In our ongoing blog series, Using Your Platform for Good, author Irene Liu, General Counsel of Checkr, expands on crucial topics of corporate and workplace culture.
A few years ago, Frances X. Frei, a faculty member at Harvard Business School and co-author of the book, Unleashed: The Unapologetic Leader’s Guide to Empowering Everyone Around You, took on the role of senior vice-president for leadership and strategy at Uber at the urging of an HBS alumna who worked for the company.
I recently had the opportunity to sit down with Frei to discuss her time in Silicon Valley, what she learned, and why she and co-author Anne Morriss created the Unleashed leadership philosophy and the Leadership Consortium.
Pushing leaders to focus externally and on the team
Part of Frei’s Unleashed formula for leadership success is guiding leaders to focus on others first and empowering others rather than on a self-focused, individualistic leadership strategy.
To enable this paradigm shift, leaders must build trust with others — a key component of the Unleashed formula. “If I as a leader don’t have a foundation of trust, nothing else I am going to talk about is going to matter,” Frei explains. To create this trust, Frei notes that three elements must be in place: authenticity, a rigorous plan grounded in logic, and an empathetic mindset centered on the team. The mix of these three ingredients can create a successful leader who takes radical responsibility for the performance of other people.
“If you doubt it’s the real me and that I have a good plan, and if you think that I’m in it for me more than for you, trust is the first thing to go,” Frei explains, adding that once a foundation of trust exists, the leader can bring out the best in each person on the team, one individual at a time. Indeed, by setting high standards and revealing a deep devotion to others’ development, leaders allow people to thrive by simply making them believe in a better version of themselves.
Leaders also need to understand the emotional and logical benefits of this Unleashed formula. On the emotional side, for example, most leaders want to be seen as contributing to the lives of more people in order to leave a positive impact or legacy in their organizations. And on the logical side, competition is at the core. The leader who sets others up for success creates momentum for collective success in a way that a leader only thinking about himself will not, Frei notes.
Once leaders buy into this formula and shift their thinking to be externally focused, leaders can build empowered, strong teams able to function both in their presence and in their absence.
Fostering inclusion as a leader
Having team members with a diversity of thought, background, areas of expertise, approach, and demographics is a key part of the Unleashed formula for leadership, Frei says, adding that with diverse team members comes the need for a trusted leader to create psychologically safe conditions as well.
For many people of color in the workplace and outside of work, complete psychological safety may not exist especially given the current climate. To increase retention and promotion of people of color at workplaces, the Unleashed leadership philosophy suggests the use of local solutions.
As part of solving the overall issue of racial bias in the workplace, leaders should focus first on the things they can control and change quickly, such as the selection and promotion process, and whether parts of its culture that might repel new candidates or push current employees to leave. Diagnosing problems at a local or team level and finding solutions there is a critical difference in the Unleashed approach as opposed to only applying top-down, company-wide programs and interventions, Frei says.
Unleashed leadership during the pandemic
During the current pandemic and amidst the business and personal disruption that the pandemic has caused, Frei says it is necessary for leaders to step away from the team and from the “remote office” more often to “put the oxygen mask on” and invest in their own personal well-being. This must be prioritized first, she explains, so that the leader can then help put the oxygen masks on team members and ensure every team member has what they need.
To continue to invest in each person’s individual development during this crisis, Frei urges leaders to take a different approach in a remote working environment. She recommends leaders regularly set up two different kinds of meetings with each team member — one focused on progress on work projects and one exclusively focused on the individual’s development.
Throughout the Unleashed strategy, Frei says it’s important to remember the core goal of these meetings is to make others more self-reliant and self-improving — this is key to what makes her approach to leadership unique. “Leadership, at its core, is about making other people better as a result of your presence,” she adds. “And making sure that the impact lasts in your absence.”
Frei’s Unleashed formula rings true even more during these turbulent times, as leaders navigate a global pandemic, the #BlackLivesMatter movement, and a distributed workforce. By adopting Frei’s strategy, leaders can empower their teams and help them reach their full potential.