Intentionally building team culture

with Molly Stevens of Uber

I recently caught up with Molly Stevens, director of User Experience Research at Uber. In this conversation, Molly discusses how she became a manager and how she approaches crafting a healthy team culture on a team that’s spread across several offices.

Can you tell me about the team you lead at Uber?

I lead the UX Research team across the entire Uber suite of products (except for freight & autonomous vehicles). Our mission is to create insights about people and the world, and use those insights to impact both near term product development and innovation for the future.

How did you decide to become a manager?

When I joined Google, there was someone going on maternity leave, and they asked if I would take over for her. But at that time, the view of management at Google, was really negative. The company was very focused on keeping the organization flat, and adding managers was not seen as positive. I had a lot of people coming up to me saying, “You’re considering being a manager? Ew, that’s gross.” Google was focused on being flat, and managers were seen as a necessary evil. They weren’t respected.

So I talked with a career coach about the two options: continuing as an individual contributor or trying management. I realized that I was really excited about management even though I had been told, “You won’t get promoted, no one will recognize it, it’s a crappy job, and you won’t get paid more.”

People management and team leadership was the next thing I wanted to learn. So I went ahead and did it, and it went well. By the end of my three and a half years managing at Google, I had folks in London, Shanghai, New York, Seattle, and Mountain View. My team was about 20 people total.

With people spread over so many locations, how did you create the sense of a team?

In terms of managing remote teams, one of the things that I started doing, was every six months we’d have a research summit where we’d bring everyone together for two days.

We would spend half a day just getting to know each other so that the team knew who they could reach out to if they had a question about methodology or a problem. And then we’d do something fun, usually with a dinner. The first day was all about team bonding, and getting to know each other, and building up the social capital so that when you’re distributed you can burn through that capital until the next time you meet up.

Then the second day usually involved some kind of presentation, learning, unconference, education, and different things. So, for example, at the last summit we had three presentations on research methodologies, and then we did an un-conference on topics that we care about. We also built in a lot of social time and ability for people to get to know each other and chat.

My hope is that from each of those sessions, someone makes one more connection, either personal or a project connection.

So you do a summit every 6 months. What do you do between those times to form the team?

The summit is like an anchor event that resets a bunch of key elements. And then throughout the year we have weekly team meetings. In those team meetings we give kudos and personal accomplishments. What is it people are excited about? For example, I shared recently that I did a triathlon.

Kudos, while they seem a little fluffy, help model good behavior for the team. They show helping each other out is supportive, and that being open to collaborating is important.

On the work side, we do “method mentors”. We just started a program where people who have expertise in certain areas teach a class, and then make themselves available to other folks on the team to build up that skill.

I can’t be there for everyone, and my managers can’t be there for everyone. If people don’t know who to go to or talk to, they will run into situations where they don’t know what to do. So how do we make sure we’re multiplying our scale and availability? You develop programs that support the kinds of learning, sharing, and collaboration activities that the team needs to be successful.

You manage people that are primarily working with other teams, rather than working within the team. How does that affect a team’s identity?

I think the important thing is that people have a home and an identity, and they feel like they fit into a culture.

The way Uber works is that researchers are embedded with their teams. Let’s say we have a group of researchers who are focused on our marketplace. Those researchers might have to work on driver topics, on rider topics, and they might shift around among teams, and product managers, and designers. That means that it can be very hard for them to settle into a small enough group to have that feels really homey.

I’ve found that having our team focus on a core identity, and being supportive, and giving people some fun things — basically kind of a family-like feeling — helps people when there’s a problem. When something breaks down, or something happens on their product-related team, then they have somewhere to go to. They know they’ll be supported. And they know that we’re there to celebrate their wins.

When you talk about leadership, you seem to favor a supportive style over a directive style. Why is that?

I’ve learned over the years what works best for me. Part of it is that’s just my nature. I am a supportive, caregiving person. I am very focused on relationships and trying to make getting people to work together well. And I believe in authentic leadership.

So when I joined Uber, I heard from one of the people on my team who believed that to be a manager you had to be really aggressive and directive. I said, “Not in my experience.” You do have to be directive sometimes, but that doesn’t have to be your primary role.

Particularly when you’re working at a tech company, we hire exceptionally smart people who are driven and have lots of things they want to accomplish. Getting in their way and micromanaging is actually more disruptive. It’s better to give people good direction, guidance, and guidelines and let them run with it.

I would rather be more hands-off, supportive, and available. There are some times when I am a little more hands off than I probably should be, and if someone runs into trouble, then I have to kind of corral them. But I find that the work they do is better than I could’ve directed them to do.

To me, the worst thing ever is when a manager goes out of town and nothing happens because they have to be involved in everything.

I just literally can’t be there for everything. If someone has set up a team that can’t function without them, that’s a sign of a big problem. Because that means nothing’s happening if you’re not there. It might make you feel good because you’re involved in everything, but people don’t learn in that environment. They don’t feel empowered, and they don’t grow.

Are there times when you do need to be more directive?

More junior folks or people who are new to the field, they need more direction. And it’s good to be very deliberate and thoughtful about that as you’re making plans and working with folks.

For example, I’ll say something like, “Okay, my assumption is you’re gonna run with this, and you need me to check in periodically as a stakeholder, but you don’t need me there for every piece.” They might say, “Well, I want you here for this piece more than you’re describing.” And that’s great, I will do that. Let’s just be really specific about it.

So you’re careful to set expectations about your involvement?

Yes. I have learned to do that, particularly with folks who are new to the team. If we haven’t built up the personal rapport yet where they’re gonna be honest with me about something that’s happening, then I will try to be more deliberate about it. I’ll ask, “I can be involved in these ways… what makes sense for now? How do you wanna double check on it?”

And in my last role I wrote a Molly manual. It was a “How to work with Molly” kind of thing. It said that I’m typically pretty hands off, but if you need me for anything, it’s no problem. My job as a leader is to be available to the team, to make things run smoothly, and to help you get the right resources and the right stakeholder buy-in and support.

Why do you make time for building team-connection in a fast-paced culture like Uber? Why not just focus on the work?

My opinion is based on what I’ve seen over the last 10 years. Focusing on the team saves you time. I call it pausing to go faster.

If you take the time to build the personal relationships, to communicate well, to understand the team dynamics, then you have fewer problems.

If people actually know and respect each other, they’re won’t throw each other under the bus in a meeting. They’re going to assume that intentions are good and problem solve with you. And if someone runs into a problem, they’re going to ask for help because they’re willing to let their vulnerability show.

If you don’t have that trust, and vulnerability, and space for people to do that, people leave. They don’t tell you about problems. They leave. I have a team of many people with very low attrition, and I’m really proud of that. A large part of that is because of the team culture, and because we focus on trying to help people feel connected.

How do you help people feel connected to the team?

So it’s probably taken me a good year and a half to really build that up in this team. It takes time. Some people think, “Oh, it’s a one time rally the troops. Do an offsite and everything’s fine.” No. You have to constantly be adding to it.

The way I’ve looked at building up the culture is to focus on and reward the things we value.

We give kudos and celebrate collaboration. We started a monthly research excellence award, where we’re trying to demonstrate what kinds of capabilities, quality of work, collaboration, and impact that we value. And once you get to an org over a certain size, it’s hard to see what other people are doing. So if we’re able to highlight that, and demonstrate that, and push that out among the group, that’s really helpful.

I feel like we’ve changed the team culture for the Uber research team since I took over. Part of it is the leader sets the cultural tone in terms of how I talk about things, what I reward.

Can you give an example of what it means to reward behavior?

About a year ago, I sent out a message to everyone saying, “I want to see your vacations on the calendar soon, because summer’s coming. And I’m really excited to see those OOO messages.”

Vacation is absolutely essential to decompress, to reset, to ensure that you are excited about your work and you know what you’re doing. I’ve seen so many people who don’t take vacation and they become crazy messes that are hard to work with. It’s not good for anyone.

Vacation’s amazing. You come up with creative ideas, and you try new things. And it’s a benefit, so use it!

I sent that email out last year, and then this morning one of my managers on my team said, “You know, Molly, That was really meaningful. That told me you valued us taking personal time, and being humans outside of the office.” So I just sent the email again, because people here work really hard. It’s really intense, and they need the time off. So that’s how I, as a manager and a leader, can set the tone for what I want the team to understand, and value, and focus on.

How have you been able to craft such a positive culture on your team at Uber? From the sounds of it, that must have been hard.

There were definitely parts of Uber culture that were negative. And we’ve seen stories about them, and I do believe those existed and that those were part of the everyday. I personally never experienced that.

What I experienced was a culture that was very enthusiastic, a little aggressive, but in a straightforward kind of way that I really found refreshing. And maybe it was easier for me since I had some experience, I’d been a manager and a leader, and I’m over 40.

When the Uber leadership transitioned, and a bunch of people left, culture really began changing as a whole. There’s a big push in the company, and particularly with the new CEO, for us to do the right thing and to be collaborative.

But I just started doing all this anyway when I took over the team because that’s the team I wanted to be on. That’s the team that I know how to make function well. And so I just started doing it. In some ways, that’s very much Uber culture: I think this is really important and so we’re gonna do it. And I’m gonna lose everyone on the team if we don’t do it. And I might leave if we don’t do it!

So are you saying that one of Uber’s values is empowerment, and you were able to use that value to shape the culture on your team?

Yeah, exactly. I’ll just spend my budget on an offsite with my team and pay for comedy improv. That’s just what we’re gonna do. So we just did it. I don’t ask for permission around that kind of thing. We’ll all go to a Giants game together, whatever it is. Or postcard writing day, or other education opportunities.

We will figure out what we need to build the team culture and to function well, and then do it.


If you’d like to stay in touch with Molly, you can follow her on Twitter @mollymel. P.S. Molly makes amazing quilts.

My team at Range is obsessed with helping teams work better together, which is why I loved this conversation.

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