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Walker Webcast: HBS’ Frances Frei on Leadership and Corporate Culture

Frances X. Frei has many roles. She’s the UPS Foundation Professor of Service Management at Harvard Business School. She is also co-author of the book “Unleashed: The Unapologetic Leader’s Guide to Empowering Everyone Around You.” She was also responsible for fixing Uber’s broken culture back in the late 2010s.

On March 1, 2023, Frei’s role was Walker Webcast guest. During the hour-long event, she and Walker & Dunlop Chairman and CEO Willy Walker moved through various topics including leadership and corporate culture.

One piece of advice Frei offered is that to be great, you also have to be bad. “Not bad for sport, but bad in the service of great.” As an example, she pointed out that when Steve Jobs created the MacBook Air, he wanted to create the lightest weight laptop on the market. He understood that to be best-in-class with weight, the MacBook Air would have to be worst-in-class in other physical features. The only other option was to be average at both.

The failure of trading off means “you’re playing whack-a-mole,” Frei said. “You become more and more mediocre, and more and more similar to you competitors.”

Walker and Frei also discussed corporate culture, both Uber’s and culture in general. Frei acknowledged that Uber was driven by its cultural values. But those values had been weaponized. “So people were using the cultural values as license to behave badly,” she said. “Once a cultural value is weaponized, there’s no amount of explaining what you meant that’s going to bring it back. You just gotta let it go.” In the case of Uber, Frei worked with employees to determine culture that would contribute to their highest performances. The resulting response helped the turnaround. “It’s the Uber employees that should get the credit for that,” she said.

And part of that turnaround involved implementation of what Frei called the “trust triangle.” She explained the three components to building trust: Authenticity, logic and empathy. Along with these factors are what Frei classified as a “good, rigorous plan,” along with transparency. When dealing with a corporate issue, “take a real (work) situation and ask yourself if your skeptic doubted your authenticity, your logic or your empathy,” she advised. “I would stake anything on the fact that it’s one of those three.”

Another way to build a great culture? Jettison the critical performance feedback review process, the ones that indicate what an employee did wrong and what needs improvement. “You can learn this from watching dogs being trained,” Frei said. “If there’s a well-behaved dog, there’s a good chance they got a lot of sincere and specific praise for when they did things right, and that helps them improve at a really steep slope, really fast.” The same is true for people. They tend to thrive more on positive feedback than what they do wrong. Said Frei: “One of the greatest accelerants of somebody’s performance is to tell them what they’re doing right, specifically so they can do more of it tomorrow.”

Finally, in the area of diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI), Frei’s thought was that “inclusion” should lead off the acronym. The reason? Diversity is little more than potential. “I found that many organizations today are on a ‘diversity treadmill,’” she explained. The organizations bring in diverse personnel, but fail to follow inclusiveness as part of the design. “They’re not getting any better at any of the metrics that matter,” Frei said. “Cynicism is taking place in the organization. It’s terrible for the people they’re bringing in, and it’s terrible for everyone else.”

But focusing on inclusion generates different results. A focus on inclusion breeds diversity. “When we’re known as being an inclusive place that really celebrates your unique contribution, word gets out, and amazing things will happen,” Frei said.

On-demand replays of the March 1, 2023 webcast are available here or through Walker & Dunlop’s Driven by Insight podcast series.


Inside The Story

HBS' Frances FreiWalker & Dunlop's Willy Walker

About Amy Wolff Sorter

I love content. I love writing it, visualizing it, and manipulating it to fit into different formats. I have years of experience in working with content, both as creator and editor. The content I create and edit provides assistance with many goals, ranging from lead generation, to developing street cred through well-timed thought-leadership pieces. Content skills include, but aren't limited to, articles and blogs, e-mails, promotional collateral, infographics, e-books and white papers, website copy and more.

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