People and Strategy

Frances Frei and Anne Morriss on Leadership

Episode Summary

Frances Frei and Anne Morriss are co-authors of "Unleashed: The Unapologetic Leader's Guide to Empowering Everyone Around You" and "Uncommon Service: How to Win by Putting Customers at the Core of Your Business." In this interview with Lisa Connell, The SHRM Executive Network advisor, Frei and Morriss explain that leadership isn't about you--it's about building others up. (length 30:10)

Episode Notes

Frances Frei and Anne Morriss are co-authors of "Unleashed: The Unapologetic Leader's Guide to Empowering Everyone Around You" and "Uncommon Service: How to Win by Putting Customers at the Core of Your Business."

In this interview with Lisa Connell, The SHRM Executive Network advisor, Frei and Morriss explain that leadership isn't about you--it's about building others up. (length 30:10)

Episode Transcription

Lisa Connell (00:02):

Welcome. I'm Lisa Connell with the SHRM Executive Network, the premier network of executives and thought leaders in the field of Human Resources. We advance the HR profession by engaging thought leaders and executive practitioners to create solutions and drive success for people and organizations. Today, I'm excited to sit down with Frances Frei and Anne Morriss, co-authors of Unleashed: The Unapologetic Leaders Guide to Empowering Everyone Around You. Frances is a professor at the Harvard Business School and recently served as Uber's first Senior Vice President of Leadership and Strategy. She's helped solve problems on everything from management to gender inequality for companies like Uber, Riot Games, and WeWork. Anne is the executive founder of the Leadership Consortium, a first of its kind accelerator for building diverse executive teams, and has appeared on CBS This Morning. Frances and Anne are also co-authors of the best selling book Uncommon Service. Today they'll be sharing trusted insights on leadership and how it can shape the company culture. Thank you both so much for being here and congratulations on your book Unleashed.

Frances Frei (01:08):

Our pleasure. It's totally a pleasure to be here and to get the voices, right. This is Frances.

Anne Morriss (01:12):

This is Anne.

Lisa Connell (01:13):

Great. Thank you. Well, let's jump right in. You talk in the book about the importance of trust. I know when you were at Uber, you were hired to fix the toxic culture and that's where you started. So, why start with trust?

Frances Frei (01:32):

And I was on the front lines at Uber and Anne was behind the scenes so I would commute back and forth from Cambridge to San Francisco every week.

Anne Morriss (01:39):

And I'd give you my best ideas to take back to California.

Frances Frei (01:45):

To marinate on the plane.

Lisa Connell (01:46):

Sounds like a great partnership.

Anne Morriss (01:49):

Yes, we should disclose to our listeners that we are also married.

Frances Frei (01:52):

Two dogs, two kids, two books.

Lisa Connell (01:54):

I love it.

Frances Frei (01:56):

So it was very clear when going to Uber that they had lost trust with, I think, every constituent. I mean, when we got the call to go out and that the CEO wanted to meet us, we were like, "No." We just read everything that was in the newspaper. Riders don't like, drivers don't, regulators don't. Now, when we went out there, we found Travis Kalanick was a humbled man who wanted to get better understood where his challenges were, wanted real partnership. But it was certainly true that Uber had lost trust. Any other work, the return on it was going to be zero until we could learn how to rebuild trust.

So we set out to teach the organization how it could influence trust, how to diagnose where it was going wrong, and it was different things for different contexts, and how to rebuild it. Seeing how it worked there, it separated from 20 people and the culture was turned around in nine months, gave us a lot of confidence to write the book. Because we had been talking about it for years, but hadn't done anything on that. It was like 13,000 people hadn't done anything on that much of a scale before. So that really gave us confidence. Then since then we've done it with even larger organizations.

Anne Morriss (03:17):

We describe trust as the foundation of leadership. It is a necessary but not sufficient input for all your leadership hopes and dreams.

Frances Frei (03:24):

But certainly for step one.

Lisa Connell (03:26):

Well, that's amazing success, especially in such a short turnaround time. Can you go a little bit further on why that foundation of trust is so critical to your leadership philosophy?

Anne Morriss (03:38):

Absolutely. We talk about trust most typically in terms of the trust we're able to build with other people, but of course, it all starts with your own relationship with yourself and your ability to trust your own logic, empathy, and authenticity, and we're delighted to get into that conversation. But if you think about leadership as positioning yourself as someone that other people are willing to be led by and influenced by, trust is essential to make that equation work.

Lisa Connell (04:08):

Why do you call the philosophy empowerment leadership and how can it impact teams, and then of course, the overall organization?

Frances Frei (04:16):

We found that once you build the foundation of trust, that then you want to bring out the best in one other person, learn how to do that, and we have very specific prescriptions on how to do that, one person at a time. Then how to do it with teams, and then how to do it at the organizational level, and then honestly, how to do it from the organization and to its external stakeholders, including consumers, investors, regulators, public policy, and the like. And so, it really is our animating quote in the beginning of is from Toni Morrison. Anne, you want to read that quote? It's really beautiful. This I think will explain why we think about it as empowerment.

Anne Morriss (04:58):

The quote from Toni Morrison is, "just remember that your real job is that if you are free, you need to free somebody else. If you have some power, then your job is to empower somebody else." I think we landed on, we love the word empower. We're not the first to use it, but we do think it really captures what we believe is really fundamental to the practice of leadership, which is this external orientation. The title of our first chapter is It's Not About You.

Frances Frei (05:29):

Indeed, it is not about the leader. The leader's sole job is to make others better and empowering everyone around us in our presence and in our absence.

Lisa Connell (05:39):

I love that. I love that quote. For the people that have power, your obligation then is to empower others. That can resonate with everyone. Just one step at a time.

Frances Frei (05:50):

Great word by the way. Great word: obligation. I do. I think we agree with you. It's an obligation.

Anne Morriss (05:56):

And a responsibility.

Lisa Connell (06:00):

I know you've worked with some well known organizations that have struggled with culture and can sometimes even seem intractable. How have you turned around cultures like at Uber and WeWork in less than a year, and how could others do it with that same speed?

Frances Frei (06:17):

If you try to change a culture with taking longer than that, the probability of success goes down dramatically. So, it's counterintuitive. But meaningful change happens quickly because it stays as a top priority. If you have a three-year plan to change your culture, I would advise you to do something else because there's no way you're going to keep culture renovation as the top priority for three years. And so, you're going to be sending mixed messages to the organization that it is important today but not tomorrow, and it is next day, you'll be injecting cynicism and it will just end up making it much harder. The first thing is do it when you can do it as a top priority and keep it as a top priority.

But the beautiful thing about culture is that we want to help people behave differently. The trick isn't to guide their behavior. The trick is to influence how they think. Culture, this goes back to Edgar Schein, who I think was the first prominent writer of culture 50 years ago. That the way in which we think really reliably manifests in our behavior. So the trick to culture change is to understand why would good people be behaving in this unfortunate way, and then how can I influence how these good people think to get them to behave in a more fortunate way?

Anne Morriss (07:34):

I love your use of the word intractable because that is how people often feel when it comes to culture. They don't think of it as something that they can actively design. It's typically something that people inherit. Of course, it influences everything that happens in the organization, as you said, Frances, because it really tells us how to think, which then informs how we act. So a lot of what we do inside organizations is we bring a can do spirit when it comes to culture.

Frances Frei (08:03):

We refer to it as a can do lesbian spirit, but it's really [crosstalk 00:08:06]

Anne Morriss (08:08):

But we show up on site and we ask the questions that are deceptively simple. What is the culture you want? What are you trying to achieve as an organization? What's getting in the way of breaking it down into its component parts and solving the problems? I mean, often these organizations that are solving incredibly difficult market challenges, product challenges, sales challenges, and we just invite people to bring that same energy and practicality into culture challenges as well.

Frances Frei (08:39):

Culture can be designed, I think, is the point. Culture isn't something we're burdened by. When you say an intractable culture, the only intractable culture we have ever found is when the people don't want to change. If you have a willingness to change, you can get any culture you want. But however, if you're invested in the status quo, it's completely intractable and there isn't any amount of shiny objects and thought leadership that can help. So the one thing we can't provide, and I don't know that anyone can, is a willingness to change. If you have the willingness to change, there's no such thing as an intractable culture.

Anne Morriss (09:16):

We'll just put on our tool belt and-

Frances Frei (09:20):

And would the book-

Anne Morriss (09:22):

... help you get some new boys.

Frances Frei (09:23):

And all genders.

Anne Morriss (09:25):

And all genders, yes. Boys, girls, anyone in between.

Frances Frei (09:29):

Everybody in between.

Anne Morriss (09:30):

Is welcome.

Lisa Connell (09:31):

I really like that point. I imagine that it's common of the distinction between culture being something that was inherited versus something that you're part of. And so, I can imagine just having that mindset correct on that is important. I love and I will definitely repeat. Meaningful change happens quickly. Love that.

You talk about accountability as a common reason why organizations fail to meet diversity and inclusion goals. How do you set up that accountability in an organization and then what metrics should be monitored around it?

Frances Frei (10:10):

I'll start with the metrics and then, Anne, I think you can layer on the higher level part of it. Let's say that we don't have as many women as we should at the top of an organization. That is, the demographics are such that we couldn't possibly be getting the best people in the world because there are very few women, so we've been biased in some way. It always falls down to one of five things. I'll tell you what the five are, but we just have to identify what's the root cause and then solve the root cause, and we know we're solved when there are no longer demographic tendencies associated with who's thriving.

So, if there's not enough, say, women at the top levels of an organization, we either can't find them, what's known as a pipeline issue, which by the way, let me just say this, is a myth. It's a myth for ethnicity, for race, for ability. We hear it all the time. We often hear it in tech, "Oh, I can't find enough women engineers." It's a myth. So, I can't find them, which means you can't find them, which means you need to be given new glasses.

Anne Morriss (11:18):

It does not mean that they do not exist.

Frances Frei (11:19):

That's right. You can't find them is very different than-

Lisa Connell (11:22):


Frances Frei (11:22):

... you're not looking in the same places where you haven't been able to find them before. So you either can't find them. You can't get them to yes, which can be a serious thing. If you have no women, there is a sign saying Women Beware. So, how do we get women to yes? Once we find them, they say yes, we get them there. Did we fail at developing them? We go all the way through development but we weren't able to promote them. Sometimes promotion processes are completely independent of actual ability and success. That has its own its own cocktail there. Then you go through all of that and we weren't able to retain them.

So the metrics are selection, getting to yes, development, promotion, retention. If you just look at the demographic tendencies of those metrics, you know, your culture is out of whack when those are out of whack. You know your culture is doing fine when those are doing fine. That dashboard might be all the accountability you need. I guess we would add on perhaps also the self-reported sentiment, because you also want to make sure while that's going on that ... because we often see, oh, well, there's not as many women in the senior leadership and women are less satisfied at the organization. So there's sentiment and achievement. But I think that's all the accountability you need is those five metrics and satisfaction.

Anne Morriss (12:40):

And the commitment to measure. I think that's where we see that this idea of this ethos of accountability gets introduced to organizations is when they're really willing to not just talk about these ideals, but also start to measure them. I will say we have started to move away from the word accountability a little bit in recent months because we've seen it weaponized in some organizations. We've been using responsibility. It has a more aspirational feel. It invokes our responsibility to each other as human beings, as colleagues, as competitors. The best version of accountability is responsibility.

Frances Frei (13:21):

And there's an important lesson there. Once a word gets weaponized often for reasons, we've learned this the hard way. We think, oh, let's just keep redefining accountability. Maybe it's just people don't understand it. Once it's weaponized, it's gone in the ether. You have to replace it with a new word. We find this with cultural values as well. Once they're weaponized, you can keep writing longer and longer definitional memos. They're not going to work. Go for the more current, more aspirational version of it.

Lisa Connell (13:50):

Oh, very interesting. Makes sense though. What are some effective ways to create a sense of belonging while you're reinforcing the organization's commitment to inclusion and diversity?

Frances Frei (14:04):

It's so good. One is that we know that diverse teams outperform homogenous teams by all of the research. But in practice, it doesn't always happen because when we bring in varying perspectives and varying lived experiences, but those folks don't feel included and don't feel like they belong, we actually don't end up outperforming. We can bring in diversity, but we then have to make it very inclusive. If I bring in someone and I say, "Look, here's how to behave here," it's like the worst thing I could do to someone who's different. We don't want you for your mimicking of us. We want to celebrate your difference. So I think the first thing is that being inclusive of difference. You know you're done when each person regardless of the difference they represent feels like they are of the institution. It's like when you get all the way through everyone feeling included, not only despite, but because of their unique perspectives. And that there isn't any variation in, "Yeah, I feel like I am of this place."

I'll give you an example. When I began at Harvard, I didn't feel like I was of the place. I was the only queer faculty member. I felt quite different. Harvard, it had said no to me five times. But I didn't feel of the institution. But today I do. Today I feel fully of the institution. I feel like I belong. It's now, and I think your word of obligation and ends of responsibility, and it's now my responsibility and obligation to make sure that others have a more accelerated path to belonging. But it doesn't happen without inclusion. The inclusion comes first before belonging.

Anne Morriss (15:52):

I'll just add a little bit of nuance to that that we explore in the book, which is we talk about culture as obviously incredibly powerful lever for this. We talk about a culture of inclusion in four stages. We start with safe. Obviously, everyone has to feel safe when they show up in the workplace, both physically, which is so critical now around COVID, but also psychologically. So, you start there. Once you get that right, you get to earn the right to move on to this idea of welcome. Regardless of who you are, that you feel welcome to come and contribute.

But then it really gets interesting, and this is where inclusion becomes a huge competitive advantage. We call it getting to celebrated, which is not just in spite of who you are, but as Frances just said, because of who you are, we are going to value and champion you. Ultimately we're going to be able to do that at scale across the entire organization. We use the word cherish to describe that moment where you show up regardless of where you are, in the hallway, in meeting one and meeting four. Regardless of who your manager happens to be, you feel like you completely belong to this organization.

Frances Frei (17:03):

We call it the inclusion dial.

Lisa Connell (17:05):

That's great. That's great. Very, very helpful. I love that distinction: because of your uniqueness and not in spite of it. I think that's so, so important.

Frances Frei (17:16):

That's where you really get the return on ... that's when the diversity outperforms. It's when you get to precisely what you just said.

Lisa Connell (17:26):

Can you talk more about how unleashing people is so vital to sustaining the morale and productivity of a remote workforce?

Frances Frei (17:36):

Oh, yeah. Now, I mean, there's a remote workforce and then there's also a workforce in a pandemic. Those are both happening at the same time. And so, what we want to make sure is that there's lessons for remote, but we are remote in a global pandemic. I'll talk about remote and then I think Anne can talk about what do you do when you're in the global pandemic.

Anne Morriss (18:01):

You're just going to give me the easy questions, Frances.

Frances Frei (18:04):

This is actually, I do recommend everybody marry up because you get to do what I'm doing right now on that. For remote, I think that our job is to set the conditions. I mean, here are some beautiful things about remote. I used to take a plane, for a two-hour meeting I would fly six hours. We had absurdities that we did when things weren't remote. Goodness, we're not going backwards. We're going to get to just shed all of that ludicrous we did it because that's how we've always done it. So we get to get rid of all of that.

But now we have to learn how to optimize remotely. I'll give you just a few examples. Zoom is our platform of choice when we are in meetings. What's really nice about it is everybody's an equal size square. That's not true in any physical room we go into. There were always the big dogs and the little dogs. It's super nice that everybody is equally sized. We can also do polling. We can see that everyone gets to respond in the polls. We can engage in that way.

And so, the remote part can be quite glorious, but we want to do it correctly. For example, if I pose a question. Let's say I'm facilitating a meeting, I pose a question. Probabilistically, somebody from the majority is going to speak. If I call on the next person who raises their hand, probabilistically it's somebody from the majority. One more person from the majority and we're done because we will have converged so much that no one wants to be the spoilsport who starts the divergence. So when you're remote, what you want to do is super explicitly call on the first person, probabilistically the majority, but then say, "Can someone articulate a different point of view?" And we find three is enough. You diverge first to find the solution space to include everyone, then you go to the converging. You get higher quality and faster. So when people say, "Oh, inclusion takes longer," oh, nonsense. Inclusion actually leads to higher quality and it happens much faster because we're only looking for new ideas. We're not looking for repetition of old ideas.

Anne Morriss (20:23):

I love that texture, Frances, because it really gets to, what does it look like for an organization to compete on inclusion? And what it looks like is that you get to better decisions faster. You innovate better, you create better, you compete more effectively. Frances in particular, but I hide it a little bit, we are wildly competitive.

Frances Frei (20:48):

Oh, my gosh. Off a limb competitive.

Anne Morriss (20:51):

We got to this work. Yes. It aligns with our values and vision for the world. But also because it makes organizations better. Full stop.

Frances Frei (20:58):

Unmistakably. The performance imperative. What is lovely is that the moral imperative lines up with it and that's great. But Anne, I did the easy part of remote work. Will you do the harder one of the remote in a pandemic?

Anne Morriss (21:10):

Yes, and I think your distinction is so important. First of all, let me give a shout out to our colleague, Tsedal Neeley.

Frances Frei (21:18):

Oh, my goodness, yes.

Anne Morriss (21:19):

Who just published a book called Remote Work Revolution.

Frances Frei (21:22):

By the time this comes out it will be published. If you take nothing else from this podcast, please, Remote Work Revolution.

Anne Morriss (21:26):

Please read somebody else's book.

Frances Frei (21:30):

I know it's crazy, but it's true.

Anne Morriss (21:32):

Our publishers will be giving us some feedback on this. We also wrote a book. But yes, how do you lead in this moment is it's such a rich and deep and difficult question. I think one thing we've seen is that we talk a lot about the trust triangle, which is the components of trust that drive this larger, messy esoteric idea of trust. It's kind of hard to work with in practice. Those things are empathy, logic, and authenticity. One thing we've observed during these surreal times is that the people's need for empathy is higher.

Frances Frei (22:13):

It's much higher.

Anne Morriss (22:14):

Substantively higher. And so, as a leader, what was good enough on the empathy front a year ago, which was like, "Okay, put away your phone and ask a couple of questions."

Frances Frei (22:27):

Like, "How you doing?"

Anne Morriss (22:30):

Is not enough now. The antidote to empathy wobbles. People who struggle with empathy is present. I think the antidote to empathy wobbles in a pandemic is what we would call radical presence, which is to really get in there and understand what your colleagues and teams are struggling with so that you can co-produce good sustainable solutions with them.

Frances Frei (22:54):

Anne, that sounds great. You're masterful at this. How do you get in there without being intrusive?

Anne Morriss (23:04):

Well, I would say, stop worrying about being intrusive. We're all struggling and welcome the intrusive right now. But also, I will give you an example of Monday morning meeting. Instead of asking, "How is everybody's weekend?"

Frances Frei (23:20):

And everybody says fine.

Anne Morriss (23:24):

Set up one-on-ones with people, particularly people who you're getting nonverbal signals are not doing well. Get in there with questions that really reveal your interest and devotion to their success on the team. For example, instead of, "How was your weekend?" "Hey, I just saw that Boston remote learning is going to going to continue indefinitely. How does that affect you? Do we need to adjust your schedule? Are you getting what you need in order to both be present with your family and present in this job? How can I help? What can I take off your plate? How can we redesign this job?" Really get in there with a conversation.

And the context for this is changing constantly. What was working for someone six months ago may not be now. Here's the thing I do want to scare your listeners with. I saw data about this yesterday. There are many people right now who are "buying their time" in their current jobs. They don't want to move and do anything disruptive during a pandemic. So in many organizations, we have a workforce that, with the first opportunity to find a better solution for them, they're going to take those calls seriously. So this is the time to figure out what your workforce needs and to create truly sustainable solutions to those needs.

Frances Frei (24:48):

And all the questions that Anne asked are very inexpensive. Revealing empathy is not inexpensive thing. When we work with organizations, the returns are just so outsized.

Lisa Connell (25:01):

I was just thinking that some just very specific tactics that people can employ could be so powerful. I love that.

Anne Morriss (25:09):


Lisa Connell (25:09):

In the same vein, why is imagining and believing in a better version of someone the secret to how leaders can unleash them?

Frances Frei (25:21):

We each have different facets and sometimes not the best version of us shows up. Sometimes not the best version of me shows up, if I'm just going to own it. If you interact with the best version of me, I will scramble up to being that best version of me. We see this a lot in the classroom that a student will make a comment. Maybe they were making a comment to impress their friends in a jovial or joking way. But if we interact with the best version of them and take the morsel of their comment that was awesome and engage that part of it, then they and others also go up and up and up. And so, I think, one, we're all human. The best version of us is not always present. But the rest of us can bring out the best version of us. And you know what? We all want to be a better version of ourselves. Sometimes we need guidance, but it's like an invisible hand guidance. Just interact, just look above them, interact with that person. They'll scramble up to it.

Anne Morriss (26:19):

I love that. I think that core optimism that people and teams and organizations can get better is one of the prerequisites for leadership.

Frances Frei (26:29):

And get better every day.

Anne Morriss (26:32):

Tomorrow can be better than today is another shorthand we often use. In fact, when people ask us for really quick leadership advice, we'll often say, interact with the better future version of someone.

Frances Frei (26:48):

Including yourself.

Anne Morriss (26:51):

That premise leads to the decisions and activities that will unleash them and unleash that talent and allow them to get to that version of themselves sooner rather than later. For example, giving people the stretch assignment, giving people the assignment that you're not sure they can do a hundred percent today, go ahead and give it them. Give them the support they need to succeed. If you don't have the time to mentor them, find someone else on the team to mentor them and make sure they get there.

Frances Frei (27:18):

If you don't have devotion to mentor them, find someone else.

Anne Morriss (27:20):

Definitely find someone else. Put your high performers to work. But it is the orientation that allows us to create the conditions where people can be reliably unleashed.

Frances Frei (27:33):

Anne and I teach a course and after every class we ask students to write a reflection, and we have them write the reflection to Dear future me. So it's a future you reflection, and it's, what would you want to say to your future self about the learnings you're taking? It really elevates. We used to just ask for reflections and they were okay, but I'm not sure they were changing. The students were changing their own lives by writing the reflections. They now write so much more powerful lessons and report that they get so much more out of it because they're aiming towards a better future version of themselves.

Lisa Connell (28:07):

That's great. Everyone can take on that responsibility of believing in a better version, whether it's of themselves or of others. So, I love that.

Frances Frei (28:15):

Indeed, indeed.

Lisa Connell (28:17):

Before we wrap up, perhaps you could share one thing that an HR leader could do to start applying these principles and unleash tomorrow.

Anne Morriss (28:29):

Well, let me just say, on behalf of our publishers, they should definitely buy the book. Of course, wherever that you buy your books. But I think we would also say, to simply begin, I mean, one of the reasons we wrote the book was to challenge this idea that in order to earn the right to lead, you had to look in the mirror and find all your flaws and fix everything and then get in the arena. A big part of our message is, stop looking in the mirror, turn that mirror into a window, and really pivot to thinking about, "Okay, what do the people around me need to be successful?" That's at the heart of empowerment leadership.

Frances Frei (29:17):

I would add that inclusion is an urgent and achievable goal and it is best driven by the leaders of people in the organizations. And so, that's your listeners. I think the most important business lever today is at the discretion and empowerment of everyone listening.

Lisa Connell (29:40):

That's great. Turn the mirror into a window, and inclusion is both urgent and achievable. Love it, love it. Well, Frances and Anne, thank you so much for sharing your expertise with us today. I highly recommend to everyone that they check out the book Unleashed. So many good nuggets in there. For more information on the topics that we've discussed today, or for further details on SHRM, please visit