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Frances Frei

Uber hires Harvard Business School professor Frances Frei to solve its leadership problems

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In a bid to heal its fractured company culture, Uber has hired Harvard Business School professor Frances Frei as its new SVP of leadership and strategy. According to the company’s announcement, Frei will report to CEO Travis Kalanick, “work as a partner” with chief human resources officer Liane Hornsey, and serve as an executive coach for Uber’s leadership team.

“As one of the world’s most respected authorities on organizational transformation…she is uniquely qualified for the role—and we know we all have a lot to learn from her,” said an Uber blog post about the appointment, which comes just before it is expected to release the results of an independent investigation into sexual harassment at the company.

The hiring of Frei is noteworthy because it signals a desire by Uber to change some of the aspects of its workplace and leadership culture—including a “Hobbesian environment” that rewarded cutthroat competition, sexual harassment that often went unchecked by HR (a blog post by former engineer Susan Fowler detailing repeated incidents finally triggered an investigation), and treating drivers more like software than human beings.

Over the past few months, the fallout from these problems has started to snowball, and Uber has been hit with multiple lawsuits, the resignation of key executives, and boycotts.

According to Frei’s HBS faculty bio, her research “examines how leaders create the context for organizations and individuals to thrive” and one of her classes “investigates how organizations build business models that reliably delight customers.”

Her other work includes a book titled “Uncommon Service: How to Win by Putting Customers at the Core of Your Business,” case studies on companies including eBay, Oracle, and the Cleveland Clinic, and research into women’s leadership and diversity.

A 2015 interview from the Harvard Business Review about rating systems like the five-star scale Uber uses for both drivers and passengers gives insight into the kind of advice Frei might offer the company.

When asked what the next generation of customer rating systems might look like, Frei said, “For both customer and employee ratings, organizations need to guard against process transcending purpose. The purpose of these systems is to understand what’s really going on, so we can improve it. But process transcends purpose when Joe the exterminator says, ‘I don’t get paid unless you give me a 10.’ It was a great idea to solicit what customers thought, and what employees think, but that doesn’t let you have the hook from having to manage.”

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