’ve been a dean on the faculty recruiting side. On the executive education side, helped transform the MBA experience where we hadn’t created the conditions for everyone to thrive and ...
You’re specifically talking about women, people of color, is that correct?
Explain that. You were here being an academic, and what you got known for — and it was written about in the New York Times — was this effort you made to change the equation, essentially. What was happening at the business school?
There were two things that were super troubling that I learned. One was that men achieved higher grades than women and men had higher self-reported satisfaction than women. Then if I say men and women it also holds for a whole bunch of other demographics. A lot of people had hypotheses for why they thought that was the case and we acted as if those hypotheses were fact without testing them.
What was the hypothesis? Give me an example.
Women are more collaborative, they’re not just as competitive with the grades.
And what else? Men are smarter, right, something like that?
I actually never heard that hypothesis.
Well neither did I and it’s not accurate. I’m sorry, both of my sons are in the audience and they’re super smart. Women are not collaborative ...
Women are collaborative and so they’re not as goal-oriented for the grades.
They don’t want to compete for grades, stuff like that, people just took that on the assumption.
Yeah, and I didn’t have any data to show that they were wrong, but I had some strong senses that it probably wasn’t the case. We did an experiment on all 900 students — they would call themselves guinea pigs, I refer to refer to them as pioneers — we closed the achievement gap and the satisfaction gap and it stayed closed for seven years.
What caused that? It was controversial because ... what did they give you that you put out?
Which is an awesome word that you should reclaim, it’s like one of the most awesome words on the planet. We need to be more unapologetic about doing noble things.
You used them as guinea pigs, what did you do to them?
When you say it, it’s not as charming as when I say it.
No it’s not, that’s why I get paid a lot of money.
Yeah, 50 percent of every grade at HBS is based on class participation, if you didn’t talk early on in the semester it was hard to dig yourself out of that hole. Not everyone who arrived at campus was ready to participate in large 90-person discussions so we made small group, experiential talks part of the curriculum, and your grade was based on not only your performance as a team but how other people experienced you.
So 360-degree evaluations, essentially.
Yes. What was awesome is that not only did different demographics thrive there, it changed the demographics of who thrived in the large-group class discussion, which was just magnificent. We created conditions ...
People saw people behave differently in the small groups and then didn’t assume ...
Created more conditions for people to thrive and then that became contagious across all of them. We also went in and talked explicitly about some troubling things that had happened in the past, so I think it’s really important to honor the past and to discuss it. There were some systematic, unfortunate things that happened every year.
When you go to HBS you become assigned a section. If you’re in section B, when you go from the first year to the second year you’re old B, new B. The old section would come in and tell you what the traditions are. It was like an arms race of doing increasingly inappropriate things — nobody with bad intentions, but it got really bad.
I’m sorry to be specific, what do you mean? What would they do?
The only reason I’m hesitating is because there’s a CNBC camera on me right now.
That’s all right, don’t worry about it.
Nobody watches CNBC.
Oh, nobody watches it? Great. The one story that just stuck with me is that some students called the spouse of an international student, who ... English wasn’t their first language, and got this spouse to say things that they could cobble together on a tape and they played the cobbled-together things in the section handoff that sounded very bad. They did it for sport, it was enormously hurtful. An experience that’s enormously hurtful.
This kind of pranking?
Yeah, and it became an arms race of, you would show pictures of people and it became almost a roasting of people you don’t know, which is in really bad form.
So, sexist too?
International, sexist, but every -ist. We made that discussable and we put in place something that if you lead an event and the person doing the section handoff is leading an event, everyone is responsible for their own behavior, but if you lead an event you’re responsible for the behavior of everyone else at the event. We’re a school of leadership. Well, wow, did that change things, because now there was accountability. Before it was just, this is what we do and it sadly ...
“I can’t stop him, I can’t stop her,” that kind of thing.
The students are incredible there, and with accountability, then they found that roasting strangers is a really, really lowbrow way to get at humor and you can do it in super clever ways. Now they’re magnificent celebrations and appreciated by everyone more.
So you did stuff like that. What was the resistance? That you shouldn’t delve into getting actual data to change things or that you were trying to socially engineer ...
I think social engineering gets a bad name. There are architects and we have to take responsibility for it and just because if things are systematically happening outside of the classroom, it’s the obligation of the university to address it. Of course, it’s on our watch, it was on our watch and we were not invited in to do it and I think that we’re often not given permission to do the things that need to be done.
So you just did it, you just said this is a problem that women are lagging behind men or ...
It’s now self reported, here’s the awesome thing: Not only did women’s satisfaction go up and international students, men’s satisfaction went up, it’s not a fixed pie. Make the world better for women, you make it better for everyone.
That’s an interesting concept and I do want to get into it when we start talking about Uber and how you got there. One of the things, I think Harvard also had manbassadors, which I think is the worst word on the planet.
Not a great word.
No, it’s literally my least favorite word — besides reportrepreneur, that I also don’t like.
I haven’t heard that one yet.
It’s awful, don’t use it again. It was the idea of getting men involved as allies and that it was in their best interests, correct, that it’s not a woman’s job to fix this, that it’s ...
I do dislike when the diversity problems are the burden of the diverse. That’s just obnoxious.
Everybody’s part of it and then they improve. I met Maria Klawe at Harvey Mudd, did a lot of experiments about that and often found a single person who wrecked the experience for everyone, not just women or people of color, that it was typically a certain kind of male geek who brought everybody down in a lot of ways. There was certain men who didn’t like operating in that environment either.
I find that the vast, vast, vast, vast, vast majority of the world wants to bring their best facet forward, and we can create the conditions for not the best facet to come forward, again our obligation.
So here you are at Harvard doing your papers and working on this.
Like really living the dream.
Right. Why Uber then, frankly? What, “Oh I think I’ll go to this company.” I was thinking like, “Enron was not available?” You know I was going to get an Enron joke in there.
I study service companies and Uber is a magnificent service organization. If a service organization either gets outsized ambition or gets in trouble, I usually get a call because I’m pretty good at diagnosing problems and helping people come up with prescriptions. I got a call with Uber, and what I do with every organization is I go in and see, can my unique snowflakeness be helpful? And I quickly found out that it could and then I had to ... Am I a good fit? Because I hate doing anything that someone else can do. And then, are they good guys?
Right, so you ...
And I learned in California I’m not supposed to say guys. I was progressive in Cambridge, I’m conservative in San Francisco, super weird for me, super weird.
Very conservative, I can see that. We like to marry goats and stuff and if you have a problem with that you can just leave the state. Here you are at Harvard, they bring you in as a consultant. This is Liane Hornsey, right?
Yeah, Liane, so Meghan Joyce was the first person I met and then she introduced me to Liane.
Liane is the head of HR?
Head of HR.
Nine years at Google.
Joined in January and has been the catalyst of much of the change and it’s really magnificent.
Okay, so she calls you and you think oh, this is interesting, I think I can do this. What was your impression of Uber, your honest impression?
Yeah, I only have one fear, that they had no unusual challenges. Every single challenge I saw I had seen at another organization, but the context was super novel. They honestly did not seem ... the challenges seemed outsized to them. I often go through the world and 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.
All right, when you’re saying they’re not unusual, it feels to me — and I’ve covered, I’m super old and I’ve covered Silicon Valley for a very long time — I’ve never seen such a toxic company, all in one place. I’m just curious, you’ve seen all these instances of these things everywhere — which I have, too, listen, there wasn’t no sexism at Microsoft, there wasn’t no sexism at Google or sexual harassment or anything like that — but to see it so concentrated.
You have to understand that when I got involved, Liane had already joined and was doing things, Susan Fowler had been doing even more things, I got involved when the really, really earnest and super serious version of Uber ... and I thought it was magnificent and I still do think it’s magnificent.
For them to want ... well, I don’t know if they have a choice necessarily. I’m talking about before that, there was sort of patterns in advertising, sexist advertising, there was aggression around the drivers, there was issues around checking of drivers, a lot of anti-women things seemed to just be brewing around this company in a way that was ... I know they thought it was unfair to Uber and I did not.
You know more about its history than I do.
What did you think from the outside?
Listen, I read the newspapers and I thought there’s no chance they were going to be the good guys, no chance. 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, and if you gave them the secret memo they behaved that way. I didn’t find toxicity and I looked ... Before I made the decision to go over I did sessions, I spent time with 1,200 people, so there’s 15,000.
As a consultant?
When I was a consultant, because I had to make sure they needed a lot of management training. It turns out that management is a skill they had not been absorbing and I had to make sure that the way I teach is a way they could absorb, it was just magnificent. Their emails, the response was incredible. I haven’t seen the toxicity, I 100 percent believe in the organization, it manifested to where we are now. The organization is taking it super seriously.
It is that now, but I’m going to challenge you on the toxicity.
Because I have found the toxicity quite a lot.
And I’m really grateful that you shined a bright light on it.
Well, you’re welcome, but it’s toxic. Let me give you a couple of examples, it’s just stuff that we’ve, not just us but the New York Times, Mike Isaac’s been doing a great job, there’s all kinds of great reports. I don’t think they’re minor but they’re more regulatory, the greyballing thing, the thing with Apple, the things where they’re geofencing Apple, the tricks around regulation, the rivalry with Lyft, the kind of dirty tricks, whatever that’s called, some frat boy that invented whatever they’re doing to Lyft. I believe in competition but this was a step further, the memo Travis wrote about an event in Las Vegas only a few years ago.
Two years ago, yeah.
Which, literally, the first nine words had seven HR violations in them, you know what I mean, like that kind of thing. Then it culminated for me in our reporting around the India issue, of one of the executives carrying around a medical file of a rape victim and the top executives questioning that rape. To me, I think that was like, okay, that’s enough. Why did you not stop it? That’s the kind of thing. You get there and they’re now like so, so sorry, I’m so, so sorry.
I get there and they’re looking for leadership, looking to do the right thing and are embarrassed.
Right, by what they’ve done. What do you do when you’re coming in?
Which is, frankly, all one needs in the world to make a difference.
Right, that they’re embarrassed or ashamed of themselves.
The sanding has been done, we have to come in and paint.
How do you come in as a management person and accept, okay, they’re ashamed and I feel like they’re genuinely ashamed.
And I’m ashamed because I’m now part of the company, so I share it.
Okay, how do you go in and approach that because you’re dealing with ... These are the people who did this. There is a level of forgiveness and redemption, I know one of your board members — Arianna Huffington and I are always arguing over that issue, she’s like, “You are Old Testament, Kara, and I am New Testament and we have to love and forgive.” And I said, “First we kill and then we love and forgive.” Here you are, you’ve got to come in and be forgiving, is that correct or what do you do?
Listen, my favorite trait in the world is redemption. If you have bad people we should have exorcism, but the vast majority ... When there’s bad behavior, it’s good people behaving badly, and I know that leaders can make a difference there.
You come in, you’re a consultant, what shifted you to making the decision to come there? You live in Boston, your wife lives in Boston, your kids live in Boston, you have a nice life up there.
At that university, it’s not MIT.
Which I walk to, and it’s Cambridge, not Boston not that it makes a difference from afar but it does.
Thank you for that, okay, well it’s The Castro, not San Francisco, in case you want the equivalent.
It’s super helpful for me to know, thank you.
Any time, I live there.
You come in, what made you want to do this because you’re doing a ... explain your day.
My week is that I have breakfast with the family on Mondays, I fly out and then I take a day flight back on Fridays. So I have breakfast on Monday, dinner on Friday.
And then you’re there all weekend?
And then I’m there all weekend, yeah.
Why did you decide to do this ... this is a ...
I thought about this a lot in anticipation of this. Two reasons, one is that Anne thought it would be a great idea and she understands me and my potential and I trust her instincts completely. Honestly, the situation required all of me ...
Rather than just consulting.
I don’t think I could have been very helpful as a consultant. I have to tell you, I’ve been mesmerized by the 15,000 people that work there, mesmerized. I honestly think it’s pebbles, not boulders, I really do, and I have seen enormous progress in sweeping them away with really world-class people.
We aren’t going to talk about how that’s been swept away because you did manage to lose a CEO along the way, sweeping these boulders or whatever they are aside. I think it’s reinforced concrete, but.
I’m not sure if it’s concrete or cement but I didn’t go to that class. I know what you mean though.
I have a drill so it’s fine.
I have a tool belt but no drill.
This is too much lesbian talk.
You decide to take it on and your role is? Say your title, it’s quite a lofty one.
I’m in charge of leadership and strategy. They call it a senior vice president.
Senior Vice President of Leadership, okay.
Anyone who knows me in the world would say those two words, so it’s not lofty.
Okay, so what does that mean for each of them, what does that mean?
Leadership, here’s the thing, Uber has got individual leaders that have been very siloed, which has permitted it to grow, and it’s A plus B plus C for a three-person team at best. I’m just coming and making it A times B times C.
Explain that for the people who don’t understand management speak.
Each of us has unique information. If we spend time with one another we are very likely to talk about the information we have in common. My job is like a coach or a facilitator, I help bring out the unique information so that we can take better decisions and move with more speed.
What happens in an organization like Uber where siloed information occurs, that was one of the big problems ...
I think that’s a very big situation which permitted its growth and created a lot of the problems, so we don’t have a collectively exhaustive team that’s ...
Permitted its growth meaning everybody could do what they wanted?
Yeah, silos are super efficient, they’re just on a collision course if you don’t ...
Meaning what, why are they super efficient for a hard-charging company?
Imagine if this conversation only had one of us, we would just get right through it.
Okay, right, so you can just do what you want?
But then you’re subject to bad actors who could do whatever they feel like.
Or actors that just aren’t ... If we take the collective intelligence of us we’re each going to make better decisions.
Okay, so you were trying to unite them?
That’s what we’re doing right now.
Silo is ... they’re a very siloed company with actually Travis knowing everything.
I think Travis had pairwise relationships with everyone, and when he asked me to come in he said, “Look, I haven’t had enough time to spend with this senior team, will you come and facilitate the senior team so that we can bring the best out of the collection?” I said, “Absolutely.” Indeed, it’s not just a problem with the senior team, it’s all throughout the organization.
You have leader siloing.
It’s a siloed organization that as soon as we unleash the power of teams, the performance of this organization is going to skyrocket.
Why was it built that way? Is it around the CEO or what?
I think that it was conducive for ridiculous growth — there aren’t a lot of role models for how do you organize for growth. In retrospect, oh we should have taken a pause and trained managers and done things differently. I have a lot of humility of looking forward, how do you know when the right time to take an off-ramp is?
A lot of them did, a lot of them manage, Facebook I’m thinking, every company I’ve covered is able to do that. What happened here? One of the things you get from Silicon Valley and especially from Uber is look at this success, so therefore it’s okay. I was like, well look at the journey, like your journey is really ugly.
The journey is super important.
How do you get people off that idea? One of the things they said, “You know what? We’ve been busy being fantastic so we couldn’t do HR.” I was like, “What? Are you kidding me?”
We should be held accountable for every HR aspect.
What is that mentality? Is it a mentality of tech or is it a mentality of a bigger ...
To me it’s a mentality of hyper growth. Hyper growth is probably more likely to occur in tech because of the zero marginal cost, but I think it’s the mentality of hyper growth. It’s super easy to see in retrospect when you should’ve done it, it’s really hard going forward.
Do you have to be that aggressive to the point of dementia to do that?
It’s okay, listen, if you just take the taxi industry — which is a really wonderful industry for very many people but had a lot of protective regulation. For people to come in and change that took a certain amount of aggressiveness. Like everything, it’s your best feature and your worst feature. I think that the pioneering aggression was part of the fantastic nature of it and then out of control, like are you then surprised that it’s not harnessed? If it’s not deliberately harnessed, will it be harnessed? No, so it has to now be deliberately harnessed. We should be held accountable 100 percent for all of it.
Why wasn’t it harnessed here? I’ve seen it like Airbnb, you’re not hearing, aside from some dumb ad they did, there’s usually, they tangle with regulators normally, it doesn’t seem so fraught. They’re growing tremendously.
You are closer to its history than I am. You’ve been studying ...
What I want to get at, is it because this leader was this way?
It’s super hard for me to come in and in retrospect judge what it is when I wasn’t there. I tell you that now, look, I want to squeeze every ounce of learning out of what happened, every single ounce of it, and then I want us to have a really optimistic way forward.
How much of the past should they devolve ... This is another argument I have with Arianna and others.
You have to have reverence for the past and ...
Okay, honor the past enough to learn everything that we can out of it.
I’m talking about the idea of, I think the meeting was the point where Travis was taking the leave of absence, this was a week before he actually left. I forget who it was, “Everything before it doesn’t count, everything after it does.”
I think that person probably misspoke.
No, I’m pretty certain they didn’t.
You’re sure you got it right?
I’m pretty certain. I’m good at that.
I was just asking.
The concept was, let’s forgive everything in the past, and I was like, it’s not been paid for. I want to get into that a little bit. I want to talk about ...
I don’t have a pay or don’t pay, I do have: It should be honored for every ounce of learning it has. When mistakes are made I want to squeeze every single bit of learning out of it, every single bit of it. I don’t believe as much as you have to go and pay, it occurred by mortals ...
The only reason — I’m going to get to this later — I want to talk about these “I’m sorry” letters from all of the sexual harassers which, I think it’s like now, “You may forgive me and we may move on.” I think a lot of people aren’t quite ready. I get the spirit of reconciliation, but there’s almost a too quickness in Silicon Valley to say okay, I grabbed her ass but now I’m sorry about it.
When you put it that way that doesn’t sound good at all, yeah, yeah.
What do you with the past stuff, like that behavior around the drivers or the ...
You don’t like reverence, you don’t like honor, what word would you like?
You’re going to pay. I’m not a ...
I’m a consequence person, it’s like you did something ...
My oldest son is a consequence person for sure, he wants there to be consequences.
You do not deserve to be the CEO if your presided over this, you need to go away or they need to find someone or someone has to pay the price of what happens. In this case, what’s fascinating to me is that now Uber has a lot of women running things who seem to be on clean up. You know what I mean? Like the naughty boys made a mess and now you’re here to clean up. I don’t know.
You and I have a very different version of me.
Yes, I know that. No, I get that, I get that, not you in particular but ...
I am here to help them achieve their highest aspiration and potential.
I know, I’m not going to ...
No, you’re not.
What I want to know is what do you do with the past stuff to get to the future? How much do you put ...
Listen, if there are people ...
That’s why, by the way, I am not hired to be head of strategy, it would be a disaster.
I totally get what you earlier said that you wouldn’t work at, I’m not getting why you wouldn’t work at an organization, and I mean this quite sincerely, honestly, as partners we would probably do very well. If someone needs to be held to account, I just am not genetically the person who could possibly do it. I just believe too much in redemption and I make mistakes and others make mistakes and I can bring us to the best version. If someone needs — it’s why boards hire and fire CEOs and no one in management does, right? If someone’s going to hold the CEO accountable, it’s a board’s job to do that.
Which happened, which actually happened in some way, whatever happened. What does that do to an organization? We can disagree over that, I do think that accountability is really important to me.
I wouldn’t play poker with you.
No, exactly. I’m not actually very good at it.
Then a chess math skill.
There is a level of accountability, like you may not move on with us because you have done this or you may need to go seek help before you may move on with us. Like you said, there’s a lot of wonderful people, I can name dozens and dozens of people who are working hard, by the way, creating a great product. No matter how you slice it, it’s the best product out there. How do you then take them and not hold them responsible for other people’s behavior? Especially their leaders, because a lot of them were their leaders who are now gone, one after the next.
How would you hold them responsible? I’m totally curious.
I would get rid of those leaders as the first thing because you’re serious about it.
I think, yes.
Even if they’re good, even if there’s good aspects, like the brilliant jerks theory is there’s only room for brilliant people but not brilliant jerks.
So brilliant jerks is a phrase that Arianna has, when she and I disagree. When she says zero tolerance, my heart skips a little bit because I believe so much in redemption, and zero tolerance frankly scares me. In principle ...
Why does it scare you?
First of all, zero tolerance, I am sure I have made mistakes, I do make mistakes and I watch others make mistakes — indeed, that is the human condition. So a better version of us is around the corner. I think it will be a very small, small island if it’s only filled with zero tolerance.
Correct, but there’s almost no space between the behavior and then the forgiveness, do you know what I mean? I think that’s the issue, because it’s been going on for so long, not just at Uber but other places.
I do think ... Listen, if I did something and I made a mistake ... In a talk recently where I referred to someone as “Sir” and other people took offense to my doing that because it was an honorific that was inappropriate, I asked them for suggestions on how to do it differently, I apologized sincerely and then I think they permitted me to move on. I see your point that we have to do the act of owning it and understanding it and hearing it and — listen, for sexual harassment, that is the most horrible thing to occur and if someone sexually harassed you I’d take them out back.
It would never happen.
I get it.
I think I’m kind of cute but no, I think it’s about power, it’s not all about sexuality, it’s about people in lower positions.
That’s a leader’s responsibility, to create the conditions that it never happens and for those egregious things that are over the line, of course. I think one of the problems that ... I wonder if you want to hold people to be more accountable than I want to hold them. It may very well be true.
Certain people absolutely, leaders 100 percent, I do.
Is there any room for a leader ...
Yes, absolutely, but not immediately. And not, I’m sorry, not ...
Not without penance.
I guess. I’m Catholic so I guess that’s the correct thing. It’s not just penance, it’s also some genuine change because ... We’ll get to this idea of the decency pledge in Silicon Valley and other things.
We just — hello, it’s 40 minutes in.
We’re good. I want to get what you’re doing next at Uber. What is that ... I get a lot these activities and we’re going to talk about the general things that are going on in Silicon Valley. Let’s start with what you’re doing about specific things: Sexual harassment at Uber. You’re not responsible for the rest of the Valley right now. That’s a big job, Frances.
You’ve put a light on us which actually does make us responsible for the rest of Silicon Valley because we have to show it can be done here so it can be done anywhere.
What are you doing in that regard?
A couple of things. But one, there are so many hotlines, formal and informal, for if anything bad happens to anyone I would expect it to be surfaced.
Which didn’t exist before?
Which didn’t exist before so people felt alone and powerless. There are enough people standing right next to them including ... I’ve done training of almost 10,000 of the folks, a large swath would call me, a large swath would call Liane, a large swath would call someone, so I think not being alone, really being super clear ...
Hotlines or communication?
Or just, they can stop by my office, they can send me an email, they can stop ...
And feel safe doing so.
And feel super safe doing it, so making it, as my colleague Amy Evans, safe to say ...
Systematically, so people don’t feel alone is one thing. Also that people know what professional conduct looks like and what it doesn’t look like, because often bad behavior happens after a set of five other behaviors, that if the first behavior got checked the rest of them wouldn’t occur. Letting people know what good behavior looks like on it.
Yes, I don’t do any of those but there are professionals that know how to do the trainings.
Which hadn’t been taking place, correct? Or had been done in a very cursory way?
When it takes place it will take place for all 15,000, so what Uber is very good at is then they do one thing, they do it for all 15,000. I’m not up to speed on when then the training is occurring.
That’s one of the things. What else has ... So you’ve got systems in place, hotlines, training ...
People feeling safe so there enough leaders in front of people that you can just hey afterwards. I feel like there’s an answer that I’m supposed to have in my pocket that I don’t.
I don’t know, I don’t know what you do. Management, upgrading management, one of the issues from what I think we talked about was certain people had three people go to and some had 30 and ...
It’s so tragic. So there are 3,000 managers at Uber that are not set up for success and it’s not their fault. But everyone who has a problem with the organization, chances are it was an interaction with their manager, so I came in expecting to see 3,000 bad people managing — 100 percent not true. 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.
What’s the average? It’s 10, right?
A good number is eight, frankly, and eight may be being a lot better than 10.
Some had 30 and some had one, right?
Yeah, neither are good.
How do you change that? You just start to reorganize the management?
Yeah, so we’re doing a couple things, but one is everyone’s goals, if you’re a manager, the performance of your team is part of your performance, that’s as of, Liane has done this, that’s as of four weeks ago.
Explain how that works, because that’s something that’s normal in a lot of places.
Yeah, this is beautiful. She’s done two things that are incredible, she’s put a citizenship goal in where each person picks a way that they can make the Uber environment better for a partner or for Uber. If you’re a manager, the performance of your team is part of your performance. I think it is more typical in other organizations, it’s now explicit in our organization.
Right, that you have to do this. Again, systems around HR, management training and management changes ...
Organizational structure and accountability in terms of you won’t get promoted in the absence of it.
In the absence, so you don’t get those promotions ... so those promotions don’t seem random, which I think Susan wrote about quite elegantly. I feel like one of the things that gets lost in a lot of what Susan Fowler wrote, was she was writing about a very dysfunctional management system.
I think she was. On top of a horrible tragedy, she was writing about that, yes.
But that to me was the reason the other things happened, was that it was this ...
That’s a very fair assessment.
Like her not being able to move out of a bad situation because it was so demented, the way they ...
All of those things are ... Liane and her team, are cleaning up all of those things.
Now, when you have this situation, when you have a company under siege, you’re obviously an optimistic person —I think I’m not speaking out of turn here — almost crazy though, I would agree, I’m thinking in my thought bubble above my head, “What the hell?” I do think you have to have that kind of optimistic personality, at the same time you have to have people that are saying, “It’s still a mess,” and take it seriously. How do you balance those two things, at a company like Uber that is constantly under siege?
The key to leadership, in my mind, is that you hold people to very high standards and you do it in a way that people feel you’re deeply devoted to their success. I am a crazy optimist and I don’t know anyone who sets higher standards than I do. If you do both, that’s the key to doing it. I think in the past we might have set high standards not in a deeply devoted way and then the fear is we’re going to be deeply devoted and lower the standards, insidious and also not good. We have to figure out how to do both simultaneously.
Give me an example of that.
Give me a context and I’ll tell you an example.
I don’t know, what would be a high standard?
When you interview folks, so I’ll take my coming to San Francisco, this is my second time meeting you, you hold me to very high standards but I can tell you want me to be successful, not by lowering the bar but I feel like you’re deeply devoted to my success, so that’s how you do it.
I’m not at all.
I disagree, I disagree, I feel it.
No, no. You know, years ago I interviewed Steve Case for my book ...
It’s actually a blessing to go through the world and interpret all ambiguity as positive.
I don’t care what happens and not in a negative way ...
For Uber, but you care for me.
Not yet, it’s TBD, TBD.
All right, okay. I misread, okay.
I’m sorry, I’m not that kind of lesbian.
I misread, my apologies.
I’m honestly a gay man at this point. I’m a straight man, I’ve moved all the way since working here for you. You can laugh or not but it’s appalling what I just said. When you’re trying to get these high standards, another big issue seems to me at Uber — and then I want to finish up talking about Silicon Valley in general — you have moral problems.
Constant media attention, much of it deserving, I know everyone likes to blame the media these days, constant media attention, constant “you suck,” constant “you did this, you did that, you did this,” a lot of the focus not on good things that you’re trying to do. How do you manage that? When you’ve got a depleted workforce who feels, and you’re getting attrition issues, I know there’s issues in that, I know four people who have left there just recently and they just couldn’t do, they just couldn’t take it anymore.
They’re depleted. How do I do it?
Since you’re head of leadership and strategy so you need people.
Yeah, I hold sessions, I’m very partial to case discussions and have case discussions and they’re voluntary and two thirds of the organization shows up. Have open office hours so we can talk about things, so engage people on purposeful acts in a really noble way. The act of leadership can be taught and the organization really wants to do it and the organization really appreciates optimism and there is a really clear optimistic way forward. Sometimes we get focused on the negative, and I’m not saying don’t honor the negative, but oh my gosh is there great optimism in front of us.
What does the next CEO at Uber have to have? What are the qualities?
You don’t like when I use the word reverence but it’s my word so I’m going to use it.
You go right ahead.
I think reverence for the international nature of the business, like deep reverence ...
The global ...
Oh my gosh yeah. There’s Silicon Valley, which is it’s own thing, and then there’s the U.S. and then there’s every other country.
I agree with you on this.
Totally reverence for that. I think that in my mind it’s a tech company and an operations company and you have to be able to hold both of those thoughts in your mind.
As a leader.
As a leader, I don’t think you can have one be more important than the other.
Global tech and organizations.
Tech and operations and to understand that this is an organization of 15,000 that has been through a lot and so needs someone to appreciate that and understand that as they chart the way forward.
What about the relationship with Travis who is still on the board, who still is ... They have to be able to manage that, very important shareholders, very important icon for the people there.
Yeah, what’s the ...
What do you do if you’re a leader coming ... I mean, he’s there, he’s sitting there staring at you.
Of course, of course, what’s the?
What do you do if you’re a leader like that when you have someone like that?
I think Travis wants the best for Uber and I think that the new CEO can gain a lot of wisdom from Travis but should be super clear that they’re the new CEO.
Right. Do you believe he should be continued to be involved?
I think he should make the decision that he wants. He’s a board member, he knows the history of the company, I would not presume to make the decision for him, wouldn’t at all, at all.
What about what’s good for Uber?
I think he will make decisions ... Before he left the company, he and I were sitting like this, it was in front of 250 folks, we had just done two days of training, and he said in a way that I believed him that if he ever found that his interests and Uber’s interests diverged, he would pick Uber.
And leave or do whatever it took to make those changes.
And I believe him.
Do you feel like he has the ability to be redeemed and come back?
I certainly do, I believe, I do.
You said that me.
Yes, without hesitation.
Who do you compare him to? You’ve done a lot of case studies at Harvard, who would you? I’m giving this to you, you’ve got a whole wide field.
So if I stay in the tech industry and I look at redemptions, Bill Gates, Steve Jobs I think did enormous redemption stories. If I look in other industries, I don’t like to name people but I can say that IBM, there are lots of companies that have had incredible turnarounds and leaders developing a lot.
Do you consider this a turnaround?
Oh, yes. Let me be super clear unambiguously, it’s an inflection point. It has gone through multiple crises, I am entirely confident that we are going to come out much stronger and much better. Honestly, in part, because of the spotlight that’s on it.
Who would you like to be CEO?
She would have to be ...
It would have to be a she?
No, no, gosh no. It should be a person that meets all of the other criteria. That was just super fun to say.
Yes, okay, good.
I think it would be nice if they could try a little harder.
I feel very confident that a meritocracy will make us very demographically pleased.
I don’t know what that means, Sheryl’s still not going to do it.
But she’d be awesome.
Sure, she gets picked for every single job, it’s like, “Sheryl can fix this, Sheryl can fix that.”
Indeed she could.
You’re saying she wouldn’t choose to. I’m not going to quibble, but indeed she could.
Yes, I understand that, but I find it fascinating and I want to get to everybody else in Silicon Valley, what’s happening now, this idea of leadership and savior. She’s seen as a savior.
I don’t believe in the savior CEO.
I don’t think she does either, you know what I mean?
Rakesh Khurana has done magnificent research at Harvard, I fundamentally do not believe in it.
That someone can come in and fix the situation because the expectations are so high.
Leadership is a team sport. The secret behind every organization is a team of people, it’s not one person.
Absolutely, I would agree with you and I think people ... what happens here is there’s a reverence for a certain person, like an Elon Musk or a Mark Zuckerberg, and they don’t see everybody else behind it.
The secret sauce is everybody else.
I remember Steve Jobs one time, because he was like the quintessence of the perfect savior CEO, I remember him saying ... And I didn’t think that, I thought he had a great team behind him, he had a really solid ... Amazon does, they have a very cohesive team, Google does. Cohesion is really important even if they don’t like each other and often they don’t, it’s cohesion.
[Steve Jobs] goes, “I know everybody thinks I’m this savior CEO but I’m not,” and he goes — I’ll never forget this because he was making reference to one of my favorite movies, he goes, “They think everyone else is Oompa Loompas around here and I’m Willy Wonka.” I was like, “Oh, I like that reference.” But this is the idea.
You know what I mean, right?
I don’t want anyone coming in who thinks they’re Willy.
Willy Wonka, okay. Let’s get very quickly to Silicon Valley, what’s happening now. After Uber, post Susan’s thing, it set off a range of people speaking out.
Which is wonderful.
Right. What do you imagine has caused this level of dysfunction?
First of all, we need to capitalize on the moment where people feel safe to speak up or else I fear that it will become cyclical again.
Yes, it will.
We need to capitalize on this, whatever has created the conditions for the courage and the numbers, we’ve got to capitalize on it right now. What’s created it historically, I think that people have the capability to behave badly when there’s not a light shined on their behavior.
Or putting it under the carpet or letting people go for, that’s one of my ...
Those studies have been done for decades. We know that you can set the conditions for a very bad version of people to show up and we know that attention and accountability and light helps a great deal.
Do you imagine that’s lasting or that it’s just almost impossible to ferret it out?
I thinks it’s pebbles, not boulders.
I know about the pebbles.
I think we can set the conditions with frankly just a memo on how to do it and I don’t think it’s more than a page.
What are the things that have to be put into place? Some people, this decency pledge — I think it’s bullshit, is what I think.
That would be necessary but not sufficient. Maybe not even necessary.
What is the sufficient thing to do that?
For us to feel confident that the processes that we’ve put in place require the average intentions of people. If we put processes in place that require the best intentions of people it’s not going to work. I want to set the conditions for average people to thrive. That’s what all of the processes need to do.
So that means if there’s some behavior ... One of the things that really struck me about a lot of this behavior is — and I think I said this the other day, on the show that Megyn Kelly did — was, every woman in Silicon Valley has one story at least, if not a dozen, of ranging levels of sexism to sexual harassment. I’m just using that, I’m not even talking about people of color and ageism and things like that. They all have a story, a lot of it’s minor, some comments, “Smile more,” “You look pretty,” that kind of stuff which you sort of take every day and sort of have to suck up.
I’ve never been told I look pretty.
Me neither. “Smile more, stop scowling.” And then it goes to the very toxic, to the very bad, bad behavior. Most good men, and I’m going to say most men are good, most men I encounter are very good, have come up to me and said, “I had no idea.”
Indeed, they have probably participated in it and have no idea. They’ve probably hit things with their tail without knowing it and that’s what we have to fix.
Before we get to questions from the audience, what are the four or five tools for doing that, because that is what struck me the most is that everyone has a story, all the men don’t hear them, many of the men don’t hear them and there’s a miscommunication. And this is women at the top, literally, when we covered the Ellen Pao trial we got so much communication from top, top women, I was shocked.
I think we have no release valve so we have to make the environment where there’s a release valve so that everyone ... If it happens that people have someone to talk to about it that can do something about it. I also think that all of us need help with reflectors so that we’re aware what our behavior is doing. I think we’re hitting things with our tail all the time.
What does that mean? I don’t understand.
When I called someone “Sir” the other day, I did not mean to silence anyone else, but I did. That’s a small thing that I hit with my tail. When I teach, I’m constantly hitting things with my tail.
You didn’t mean it, it happened anyway.
If I don’t have someone tell me then I do something else and something else and something else. I think we all need to know how we’re contributing in micro ways to a climate that’s making this permissive. I might say, “Let’s go out for a drink.” You know what? I probably shouldn’t say that.
In a work environment.
In a work environment. Who knew that saying “let’s go out for a drink” is three steps away to creating the conditions for someone else to have bad behavior?
Right, exactly, or if people are discomforted about drinking or whatever.
Then let’s pick the 10 or 12 other things.
What about creating a workplace that’s just too — and I hate to use this term but — politically correct?
Because there’s been a real backlash.
That’s when you have deep devotion and low standards. It’s not worse than high standards and no devotion, but it’s really bad.
How do you then prevent it from going bad?
By making it discussable.
Right, one of the things that’s driving me crazy, though, recently, is I’ve gotten so many ... two things I’ve gotten from VCs, which I can’t believe they say this to me, they’re like, “You know, now we really can’t hire women because this happens.” I was like, “Oh.”
“I shouldn’t have done that, that was creating a bad environment.”
It was really fascinating that they ... eliminate is the way they solve.
I don’t even have words to suggest how ...
I have words. “Fuck” was among them, like, “You fucking asshole.” That was one, the other was, “We can’t say what we think.” I was like, “Yeah, you can’t.” You actually shouldn’t say what you think all the ... like certain things.
I want you to use words for 90 percent of what you think and the other 10 percent, yeah, all of us should keep it to ourselves.
Which was fascinating. And the last part, which was really interesting to me was witch hunt.
I don’t even know what that is.
A witch hunt, the president uses it, take a look at his Twitter. Witch hunt in that this is like it’s looking for witches that aren’t there, essentially. What’s fascinating to me is the actual hunt for witches was against women who spoke out and were confident and independent and they got hanged for it. Men using “witch hunt” always drives me crazy, it’s like it was actually an anti-woman thing. How do you get to people where you can do this and not feel like everybody’s at risk? I’m giving them a little, I can see how it can get out of control.
I can too, it’s one of my problems with zero tolerance, right, because zero tolerance could just have us all walking around on eggshells, which would not be good. Which is why I want to make things discussable and I want to create the conditions for ... As a human species we’re mortal, we will make mistakes, we will improve, but let’s talk about the mistakes, let’s all learn from it. If I make a mistake, everyone else doesn’t have to repeat it.
All right, last question: Key aspects of leadership in management, going forward in a new world where management is very different than it used to be. It’s not top down, it’s not ... Give me three key issues.
Three, okay. So one, understand that leadership is about making others better as a result of your presence. I think that’s super important. Two ...
Selflessness, you’re talking about?
No, it’s literally my performance is based on your performance. Leadership is about making others better as a result of your presence, one. Two, and having it last into your absence. Our job is to replace ourselves as quickly as possible, I think that’s an enormous part ...
A lot of people have trouble with that.
It’s a lot of people. If we just did those two things that it’s not about you serving me, it’s about me creating the conditions for you to thrive and for me to be replaceable as soon as possible, which means I have confidence that there’s another place for me in this organization or another one. I think that’s the second one. And then the third one is, do it in a way where people feel your high standards and feel your deep devotion.
The way that you communicate that is?
Through not only asking the first question but asking the follow-up question and the follow-up question and the follow-up question.
The very last question is what are the three things people do wrong? What is the thing like, “Please stop this,” as leaders?
Leaders try to be great at everything as opposed to having a team, so try to go it alone as opposed to having a team.
Which Travis is like, that’s one of his qualities.
Am I listing the three or are ...
No, go ahead.
Yeah, I think Lone Ranger is one mistake. Another mistake is that they, because we’re good at one thing we think we’re then going to be good at something else and we should actually take a lot of humility. Doing two things is much harder than doing one thing. I think we have to have the humility there. And then the third one ... Anne, you got a third one for me?
Speaker 1: All you, babe.
Okay, what’s another mistake people make?
Speaker 1: Hire people that look like us.
That’s exactly what it is, we hire people that look like us.
Right, and who think like us.
Who think like us, and it’s super comforting and we should realize that if we have diversity we will have greater excellence than we ever could have imagined.
I think it’s interesting because something I would always say is that Silicon Valley thinks of itself as a meritocracy. But it’s a mirrortocracy.
There’s too much homogeneity for it to actually be getting the best.
But those would be the one’s that you did. I know you’re an optimist, but what is an unrecoverable offense? Is there anything? Or do you think everything is?
Of course there are unrecoverable offenses, it’s just I shouldn’t be the judge.
Right, okay, are you happy you’ve come to Uber?
I am living the dream, I’m the luckiest person I know.
Man, you are hard to break. You know something, you can call me Sir if you want. Anyway, questions from the audience? In fact, you should call me Sir. All right, right here, and then here and here.
Speaker 2: Let’s say that you guys do run a company and that the culture does change, isn’t the message that goes to everyone else is that it could be this bad but as long as you show contrition, people you will be fine. This behavior is okay once but after that one if you show contrition you’ll be okay. There is retribution in these cultures, because Uber’s succeeded for a lot of those same reasons that you’re talking about, but the culture behind it is enormous. That’s why I agree with Mrs. Swisher’s point about contrition and cause is important.
First, we have a political environment like that right now, that’s very like whoa.
I think reasonable people can disagree about this. I do. I think that it’s a very legitimate point of view to have, that your behavior was so egregious that you should go away and let someone else come in and do it. I happen to be on the redemption side. I don’t think that the lasting message is, look what you can get away with. I think that if Uber shows that it’s successful, it gives license for every single organization and every individual on the planet to say we too can fix the environment we’re in. I think reasonable people can disagree about it.
Speaker 3: First of all, you have a very safe and intentional demeanor, which I think in itself probably makes an impact on the company. My question is, this is uncharted territory, this is almost like innovation in organizational management. What are the indicators you’re going to be looking for along the way to see if you’re successful and what moments do you think will you most enjoy?
The t-shirt moment is going to be a really good one for me, when there’s 15,000 people wearing the Uber t-shirt. I think when drivers love driving for us because they love driving for us, not because they have to drive for us, when riders love using us for the service but they also feel proud to do it, when employees are thriving and they feel proud, when our shareholders are proud and delighted to be a part of it, when cities are really earnestly wanting us to come in and partner. I think we have probably eight different states ...
Yeah, eight constituencies, I think it’s measuring all eight in a pull, not a push way. When all eight of those constituencies are super excited about us I am very, very sure that the business will and the financials will have taken care of themselves.
In that creating a better environment around it. It’s interesting, because some people are like, well someone at the company was like, well, it’s not that hurt, you know what I mean? The business has not gotten that hurt by all this negativity. I think it has, there’s been a brand hit that’s been not just in San Francisco. But what was interesting when they said that — the business is not hurt — and I can’t believe it I did this, I turned to them, I said, “But you’re still an asshole.” Like so what? the business ...
You’re as unbreakable as I am.
I’m helping you, I’m helping you in your organization right here. You know what I mean?
I totally do.
They didn’t care. If the business didn’t get hurt that was all that mattered. And I was like, you’re still awful, you’re still awful.
I think we can still do much better.
Speaker 4: Thank you so much, first of all, as someone who listens to a lot of Recode Decode, it’s just so awesome to see it live, I’m just nerding out at this moment. I love this conversation. But my question is about this tension that Kara talked about a little bit between leadership and growth. Uber has the financial resources to bring in people like you, but I think a lot of early-stage companies have this founder cult going on, but they’re young people who haven’t managed a lot of people. What can startups think about leadership before it ...?
Very good question.
It’s a really good question. This is going to be that ... I’m an academic, but I think that a lot of really thoughtful people have written the best they can on how to do this and I would read their books. Everything from “The Founder’s Dilemma” to “The First 90 Days.” I don’t find that many of these challenges are new, we just have to be in an absorptive place. I think there is magnificent things that are written; if you’re looking for one on leadership there’s a wonderful HBR article, “Stop Holding Yourself Back.” I’m a co-author. When you find one you like, go to the few degrees of connection through it. Academics are trying to influence people in their absence, I would really take them up on it with what they’ve written.
What about a coach? A personal coach?
I consider myself a coach; I think coaching is really good. We need good coaches and my worry is that we don’t have the wisdom to know the difference. When you ask someone for advice you want them to be good.
As long as we have good coaches I love it, I love it, I love it.
To be reflective, go ahead, right here.
Speaker 5: Thanks. So I’m in my last year of school right now and one of the things that ...
This is where I’m not allowed to say it, but high school?
Speaker 5: University.
Okay, university, got it.
Speaker 5: One of the things I’ve noticed is there’s this relationship within industry recruiters and universities where they go to the school and say we want to do more diversity, particularly women in tech, but the problem is already in the schools. In my program it’s like 10 percent women, 90 percent men, then they kick the ball down to high schools and lower. Do you see a similarity here with leadership culture? And what ultimately can universities be doing to train tech workers who ultimately go into management about how to handle these problems better?
Girls Who Code is probably going to do more for women leaders than Harvard Business School will, because we get to select on the dependent variable. To your point, we do have to go and create the conditions for people to want to thrive in these environments. I think that women and minorities are going to make it there and then we’re going to go look at STEM and then we’re going to go look at the next things, because everyone is coding now. I mean, my 6-year-old is talking to me about coding. It’s insane. Once we get in early it’s going to create the conditions there. The equivalent of Girls Who Code and doing it, I think that when academic institutions are solving the problem it’s too late. We’ve got to go younger.’
There’s also a larger societal issue too. I don’t know if you’ve looked at work by Geena Davis, about that around movies and talking, one of the things that’s really fascinating is the level of men talking versus women talking, and most of the women who talk are stupid or they don’t have jobs — that’s another things, a lot of the women characters, even in cartoons, they don’t have jobs. It’s really interesting, it really is, you start to get your mind blown when you start to see the data — or even like “Scooby Doo.” Look at “Scooby Doo,” the guys solve the things, Velma’s the lesbian so she gets to be smart, you know what I mean?
She was a lesbian?
Yes, 100 percent, hello. She wore knee socks.
I usually give you people the benefit of the doubt.
We need to have a separate talk. You should look at that data, Geena Davis’s stuff, she’s the actress from “Thelma and Louise,” she’s actually now dedicating herself to doing this. One of the things I remember Sheryl Sandberg saying to me, she’s on the board of Disney, she always has to speak up even though she shouldn’t be necessarily the only one to speak up. I remember her telling a story where she was in a Disney board meeting and this is what led to “Brave” and some other things, “Frozen,” I guess. Although in “Frozen,” men do most of the talking in that movie.
I would never have known that.
They do when you actually start to count the lines. She said, “Listen, I like a princess, my daughter likes a princess, but can the friggin princesses have a job?” You know what I mean, like it was just that kind of thing. It’s an interesting ... There’s a bigger societal problem around that, once you start to notice it you’re like, “Oh, wait a minute.”
Sheryl Sandberg can solve everything.
Yeah, she can, all right I’ll tell her. First, this woman here, right here.
Speaker 6: I’m curious, so you talked a lot today about what you’re doing internally to address the culture with Uber, in terms of addressing their managerial and leadership tactics, which I think is incredibly noble. I work in tech, and from an outsider female perspective, I look at Uber and I see a company that would be at the bottom of my list of places that I would want to work, not just because of the more recent problematic things we’ve seen in the media but also because, like many tech companies, when I look at Uber I see a company that does not have many people that look like me in leadership. We know that a huge component of culture is who sits in the rooms and who is on leadership teams, who holds the power and makes the decisions. What are you doing externally to make Uber a company that is attractive for people like me?
So I love the question, and I would say that in Silicon Valley companies are comforted by the low standard deviation of ... So Uber has this percentage and so does Google and so does Facebook. So the lowest standard deviation is somehow comforting, and what you’re saying is the means have to be higher. The reason that I would agree with you is because I have never seen a true meritocracy that wasn’t more demographically diverse. I think reasonable people can disagree about this, it’s not that I want demographically diverse, it’s that I want there to be a meritocracy and it will be demographically diverse. I think that it’s Uber and every other company has to find out what are we doing to hold back awesome women. And let’s address that.
Not just that, people of color.
What’s fascinating about it, the only time I ever get questions of “we have standards Kara,” is when it’s around women and people of color. “Oh, Kara, but we have standards.” I’m like, “Well what about the 10 other fucking idiots on your board that are all white men? I think they’re all stupid, maybe that one’s not.” It’s really fascinating, but the only time standards is mentioned is literally around ... “But we have standards!” I was like, “No you don’t.”
Twitter was the one I attacked a lot. Remember, they had 10 white men, no insult to white men, I own two of them up there, my sons. They had 10 white men on the board, I was arguing with Dick Costolo who was a very funny guy, I was like, “You can’t mathematically have that happen, how did that occur?” “Oh it just happened.” No it didn’t just happen, it was like the most ridiculous argument with someone.
What was fascinating, I always tell this joke, literally three men, there were three men named Peter and one named Dick. I was like, “You have three men named Peter and one named Dick in 10 white guys.” And he was like, “That’s really funny.” I was like, “It’s not funny.” But it is funny, that’s a funny joke. It was really interesting that the word “standards” is only applied when it comes to making ... “We don’t want to lower our standards.”
Whenever I see a homogenous picture I think that we have been artificially holding back certain groups. And I’m going to go and anthropologically work tirelessly to create the conditions for everyone to thrive. I will say that the weird thing about Silicon Valley, it’s the first place I’ve ever been where meritocracy has a bad name. I know how to create a diverse and inclusive environment, it’s honestly through a meritocracy, but somehow it’s become a weird word in Silicon Valley that I don’t totally understand and I’m not sure I even want to, I just want to reclaim it but do it the right way.
It isn’t, it just isn’t.
Speaker 7: First I just want to thank you guys so much for being here, we’re just so thrilled to have you here. As someone who spent their whole career focused on meritocracy and equal rights and creating the right kind of environment for everybody to do their best, I’m interested in the game-changer business model of Uber which started in I think was written in a Harvard Business Review article around challenging the legal regulations and started by Lyft and then I think Travis actually tried to do the right thing and then found that he was out-competed, at least according to this article.
I’m curious, what’s the takeaway? You’ve got a company that has challenged the model, clearly consumers wanted it, we’ve all used it, I used both coming here so I was an equal opportunist with Uber and Lyft coming up from the capitol. Sitting in the seat of the nation’s sixth-largest economy in Sacramento, I’m just curious, I’d love to hear what both of you — because Kara, you get to interview a lot of tech companies and that’s like the Uber mensch thing here now is flaunt the regs — what does that mean for compliance and ethics, which I think sets the groundwork for equality and women’s issues and equality across the board.
KS: I’ll start very quickly, I interviewed Travis at Code a couple years ago and he was actually bracingly honest about what he was doing, which I now find fascinating. He got into trouble for it, by the way, because at one point I said well, what about self-driving cars, this was about four years ago. He goes, “You know Kara, the problem is the guy sitting in the front seat. We’ve got to get rid of him, because then we’d be really profitable.” Literally there was the sharpest intake of breath from the entire crowd because he was essentially saying we’ve got to get rid of the drivers because they cost money and robots have got to get in there.
No one said that in Silicon Valley and he did, which was sort of indicative of his personality and I got him to like, yay, he just said the truth. Because that’s what they think but they’re too nice to say it: We’re don’t really want to get rid of jobs and yet you’re automating everything. What was interesting about it is, I like that quality about him, and he was riding the taxis, whatever he called them, he had real mean names for taxi people. I kind of liked that part of it because he was going against a worthy opponent. What I think happened was that it worked and then it got out of control so every nail, there’s nails everywhere, and so everything had to get nailed. That’s what I think, it just got out of control. It was initially a very good quality and then it really ...
What I referenced earlier, I do think that in each of us we do have a superpower that can be used for good and if not harnessed correctly, can be the thing that’s not. And so I think fighting against the bad regulation is a good thing. Then how do you make sure you’re not the culprit going forward? And I think you do it by not doing it alone, not doing it in the dark, having journalists sort of look in on it. I will say that implicit in what you said when you said, “I used Uber and I used Lyft,” in my soul I love competition because it makes us all better. I love and honor our competitors, I want our competitors to do a good job so that we have to do an even better job. You know who wins? Everyone, when that happens.
Go look at old quotes of his, they’re fascinating to look at, he sort of modulated himself more now. It went from the taxi industry is so evil, which I think he had a really great turn of phrase about them, to fight them.
Wow, that’s usually what happens to me.
Right. What the hell happened, we’re going to keep talking. It went to using idiotic terms like boober, you’re like, oh my god, did you just say that, you 12-year-old — not even 12, by the way, I don’t even know what age that is. Anyway, it moved into, it warped itself.
Next question, someone will figure it out.
Speaker 8: Thank you both for this conversation. I wanted to talk to you, Professor Frei, on one particular thing.
Speaker 8: Sorry, you’re describing a redemptive management style. Where I have some questions for you is about how accountability works in an environment of redemption and how accountability happens and trust is rebuilt.
KS: That’s a great point.
Speaker 8: I could take two approaches to this whole conversation, either Hobbesian or positive. The negative side by the women, people of color, LGBTQIA, people who have been abused — not just at Uber — are thinking, okay, redemption sounds a lot like those who are still standing get away with it or get to sweep it under the rug, that’s a negative take. The positive take is you believe in leadership, you’re creating systems with the head of HR to move forward in a positive environment. Your own trustworthiness and accountability is at stake in this, it’s an incredibly high profile situation, so how does this work?
I welcome it because I like to be accountable.
That’s a good question.
It’s a very good question and I think that developing trust is the first thing that happens on the redemption part. I will go back to reasonable people can disagree, maybe behaviors are so bad you should turn everything off, I don’t think so. I will never be the one who thinks that.
Are you worried about your own personal brand is what she’s asking.
Oh, golly, no because, I mean no. If I were worried about my own personal brand, I mean, I got here and the guy, he said do you want me to touch up your makeup, I was like, that would imply I had some to begin with. I also said, could you cut my hair and he did. So, no, I’m not worried about my personal brand.
About your personal reputation.
I go through the world being earnest and noble and I will for my entire life. I don’t give it a moment’s thought.
I think if she even slightly turns around she’s going to be the dean of the Harvard Business School and then get a great book out of it. That’s what I think is going on. There’s no downside here for you that I can tell.
And I am not gaming it, there’s not an ounce of me ...
No, I get you aren’t, I totally game everything, and if it doesn’t work you’re like, oh, those assholes.
I think your question is a very good one. I’m going to use my entire body and soul to do the right thing, I am.
All right, one more question. By the way, she used the word golly, did you notice that? I totally did. Who uses golly? I love it. Who says golly? Anybody, it’s a great old word.
This woman here has been having her hand up really and if you can do it quickly we’ll go to you too.
Speaker 9: After Susan Fowler’s blog post, I deleted my Uber account, like many people, and I’m very hopeful by the vision you’re painting of every Uber employee being proud to wear a t-shirt, every city welcoming you, every employee, Uber driver wanting to be ... I will reinstall my Uber account when that happens.
Okay, what’s your time frame?
Tomorrow would be good because she really likes Uber.
You did, you did because I want us to be much better tomorrow than we are today and then I want us to be much better the next day and then when is it going to pass your threshold? Notice I’m not asking you to lower your threshold.
Speaker 9: It’s your threshold.
You have a bar and we have to meet it and I welcome that. If you’re asking me when do I think we’re going to meet your bar.
Speaker 9: When are we going to meet your bar? I like your bar, you described a bar.
For saying you like something you felt very aggressive, just like feedback there. I heard like but I didn’t feel like.
You know what, she’s from Cambridge.
If I was from Boston I’d be a little tougher. I’ll be completely honest, I give people a lot of credit for the slope of improvement. I really do, so Uber meets my bar today because of it’s slope of improvement.
Not mine. I say a year.
Oh gosh, if we’re not in a year I agree with you.
It’s not something ... If they drag the CEO search out and they don’t get someone who is a real CEO, there’s all kinds of indications.
Understand that the CEO is one member of an already awesome team.
Yes, but it indicates — it’s a leading indicator, as I like to say — they get a serious CEO who’s going to run things.
And bring in great people.
Last question, right here, super quick.
Speaker 10: You’ve taken on a very challenging task and you’re dealing with something as abstract as culture and you have a made a lot of personal sacrifices, so what will your legacy be if you ever leave Uber and go back to Harvard? What do you want to be remembered for?
KS: That’s a good question.
It’s a great question. I don’t think of legacy. We each get one chance on this planet, every single day I want to be worthy of going home to the most awesome woman on the planet. I want to be worthy every day of doing things that only I can do. Then that’s worth it I don’t have a great answer. I’m not worried about ... I’ve never given my legacy a moment’s thought. I never will.
Wow, all right, golly. Very last, very quick question, right here, and then we’ll finish. Why don’t you just speak up, you have two seconds to get the last fantastic question, no pressure.
Speaker 11: Kara, I love your podcast, I didn’t know what to expect but I love you and you’re very funny and I’m very pleased to meet you. Yesterday I learned a new term, which is “glass cliff.” I don’t know if you know it or not, but the definition that I got is women are more likely than men to be put in a leadership position during times of crisis and downturn, when the chances of failure is highest. I don’t think you’re put in this situation because you guys have crisis, but I don’t think it’s so very big crisis, minor. What do you think about this issue? What I see it is true, it’s happened. It feels like women are vulnerable and they are put in this situation.
That’s empirically ... it resonates to me that empirically that would be true, that when situations are really hard maybe we disproportionately ask women to lead. I would like us to ask women to lead all the time, I’m super fine with asking women to lead when things are disproportionately hard because I know many, many, many great women leaders.
So we’re getting a woman president next election.
We’re getting a woman mayor, I heard.
It’s true, there’s a lot of women coming in now at Uber, it’s fascinating.
Speaker 11: That’s right, San Francisco.
Right here, right here, woman mayor, I heard.
Yeah, but I’m not going to be the redeeming kind, that’s what they want. You litter, you’re fucking in trouble.
And we’re cutting off your hand. There’s no ... One strike and you’re out.
Maybe a small pinky, something discreet, yet threatening. You’re totally moving to San Francisco, Anne, right? Kara’s going to take care of business. Frances, I really appreciate this, I think you did a great job, you’re very forthright and honest. I’m struck by your optimism, I’m not sure I share it but it’ll be an interesting ... We’ll come back to this in a year’s time and see how you did.
I mean quite sincerely, I think the light you shine on Uber is a gift and I’m really grateful for it.
Yeah, most people call me an asshole for that, but thank you, I appreciate it. I really appreciate it, thank you so much and thank you to the audience.
Thank you guys.
Just a note, if you wonder what the film crew is doing — and also we’re putting everything on the podcast, your questions will be on the podcast also which is appearing, I’m not sure when we’re publishing it, but we are soon. It’s an extra-long podcast and then the team here is a team from CNBC, which people do watch, I’m teasing. We’re doing a documentary on women in Silicon Valley, I’m doing it with them. It’s going to be an hour-long — I don’t know, three or four hours, five, six, something like that, because I think it’s a really important issue and we’re going to try to do something substantive and interesting about it and sort of create some really good discussion around it, so they’re here doing this. Thank you for participating in this and we appreciate it, thank you.
Thank you, everybody.
Thank again to Uber Senior Vice President of Leadership Frances Frei for joining me on the podcast and to the team at Ericsson for hosting us at their beautiful campus in Santa Clara, California.
This article originally appeared on Recode.net.