Francis Frei – Uber's Future


(Bick Bhangoo) #1

While the stock markets and investor banks all chew up numbers and spit out forecasts based on performance, a company's true future is actually in the hands of its educators and not its managers.

A great company is a happy one; an empire is a happy company with a unified field approach to business. This terminology taken from quantum physics (Einstein) refers to how all the main energy forces (gravity, nuclear weak, nuclear strong and electromagnetic) work together in one unified field. The same goes for any business; there are five forces that have to work together like a synchronized or choreographed dance routine to reach daily success. These forces are:

  1. Corporate Vision; A company needs the vision to lead it.
  2. Corporate Culture; A company needs a set of ethical rules.
  3. Knowledge; all Employees must be professionally capable of delivering the best service.
  4. Motivation; all employees should be highly motivated for the common good and the corporate vision
  5. Evolution; all employees must be willing to adapt and evolve, leading the way for continuous technological and service delivery improvement leading to customer satisfaction

Ubers biggest issues only became known after the Kalanick fiasco in July 2017, when all the corporate culture came crashing down like hot lava, burning the executive and the company everywhere it touched. Kalanick was forced to resign his position as CEO, and the executive management team was upgraded. A new CEO, Dara Khosrowshahi came on board and started to create a new Uber.

Khosrowshahi came after a massive #deleteUber campaign snowballed into the deletion of over half a million accounts, a string of court cases started to pop up that ranged from employee misconduct to hiding hacker attacks, as well as information property theft (Waymo) to Uber rideshare status (EU decided they are a Taxi service).

While Khosrowshahi cannot make these cases disappear, he can rebuild Uber from the ground up, or the up-down, which is what he is doing. One of the more interesting additions to the Uber executive team is Harvard Professor Francis Frei, Ubers SVP for Leadership, and Strategy. Frei came online before Khosrowshahi took office, in fact, she came into Uber two weeks before Kalanick resigned. This goes to show that the change in corporate leadership was starting to take form during Kalanick's reign.

Frei is considered to be one of Uber’s staunchest supporters, believing in the company and the future it is bringing to the world of transport. She is always seen in an Uber t-shirt and will talk in a “cheerleader” hype about how “amazing” and how “wonderful” anything is about Uber.

When Frei started out in Uber she analyzed its ailments and found these three issues to be at the core of the company's ailments:

  1. Corporate Culture: there wasn't one or let's say the only culture that was around was that of dog-eat-dog where the Alpha (Kalanick) held everyone accountable only to him and most managers competed against each other rather than support one another.
  2. Knowledge; most of the 3,000 managers employed by Uber had no formal education or training in the area's that they oversaw. There was no internal training program to make sure these managers were knowledgeable or updated with the latest changes.
  3. Corporate Vision; there was none, Kalanick just led all 15,000 employees on a blitzkrieg attack to take over the world. There was no coherent vision, and there were no metrics to measure success.

It was during the summer of 2017 that Frei had to start building a strategy for corporate excellence. This meant that she had to train 3,000 managers to adopt a similar vision and start to work together using an ethical approach to the everyday activity. It also meant training 15,000 employees to understand the corporate vision and to create a cohesive workforce.


Frei teaching, Photo: Uber

Frei created a syllabus that was introduced in October 2017. Between October and December 2017, over 6,000 employees signed up to learn leadership, strategy and how to become a better and more knowledgeable employee.

The classes aimed at reaching the following successes:

  1. Teach employees to adopt a new corporate culture
  2. Teach employees to work together and not compete for one against the other
  3. Provide employees with methods to increase their knowledge base
  4. Change the current fear of working in a chaotic environment to happiness working in a cohesive environment.

Dara Khosrowshahi, Uber's new CEO. Photographer: Simon Dawson/Bloomberg

According to Frei, the problems she faced were not training employees or even how the employees would be attracted to attending the classes. It was about how to meet the mass desire to learn, to attend, within a very short period of time. She had to find a way to teach thousands of employees in record time.

In simple terms, the issue was about scale.

Teaching is not new to companies, many large corporations have completed and complex education programmed in place. GE is a leader in corporate education with a budget of over $1 billion in annual employee training and development and its own training establishment "Crotonville leadership institute."

Most companies don't reach the levels of GE, but they do have a small team of trainers that deal with many issues such as technology changes, leadership, and strategy as well as management skills. Some even go into process training and offer certificates that are accepted by many other companies as a sign of professional competence.

In Uber's case, Frei had to contend with training the executives first, and they were spread out across the world. The corporate change had to start at the top and filter down; only that way would provide a true leadership and cohesive culture come into being.

Frei's experience in Harvard provided the solution to the global issue that faced Uber's executive team. Frei still held a sit-in auditorium but had large screens all around her, and her lectures were streamed across the internet for all employees around the world. That way, Frei could reach as many employees as possible in one instance.

Using HBX technology, Frei had 60 screens on the walls, aiming to reach at least 60 students at any given time, but more than 60 students could come in and learn in reality.

To Frei, it was also a non-starter to try and record the videos and post them online in the hopes that people would watch them. To her, the learning is too personal, and employees who were "on the wall" and participating might have felt more awkward or discouraged to participate if they knew it was being recorded for coworkers to watch.

Instead, HBX Live had a feature where bystanders could watch the class, even if they weren't one of the faces on the wall. Uber had its tech teamwork with the school to make sure it could support the employees that wanted to tune in. The process allowed for students to become active rather than just observers. Her classes were not about a pre-recorded lesson, but about active participation online. To overcome this issue the technical team created and supported all employees around the world, which led to 1,500 students coming online in one class, where 60 were active, and the rest were viewers.

Frei decided that it was not enough to have just one class a day, so she recorded and streamed the four-hour class three times a day, which would meet the crushing demand for her tutorials. Her first class, which was part of an eight-class program on Leadership and Strategy focused on an airline from the 1980's that had to rebuild its brand image. This class was called "Build and Rebuild Trust" and came as an analogy to Uber's state at the time.

This first session met the demand from 6,000 students in 60 days. What compounded her success was that over 2,000 employees sent in their reflections and comments about her subject matter. The mass of students watching the class provided valuable support in the form of feedback for the active 60 that participated in the class.

The feedback that Frei received was so exceptional that she stated "Because it was a pilot, we were just figuring out could we do it. And in reading the reflections, I'm blown away by how people are reflecting on it, and now we see it in their work,"

Frei is a supporter of voluntary learning. She does not believe that you can force train a person, the desire to improve has to come from the individual's desire to improve and not a corporate demand. While this is contested, it has proven to work in Uber. Rather than making the courses mandatory or even providing incentives to attend, Frei believes that the truth in how the courses help employees will be seen when the 6,000 whom took the course will compare in success to the 9,000 that didn't attend.

Education is important; training employees is a sure-fire way to improve the company's performance at every level. A strong employee leads to a strong company. However, education alone is not enough. Implementing change and maintaining it are two different things. The executive board, the executive management, and the managers all have to maintain the change through continuous implementation, observation, and metrics for success. Only when a company continues to improve through constant learning, adopting new ideas, new ways and maintaining a corporate ethic, will change truly take root.

The truth of Frei's success will be seen in Uber's future performance, not in the numbers, but in customer and driver satisfaction. Uber has two customers, the passengers and the drivers, the drivers, are the individuals that make Uber what it is, but as independent contractors are in fact customers performing a service for Uber, providing Uber with the means to transport their "passenger" customers. The question is, will Frei succeed in changing how the employees think and act within their environment to treat drivers as customers and not as the enemy.

According to Frei, the answer is complex, "I know I'm a little crazy, but I'd like to say: Does our overall business improve? Because if leadership and strategy are so fundamental, shouldn't our business improve quickly? If you ask me, that's what I want to be accountable for. If we can't meaningfully make a difference in the business, then I don't think it'd be successful, even if it was enjoyable".


(Mitchel) #2

Corporate culture bs. Leadership and strategy bs. At the end of the day the driver is the one doing all the work. Uber is built on the broken backs (and butts) of drivers stupid enough to believe that they would earn $15 an hour. So why doesn’t Uber invest in the drivers education? Because we are not employees, we are “independent contractors”. Bottom line: Just like taxi drivers that get no help, we should stop moaning about compensation and wake up to the reality that Uber is just another money grabbing capitalist American dream that is highly successful. Personally, I might hate them, but I drive for them because they supply me with added income. I don’t moan, I just groan…every time I get in and out of the damned car. Thank the Lord I have a gym card or my wife would’ve kicked me out years ago! Ha, you try living with grumpy old fart like me.


(Kimberly Nelson) #3

Hey Steve, you are quite a grump, aren’t you. Take no offence man, but you remind me of the “grouch”, In any event, what you are missing here is the fact that Uber is taking steps to improve and that these steps are taking time due to the large amount of “crap” that Kalanick left behind. Give them a chance.