Trust is a fickle thing. How do we make sure it is built and incorporated into the company culture? In this episode, Harvard Business School professor Dr. Frances Frei joins Dr. Diane Hamilton to give her insight on this by discussing her TED Talk and using her experience at Harvard of how she and her colleagues made the school more gender-inclusive. Dr. Frei works with companies who are embarking on large-scale change and organizational transformation, including embracing diversity and inclusion as a lever for improved performance. She also served as Uber’s first Senior Vice President of Leadership and Strategy where she fixed the failing culture in a year. Tune in to this episode to know the three pillars of trust and how you can navigate crises, leadership, and culture.
I’m so glad you joined us because we have Frances Frei here. Frances is a Harvard professor. She’s also the author of the book Unleashed. She has a great TED Talk. She deals with trust. I’m so excited to have her on the show.
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Building Trust For Cultural Change With Dr. Frances Frei
I am here with Frances Frei, who is a professor at Harvard business school. She served as Uber’s first Senior Vice President of Leadership and Strategy to help the company navigate its very public crisis in leadership and culture. Frances regularly works with companies embarking on large scale change and organizational transformation, including embracing diversity and inclusion as a lever for improved performance. You’ve probably seen her TED Talk along with 4.5 million other people. She’s the co-author of Unleashed. I’m very excited to talk to you, Frances. Welcome.
Thank you so much, Diane, for having me on the show.
I was looking forward to this. I loved your TED Talk. Everybody got up on their feet at the end for a good reason. It was an interesting look at trust and some of the things that leaders struggle with and cultural change. You had so much tied into it. Before we get into that and your book, I’d love to get a background on how do you end up being a Harvard professor?
There are probably 200 or 300 Harvard professors and I don’t think there’s a dominant way to do it. Mine is an unusual path, but I think everybody is going to say there’s this unusual path. I went to college and I thought I was going to be a professional basketball coach. That was always my dream. Even when I went to get my PhD, I didn’t tell Wharton that that’s what my intention was on my application, but that’s what I would do. By the time I finished my PhD program, I realized that coaching is what I wanted to do, but probably not in sports. When I realized I was going to go into academia, which was well into my PhD program, Harvard had said no to me a total of five times. By the time I got there, it wasn’t on the first swing or the second swing, but I knew it was the right place for me.
I believed in the mission to educate leaders who will make a difference in the world. The education part made sense to me, the leader angle, making a difference, and having a noble purpose. I kept trying and trying and I’ve learned through that process that decisions are made by mortal human beings. Whoever happens to be the decision-maker and I didn’t want to let a mortal influence my life’s trajectory. I kept trying to prepare myself better and coming back and I don’t know if they finally said, “Let her in. She is not going away.” If somehow, I met the standard but it is a great place for me. I feel grateful every day and I try to do my best on behalf of the school.
I love the tenacity. Pinch yourself when you get to be a Harvard professor. You managed to change the culture there to become more gender-inclusive. Tell me about that.
We did that for the students primarily. What happened was that when Nitin Nohria became Dean, one of the first things he did is he brought in a new leadership team for the MBA program and it was a group of us that had long an intuition about the MBA program. We learned some data when we got these roles, which were that women were underperforming men systematically in terms of grades and in terms of self-reported satisfaction. Black students were underperforming white students, international students. It went down to LGBT students. There were these systemic gaps in performance, I would say gaps in who’s thriving because I always look at sentiment satisfaction and achievement. In this case, it was grades.
When we saw that data, and Nitin was gracious in letting us do what we felt was right for the program, we set out to close those gaps along the way. We were thinking a lot about gender. The other ones were on our mind, but we thought, “We can do gender first and then we’ll do the others.” We closed all of the gaps in the first year. The important thing we learned then, which has stayed with me is that we made it better for everyone. Not only did women end up with the same satisfaction as men, but men’s satisfaction also went up. That was true for all of the constituents. I think it’s quite amazing. I’m happy to go into the details of how we do it.
I’m interested. I used to work as an MBA program chair, so I’d love to know how you closed the gaps.
I’ll do it on the grade side. Fifty percent of every grade is class participation and there’s a forced curve. The bottom 10% of every class, they get a three and other people would know it is as failing. You get credit. You get into academic difficulty if you get too many threes. When we went and looked at the data, we saw that it wasn’t a difference in exams. It was the difference in class participation that was driving the majority of the variation in the grades. When we looked further, we saw that some people in class participation, they are comfortable in that 90 student classroom, a big classroom with people that you’ve probably been one of the smarter people than every room you’ve gone into and now you totally don’t feel like that’s true anymore. Some people feel comfortable talking from day one and some people don’t for a whole bunch of reasons. One is they’re not used to having their voice projected that way. Two, they wait until they put a very high self-filter on what they’re going to say. There are a whole number of things. Some people structure their comments so that they don’t have an impact.As a leader of an event, you're responsible for your own behavior and the behavior of everyone else at the event. Click To Tweet
What we found is that if we could find more and more varied ways for people to thrive early in the semester, our hope was that that would be contagious into the class participation part of the classroom. We did a bunch of things. One is talked about what we were doing. Two, we also did things like introducing the field methods, so the case method is learning by talking about what you would do and the field method is learning by doing. The interesting thing about the field method, it was a small group experiential and groups of six. The same people that thrived early on in the case method were not the same people that thrived in the small group experiential. We were giving more ways for more people to find their mojo early on.
That’s like lifting the ceiling. We also brought the floor up because there had been a history of unfortunate events happening in the school they’d been publicized for decades. I can remember one moment when someone said, “We’re going to have section handoffs, so please make sure you don’t travel this weekend.” It was such a surprise for someone to say to me, “Don’t travel this weekend because of fear of something that might go wrong in the MBA program.” The section handoff is that everybody who comes in and use a section with a letter, so I’m section B. I’m new section B and then next I’m old section B. An old section B comes in and talks to new section B. Apparently those had gotten out of hand in some cases every year. You didn’t know which one was going to burst.
One section always burst. I was told this is coming up and prepare yourself. I was like, “No. I don’t need to prepare myself. We have to set the conditions so that this doesn’t happen.” We then started being a lot more presumptuous about accountability, leadership and we gave a new veneer of our community values that if everyone’s responsible for their own personal behavior, but if you lead an event first, thank you. It’s key if you lead a student event. Two, how can we help? Students are so busy. Three, as a leader of the event, you’re responsible for your own behavior and the behavior of everyone else at the event.
I’m focusing in a little bit on the introvert versus the extrovert aspect of all that you’re talking about, thinking of Susan Kane’s work and the other stuff that we talk about on the show. Are you running into that being an issue? I’m thinking no one wants to be Arnold Horshack from Welcome Back, Kotter where you need over monopolize the conversation in class and when you were talking about how some people didn’t like to participate. I’m curious if you have any kind of data on what percent are introverts or extroverts at Harvard.
They used to do those studies. Thankfully, they didn’t because giving someone a label and then also saying you’re on a transformational journey, you realize it’s not a good idea. Here’s what we found. Everyone got there in the end, it was the slope of how and how long it took. We needed to hasten to get comfortable in the classroom for people, for whom it wasn’t initially comfortable. I’ll tell you some things I did. For women who had naturally softer voices, I don’t know if they were an introvert or not, but they were not demonstrative. They didn’t move their hands a lot. I would go into the classroom at lunch with them and say, “Let’s have lunch together,” and have us all sit in the sky deck and then have a regular conversation. You have to project quite unnaturally, but to do that for two days and what it means to say something in a classroom where everyone can hear it. There were these little pebbles, like another one in a big classroom. If you raise your hand and your fingers are lower than the top of your head, you think you’re raising your hand, there’s a little chance that the professor will ever see it because it will blend into the person behind you because we’re on a sloped classroom.
Demonstrating to people this is a hand we can see raised. This is one that we can’t, so it was all of these things that you’re not born knowing. We accumulated all the little pebbles that were getting in the way, help sweep them out of the way and rose up, gave a noble purpose to it. The students as always came back and did it and then did even more. Once we got that going, the students were like, “We don’t have an honor code and we think there should be one because some people are using technology in classrooms and you’re supposed to be doing something about it and you’re not. We want to put in place an honor code.” We were like, “Okay.” We went and did research with the students on all of the best honor codes. Stanford was the one that struck us and we adopted an honor code completely because the students wanted it. After we started collaborating with them, they started collaborating with us. Five or six years, it kept going up long after we had left our positions. At some point, we’d lasted for 2 or 3 leaders after us and then at some point, I’ve lost a little bit of touch of what’s going on, but we certainly know the recipe for how to do it.
You brought in so many great points and when you’re talking about being inclusive, I’m trying to find out what it was. You’re developing this sense of curiosity to find out what it takes to get people to feel inclusive and I love having Francesca Gino on the show talking about curiosity. You’re also talking about collaboration, which Amy Edmondson was amazing on. You’ve got some of the best professors there. Everybody who’s been on the show has shared some amazing insight as to how you guys focus on so many of these important things that I think are critical for success. I know you deal a lot with fixing toxic cultures and developing trust. I loved your TED Talk. You talk about how you were hired to fix the culture at Uber, which we’ve heard some issues that we have. Do you want to talk about that because I thought that was interesting? How did Uber feel about you talking about that in your TED Talk?
I had never gotten anything but great support from Uber while I was there and while I left. I’m a very big fan of the people and the company, and I was brought there to help and they learned from me and I learned from them. No, they’ve never tried to influence anything I’ve said. It’s not like we have a contract for that. I’m in it for them 100%. I’ll say that what happened when I got to Uber is that changing the culture there happened within a year. I now believe that if you want to do significant change, you have to do it in a year. If you try to take any longer than that, it won’t stay as your top priority. You’ll be sending people mixed messages that it’s a top priority and the next day something else is. You have to condense the time for which it’s a top priority. If you do that, meaningful change can happen in about nine months.
Uber in as bad a shape as a company could be when we got there and then nine months later, the things that we got there for, it would be impossible for those tragic things to have happened again. We did it systematically. One thing we realized is that we sought out all of the complaints. Susan Fowler wrote this heart-wrenching blog about a very strange year at Uber and it laid there like any person should never have to go through. If you read it for the 10th, 11th, and 12th time, you’ll see there were so many management opportunities that didn’t occur. I started reading and thinking, “There is so much org debt here.” Managers could have stepped in 100 times and instead didn’t. When we went and analyzed after this event, like any company, you surface all of the problems you can. We open up every avenue and surface them.
Of all of the complaints that were surfaced, well over 90% had to do with interactions with managers. We were like, “There are 3,000 managers at this organization. There could be 3,000 bad people, or it could be that nobody has given these young people for many of them, this is their first job. The secret memos on how to manage.” Before taking the job, I went and worked with a whole bunch of managers and did manager training and things. These were great learners. They hadn’t been given the secret memos. Sometimes the conditions had been set where the majority way of doing things, it needed one person to say, “That’s not acceptable,” and they stopped doing it. If you look at who we separated with in June of 2017, and they were between 10,000 and 20,000 employees. The whole place up here is on fire and I’m not even going to say they’re bad people.
They needed to be separated with the company. In all honesty, I think 22 people needed to be separated and we didn’t have the courage to do the other two. That’s probably why it took a little bit longer than it did. When it’s that few I’m super optimistic. Education to teach people how to manage, who were desperate to know teaching leadership, which is different than the management. Also, strategy needed to be taught because Travis understood strategy super well, but he almost protected people from knowing each other’s business so that they could focus on hypergrowth. When he left, people didn’t have the comprehensive view, so we had to develop the strategy and make sure to learn what strategy is.
It sounds crazy, but in an environment where costs are greater than revenue, which is what the case was at Uber. A strategy is not instinctual. We had to do a lot of work there, but I would say that all of that worked. The culture is great. The people are great. Any problems that the company has now are due to strategic choices. There’s not a culture that’s going to take down the company, whether or not they decide to go into another business or what they decide to differentiate on. That should be what’s at the core, but the culture has been taken care of. That was back in 2017, 2018 and we’re years later in counting and it’s stronger now than it was then.
When you were referring to this about how they were texting in meetings about the meetings, everybody laughs when you say that. It’s so funny because I interviewed someone on my show who I used to work for. While I was interviewing him on my show, he texted me that I was good at this while I was interviewing them. It was funny to me because that’s what came to mind.
I imagine that’s sweet, but then if you’re in a room and two people see intimacy between two people and they feel excluded, that’s where it was like the secret memos. Not even all of the behavior was meant to be toxic but a lot of it happens.
The texting is so unnecessary in the middle of many. It’s amazing how much of that goes on, “Put the phones down, we can talk.” I’m curious what you think about Travis if he had a second attempt like Steve Jobs. Can being removed be a good thing and then you come back and be how Steve was able to embed himself?If you want to do a significant change, you have to do it in a year. Click To Tweet
The company could have turned around with him there. I worked with him quite a lot. Here’s a man who said, “I need help on leadership and I need help on strategy.” The last company he ran, he managed eight people. This one, there were between 10,000 and 15,000 and it was due to hypergrowth and he asks for help. I can’t create the desire to change, although I love to in some institutions. If you have the desire to change, we can fix any culture and any toxic situation. He totally had the desire to change. Let me give you an example. He wrote these beautiful cultural values and if you read them, they’d bring tears to your eyes. It was the culture he wanted and it was things like toe stepping. Toe stepping is like everyone in this organization. No matter how big we get, we’ve got to surface the best innovative ideas. If your manager is somehow silencing you, please step on their toes and go above them. If they’re silencing you, step on their toes and go above them until you get to me because that’s how important getting all of the great ideas out are.
I love that. That ties into curiosity.
It’s beautiful except it got weaponized. Here’s how it got weaponized, which is that people started using it down the hierarchy. A senior person is going to step on the toes of a junior person. Here’s what I’ve learned and I’ve worked with many companies. Another common one is default to trust, which is so good. Give everyone the benefit of the doubt default to an initial stance of trust. Its weaponized version is to stop asking pesky questions. Default to trust. Just believe me. As soon as a cultural value gets weaponized, you have to let it go.
I want to tie into that because my research is on curiosity. If you’re being stopped and your questions are being not addressed because we’ve decided you need to trust me, that inhibits everything. I’m very curious how did you deal with that?
The same way we dealt with the other ones. As soon as a value is no longer being used as it was intended, which is for the good of the organization, but is instead used for the benefit of the individual that happens to be wielding it, as soon as that happens, there’s no clawing the value back by saying, “No, this is what we meant.” As soon as it’s out in the ether, toxic and weaponized, you have to redo the cultural values.
How do you measure that?
You just walk in. Anthropologically, it takes a day to find out. Look at the Slack channel. These organizations are run by their cultural values. They’ll say, “#DefaultToTrust,” but you’ll be like, “That wasn’t #GiveTheBenefitOfTheDoubt.”
That’s interesting because I talked to so many companies about the value of curiosity. I talked to Francesca Gino about this and she has some data that she had come up with on that. It’s a very limited amount of data out there that you can say, “This is why you need to allow people to ask questions and to provide input.” You can’t tie it into engagement, motivation, and drive data. There’s not a lot of research. Have you found much?
These are the sorts of things where I think someday a scholar will be able to operationalize it well enough, but I don’t need any more data. Reading Amy Edmondson’s work, read Francesca Gino’s and then try to make the argument that fewer questions are better. I’m old. I get a little less time left on the planet. I’m certainly not going to go and prove things I know to be true. Somebody one day will get the data, but there is no question that if we can harness curiosity correctly, I’m going to have better ideas than you are so I’m going to outperform you.
It also ties into some work I’ve been doing in perception, which is interesting to me. What they thought they were trying to do is not what it ended up being. Perception, a lot of it ties into asking questions so you’re able to figure out what it is that other people want, what it is that teams need. A lot of the stuff that you’re trying to do is fix this culture. For me, perception is a lot about IQ in terms of critical thinking in that aspects, and it’s about EQ and empathy, asking questions and building trust and all that. Also, it’s that cultural awareness, the differences in people, and acceptance.
That work is super fun. Is the presence of curiosity better than the absence of curiosity? Yes. Under which circumstances does which type of curiosity work? That’s endlessly fascinating to me because when we learn it, we can get better.
What was interesting to me was that there were no assessments that determined what kept them from being curious. Everything tells you if you’re curious or not. I’m not, now what? What I work on is helping people with the things that stop them.
Development over evaluation and in general, the world is not concentrated. The world does about ten times too much evaluation and 1/10 too little development. You need to develop their curiosity, not evaluate how curious they are.
A lot of it comes with finding out what it is that’s holding people back and you talk about a lot of things that hold us back from trust. You talked about wobbly aspects of trust. Let’s get into the wobbly aspects.
There are three pillars of trust. Do you feel like it’s the real me? Do I have rigorous logic? Am I genuinely in it for you? Authenticity, logic, and empathy. If I’m not trusted or if an organization is not trusted, we can now trace it back to one of those three. We’re open to a force. We haven’t come across it. We’ve now done this with over 100,000 people. We’ve done it with loads of organizations. We got some confidence that the rigor was right when we saw that Aristotle’s logos, pathos, and ethos has a direct link to it. It feels comprehensive, although we’re open for a trust quadrangle triangle. It’s gotten to the limit of a triangle so far. What we find is that in any situation where there’s not trust, we can diagnose which of the three it is. Why it’s important to do that is that the prescription to overcome an empathy wobble and what’s getting in the way we call it wobble.
That’s not threatening. You can overcome it. Without knowing if it’s empathy or logic, for example, I’ll be bringing the wrong prescription and if I bring the wrong prescription, I risk injecting cynicism into the organization. We’ve seen a lot of organizations that don’t have a granular enough understanding of trust. They’re like, “This is what worked in this context so I’m going to do it in that context.” That’s random luck if it’s the same pillar or that’s the problem. That might be why so much effort has been put on trust, but so little progress has been made. Whereas when we do it, we get to the granular part of it, and then we have prescriptions that address it and the testimony is like, “Can you get better tomorrow than you are today? Can you build more trust tomorrow? Can you go coach someone to do it?” We try to explain things so that we don’t have to be the messenger. You can learn it and then you can be the messenger.
You bring up so many great things in that and I want to get to the rigorous logic part of this. I’ve had this discussion with perception experts about confirmation bias, fake news, or whatever you want to talk about that’s out there. What I think is logical and then you see what somebody else thinks is logical, are you finding that there are conflicts and how are you even able to explain logic?
If I’m trying to build trust with you, logic is in the eye of the beholder. You are deciding to trust me based on your perception of my logic. You’re the decider. It doesn’t matter what I think logic is. I have to understand what you do it if I want to build trust with you.
You have to be able to get outside of yourself that your perception is not their reality.
I’ve met so many people with empathy wobbles and they’re like, “I’m really empathetic.” I was like, “Yes, but you are hiding it from the world.”
What do you mean by that?
You don’t get any credit. You’re empathetic, but you’re not demonstrating it. I like you, but you get no trust credit.
What would you give people as examples of how to get credit for their empathy?
When you’re in a meeting, be present to the needs of the other people. Don’t bring technology, don’t bring multitasking, be super curious about what people are saying, not impatient that they haven’t gotten it yet. Try to learn like, “How are they thinking? How can I help them? Is there an alternate resonant example that I could use that could help them?” It’s all about them or us. It’s never about me. What we find is, nobody can always be present to the needs of others because we’ve got to put the oxygen mask on ourselves, particularly on these moments. Go and put the oxygen mask, but not around your team.
When you’re putting the oxygen mask on yourself, you need it. It’s a life force, but you’re not leading. You’re only leading when you’re putting the oxygen mask on others. What we sometimes do if you’ll go and look, sometimes a leader is being self-distracted and sometimes the leader is being other distracted in a meeting. You don’t get the average. As soon as yourself is distracted, you’re not going to be trusted. Be distracted when you’re with people, be present to the needs of people when you’re there, and then take care of your own needs. Even if it means you have to be around people less often, it’s better than trying to do both at the time.
You bring up a question that is important about the teams and how they differ. It’s hard for leaders to recognize that you don’t want everybody to be exactly the same on a team because then you get a dull output. You want to have a very diverse team, but then you have conflict sometimes when people don’t necessarily like to discuss things in the same way or whatever. How can you be in the differences and help this team excel?The world is about ten times too much evaluation and one-tenth too little development. Click To Tweet
First, we should all realize that it is much easier to run a homogenous team. We might have the same lived experiences. We might use the same shorthand. We might’ve even gone to the same schools. It’s so much easier. Unless there is a magnificent performance imperative of having people that are different on the team, people are going to naturally stay amongst their own kind. It turns out that there is a magnificent performance imperative if I can have variety and you have homogeneity, but only if I explicitly manage that variety in the right way. If I don’t manage the variety, I have variety and you have homogeneity. You’ll probably outperform me. What I mean by that is, most organizations, they’re like, “I keep bringing in diverse talent.” If you’re not inclusive of the diversity, I doubt you’re outperforming and I doubt universe town are very happy. If we’re inclusive, then we get to thump, and then that’s going to be the real thing. There’s a moral imperative for some people, but there’s a performance imperative for a lot of people. The reason I like difference and I like to celebrate differences because I’m crazy competitive and I will thump you.
That brings up something I want to ask you. You know all this information being a Harvard professor, but you paired up with Anne Morriss, who is also a very highly sought-after leadership coach. What made you not write this book by yourself and what does Anne bring to this?
Anne is my wife and we have two children together. We wrote our first book together. Our marriage works best when we have big projects. Anne is smarter than I am. She’s more insightful than I am. She writes more beautifully than I am. The real question would be to ask her, “Why does she need someone like me for?”
I see you guys have boys.
We have two boys. We are beautiful complements for each other. If I was going to summarize it, I like numbers and she likes letters. She can see into your soul and I can pattern match like crazy.
It’s interesting because I was talking to somebody else on another show about how sometimes you lead by having somebody else lead with you as your sidekick that has the things that you don’t have. A great complement is so important. I think that all the things you were writing about were very fascinating to me. One of the things you mentioned about authenticity that I want to get back to is that you say it’s the most vexing. Why do you think that one’s the most vexing?
That might be changing in the crisis with George Floyd and the racial injustice that for the first time in the United States that I’ve seen, we’re all sharing the same song sheet in terms of murdering someone for the color of their skin is inhumane. When we wrote the book, this hadn’t happened yet and the reason that authenticity is most vexing is that people that are underrepresented or have less power are more likely to have authenticity wobbles. If you’re in the power group or the majority, you like super comfortable being you because everyone else that’s like you are also power and super comfortable. When we represent difference, we’re less likely to bring our authenticity to the table. Here’s one reason why and I used to be guilty of this. Someone that’s different for me, it was that I was seeing that there weren’t as many black MBA students at Harvard and when I first got to the school, they were having disproportionately more academic difficulty.
I started coaching them because I cared very much about different bringing it. The mistake I made and then I see this mistake made over and over again and I’m trying now to make up for it is that I would coach them on how things were done at HBS. I would coach them on how to be more like the people that thrived at HBS. I care and I had people who love me, tried early on to coach me to be a little less of me, and a little bit more of others. That coaching people to fit in. If I’m trying to fit in, you’re going to doubt my authenticity in a second. You’re not going to believe it. If you doubt my authenticity, you’re not going to trust me and if you don’t trust me, you’re not going to give me stretch goals and stretch assignments. If you don’t give stretch assignments, I’m going to get promoted at a lower rate. This will go on and on and then we’re going to be depressed about the demographic tendencies of our senior team. The great unlock was yes, people that are different are going to feel pressure to fit in, and we have to celebrate their difference, not coach them to be a smaller version of themselves that happens to overlap with the existing version of ourselves.
That’s an interesting thing that I’ve talked to Hall of Fame speakers about. A lot of people on my show are speakers and they want to be better speakers. They see the Zig Ziglar’s or whoever speaks out there, you try this, make yourself be funnier, be more flamboyant, or be a better storyteller, whatever it is you see that they’re so great at doing. For me as a speaker, I find that very challenging. That’s not my style to do the preacher thing on the stage personality. It’s just not me. I liked your style because when I watched your TED Talk, you’re taking it very lightly. You’re jumping around the stage saying, “You need to.” You’re very much yourself. How hard was that to give a TED Talk? Did you feel uncomfortable at all since you do so much speaking in front of Harvard?
I do a lot of speaking and I spoke to audiences with 20,000 people in it. The best part of my speaking is interacting. My problem preparing for the TED Talk, which Anne and I did together. It was terrifying for me is that by and large, they wanted me to say prepared remarks. I have never said prepared remarks. I prepare like a maniac, but then I go and be in the moment. I feed off of the crowd, we’re interacting non-verbally, we’re interacting verbally. If you go back and look at that TED Talk, you’ll see where it turned a corner and it was early on when I was like, “Could somebody give me a signal that you’re here voluntarily?”
They all laughed and it was funny.
That is when we started to interact, but other than that, it was brutal for me.
Didn’t you memorize it? You had a certain amount of time.
I was supposed to memorize it, but I don’t believe in memorizing because I lose my authenticity. I didn’t do a good job of memorizing it.
How do you stay on time?
I always land the plane at the right time. I have an internal clock. If you tell me when it’s supposed to end, I’m an accordion, I’ll expand and contract along the way and I’ll land it at the right time.
That is a different setting though for people. What advice would you give people or want to give a TED Talk?
If Anne gave the talk, she would want to know exactly what words she was saying. She would perfect them. She’s magnificent with the words. I’m magnificent with the interaction and the sentiment. We’ll both get to you, but she will stun you into not even wanting to move because hers will be so beautiful and they’re worth rehearsing over and over again. My words aren’t worth rehearsing over and over again. I’ve got to get ideas to you and I’m going to watch how they hit and conform them and use my hands a lot to do that. There are two very different ways of doing it. I would never use a teleprompter. Anne would love a teleprompter. I think TED is more for teleprompters.
Do they usually give you one there?
No. For that personality, they have you remember it and then they say, “Just be in the moment.” After you have spent six months memorizing it, I’m like, “I wanted to be in the moment from the beginning.”
I’m curious about what happened. How did you feel when you got off the stage?
I was terrified when I got off the stage as I always do. Before I go on the stage, I’ll pay any amount of money to get out of it because I have nausea but then afterwards, I love it. I immediately want to know from people which parts resonated because the talk was fifteen minutes. I probably did twenty things that I should do repeatedly, but I don’t know which 20 out of the 15 minutes. I need to talk to people to find out which are the things that worked.
I think humor gets people. I noticed people laugh when you asked them there on purpose and they laugh when you said the texting thing. It’s hard to force humor if it doesn’t fit if you’re in the moment.
That was me being me so I’m not sure that prescription there would be humor. The prescription there is that like I relaxed and I was just me. I happen to use humor in the way in which I interact. When I teach, there will typically be more laughter than when other people teach. Only because I grew up, I was the youngest of six kids. I’m not the funniest person in my family by far, but that was the currency that we all got to have our voice heard with.
My family was the same way. That’s why both of us are competitive. There’s so much good content in your work and I’d love that you and your wife got together to write a book. I wrote a book with one of my daughters and that’s such a great experience. It’s such a challenge, but it’s so much fun. There’s so much great information in Unleash. Did you pick the title or did the publishers?
The publishers did and they picked the picture. I know because it’s beautiful. I thought they were crazy, but I now have come to love it because I saw a horse and I don’t ride horses.
I get the representation, but it reminds me of Daniel Pink’s book where it’s white with red. It’s very simple. I think that you’re seeing a lot simpler.
I like professionals. We deferred to them right away, but this is not what we would have designed similarly for our first book, which is green with yellow smiley faces. One of the yellow smiley faces impinges on one of the words so my type of personality goes nuts.
It’s super creative so I always let other people hear that part.
We very much respect professionals and feel grateful. The professionals had been helping us with the title on this. They helped us with every single aspect of it and it’s been an amazing process.
It’s such a challenge writing a book and a lot of people will ask you and I’m going to ask you the question because a lot of people want to know what they can do to start to apply what you’re trying to teach them right away. Is there some overall message?
Leadership is about making other people better as a result of our presence and having it last into our absence. If you’re going to take one lesson, when you’re leading, it’s not about you. A lot of people might’ve coached you when you’re leading to think about yourself, become more leaderlike, put a mirror in your office so you know. I would say, when you’re leading, turn the mirror into a window and constantly be looking at how you can set other people up for success. It’s okay if they have to be reliant on you in the beginning, but the true testament is, can they be even more successful in your absence? That’s the way that we make the world a better place, so I would say it’s not about you.
I fell in love with TaskRabbit. That is an underappreciated organization in the world. If you want to see excellence in every dimension, go and spend some time with Stacy Brown-Philpot, who is amongst the greatest leaders I’ve ever encountered in that entire organization. It is a hidden gem.
In what way?
They’re a platform but when I got to Uber, for example, we were subsidizing every ride so that we were geared towards the riders. We weren’t geared towards the drivers. We started that focus. I got there in July of 2017. We were in it for one over the other. Stacy understood it. When she became CEO, she completely redid the platform so that taskers, the people who will do work for you. The clients, the people who wanted the work done, the partners, the employees. We had to benefit everyone. Every improvement she made, made everyone else better off so that it’s a super well-functioning platform that doesn’t have any fixed pie notion to it. Also, if you walk into her organization, it’s going to be the most diverse organization you’re going to see in Silicon Valley. You asked her, “Did you look for this?” She’s like, “No. I looked for the best people.” The best people are diverse. Everybody else is fishing in a very narrow subset of the pond. I fish there too, but I also fish in the rest of the pond of humanity. It’s almost not a fair fight.
You also talk to Tony Hsieh.
He’s so good.
I have a lot of classes I teach where we’d get into servant leadership and a lot of students like to talk about Zappos. What’d you think of the culture of Zappos, Amazon and some of these companies that combined cultures?
I have so much to say about that. I wrote a very long case about Zappos. Amazon has a history of companies that beat it, of which Zappos was entirely doing that they acquire them, and then everyone braces themselves. Are they going to kill them? Amazon acquired my favorite company, PillPack, which is a ridiculously good pharmacy. I’m bracing myself that they won’t kill PillPack unintentionally. Amazon doesn’t buy someone to purposely kill it. Here’s one example where it looked scary, but then Amazon righted itself, at least from my perspective. I’ve never worked with Amazon, but I watched this intently because I cared so much about Zappos. Zappos was geared for one-day delivery. To do that, they had these amazing robots that instead of people going to pick up six pairs of shoes and bringing them back, they had these robots get the six shoes and the robots would come back to you called Kiva Robots. Optimize for one day. Amazon was optimized for two-day delivery. You didn’t need the Kiva robots for two-day delivery because it wasn’t the most efficient way to do it.Leadership is about making other people better as a result of our presence and having it last into our absence. Click To Tweet
When they acquired us, they said, “We’re going to keep you guys separate. It was all great.” The first thing they did is they took the Kiva robots out of this Zappos because they wanted to have all the same systems so that they could learn from it and they could get better. That seems like a small thing but it’s everything that optimizing for two days is different than optimizing for one day. It’s those kinds of micro-decisions where you unintentionally ruined something. Here’s the good news. It didn’t take very long for Amazon to realize, “Kiva robots,” and then they went and bought them. That story didn’t end badly, but I can give you countless stories that unintentionally and very badly, where you pay a premium for something, and then you destroy all of that value. In the business case was that you were going to enhance value, and instead, you destroyed value unintentionally and that’s like a real tragedy to me.
What do you think they did with the Whole Foods? Did you think that was a good mix?
The creativity at Amazon does seem endless. Do I think it would be possible for Amazon to make Whole Foods better and Whole Foods to make Amazon better? Absolutely. Can I imagine a scenario where Amazon unintentionally kills Whole Foods? Absolutely.
It’s an interesting thing when you’re known for conscious capitalism and whatever that Mackey became known for with Whole Foods and then now it’s Amazon. I have fun teaching courses with all that, but it’s fun to step back and go, “Wait a minute.” It’s something completely different now.
I’ve studied service organizations for a long time and the good service organizations are the ones that get bought by the bigger companies for a premium, hoping that the great service will be contagious and more often than not, the mediocre service of the big one was contagious. I watch great service companies get bought, ruined, and it’s a tragedy that plays out over and over again. If you’re out there and you want to buy, please call me. I’ll tell you how to do it because I don’t want PillPack to get killed.
There are many companies that have crashed and burned.
That’s totally separate.
There’s so much trying to be the next unicorn is I guess my point of bringing that one up. We’re seeing a lot of fake it until you make it.
I totally don’t recommend that strategy. That goes against authenticity and I don’t believe it’s going to work.
It didn’t work out well for her. There are a lot of great examples of companies that have established trust. I’ve been fortunate to work with some great leaders. I’m on the board with DocuSign and Keith Krach was great when he was the head of all that. I’ve interviewed Doug Conant who’s done some amazing things with Campbell Soup and so many of these great leaders. I could see that what you and Anne have written is such a huge benefit for so many people so I think a lot of people are going to want to know how they can get their book. How can they follow you or connect with you?
The book is available at every bookseller. If you’re in a situation to buy a copy, we’re very grateful for it. The way to connect with me, I started on social media in January. I’m on LinkedIn. If you want to connect with me, connect with me on LinkedIn. If you have a question, send me a direct message, and I’ll put a comment in. I respond to all of them. I do it lightning round. You can tell me your context and I’ll give you quick feedback. It’s much better than sending me an email because I get thousands of those a day and I can’t always separate the real from the annoying.
I’m so excited about your book. I saw Arianna Huffington wrote such a nice review.
Isn’t that so nice of her? I’m reading from the front, but the definitive guide to leadership, she’s the best.
You have such a great quality about you. I was looking forward to this and thank you so much for being on my show, Frances.
This was super energizing. I understand why all my friends and colleagues join you in. Anytime you want to have a conversation, I’d be delighted.
I’d like to thank Frances for being my guest. She was so great to talk to. I have had such a ball talking to so many of the professors from Harvard. They’re all so interesting and down to earth. I love all the information that they’re able to share and Frances has such a great TED Talk. I hope you check it out. I hope you look into her book and check out her website and see the information she has out there because it’s all wonderful. I hope you enjoyed this episode and I hope you to see you for the next episode.
- Frances Frei
- TED Talk – Frances Frei
- Francesca Gino – Previous episode
- Amy Edmondson – Previous episode
- Blog by Susan Fowler
- Riot Games
- Tony Hsieh
- Doug Conant – Previous episode
- LinkedIn – Frances Frei
About Dr. Frances Frei
Frances Frei is a professor at Harvard Business School. She recently served as Uber’s first Senior Vice President of Leadership and Strategy to help the company navigate its very public crisis in leadership and culture. Frances regularly works with companies embarking on large-scale change and organizational transformation, including embracing diversity and inclusion as a lever for improved performance. Her TED Talk on the topic of building trust has logged over 4 million views. She is the co-author of Unleashed.
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