Bozoma Saint John: One-on-One with Paula Faris

Published August 13, 2019


Leading Organizations
The following are notes from Bozoma Saint John: One-on-One with Paula Faris at #GLS19. Use them to help you apply the content you learned at the Summit.


Paula Faris: How important is a healthy and thriving culture to the success of a business?


Bozoma Saint John: The easy answer is yes, it’s important. Where we get lost is in thinking where the culture begins. We often think it happens in the employee handbook or from the CEO’s office. It doesn’t happen in the employee handbook. It’s in the cubicle next to you and in your own cubicle.


Faris: What happens to a company when the culture is toxic?


Saint John: That’s just it–we associate bad culture with competitiveness, but competition is not bad. A toxic culture is when people are put against each other in an unhealthy way and start to hurt each other when they are working towards the same goal and want to get there by any means.


Faris: You’ve been in so many positive environments and thriving cultures. What does a thriving culture look and feel like?


Saint John: It feels like everyone is moving in the same direction. To me, the competition in trying to get to the best place or the, you know, the best thing for the company is great for all members. However, if you start to try to cut people down or put them against each other, especially as a leadership team, that’s when things go awry.


Faris: What does unhealthy culture look and feel like?


Saint John: Nothing is ever black and white. There’s a lot of gray and sometimes some rainbow colors in there, too. There is no culture that is perfect, where everything is fantastic. It looks like people who aren’t necessarily looking to make everyone feel included and that when there’s a difference of opinion or a difference of character, then somehow that opinion is wrong.


Faris: When you were at Uber, you were hired to fix a toxic culture. How were you tasked to fix it, and were you able to fix everything you wanted to in that one year?


Saint John: I saw the need to help change the internal culture, which meant a lot of different things–listening to people, understanding what some of the challenges were.

Could junior people bring their ideas to the table? Were they being heard? When you go into meetings, who’s actually making the decisions? Sometimes in corporate cultures or any culture for that matter, it is up to us as individuals to make sure we’re changing that. Even the small things, when you’re in a meeting or in a group discussion and someone is dominating the conversation. Even if you’re not in charge of the meeting, I always encourage others to jump in there. If you have a voice, if you have a strong voice, jump in there–not only for yourself but to advocate for the next person. You know, maybe that looks like saying “Julie actually had a good idea.” Unfortunately, I didn’t get to finish everything I wanted to do at Uber. Quite frankly, I don’t know that at any job I have been able to finish it.


Faris: After one year at Uber, did you have enough and wanted to move on?


Saint John: Yes, it was time for me. There were things at the company that weren’t great for me personally, and if I was going to survive and be great, I couldn’t diminish myself any longer.


Faris: What was one way you attempted to change the culture of Uber that leaders will find fascinating?


Saint John: I became an Uber driver for the day and experienced working from their point of view. Any leader can glide into the office and not participate on every level of the company. It’s such a disservice. How are you going to know what it’s like to do that job, or that job, or what the challenges are?


Faris: For leaders trying to identify if they have an unhealthy culture, what is the best way to identify that?


Saint John: People are afraid to tell leaders when something is wrong. It’s like, when your mom says, “You know, you can tell me anything.” You know you can’t. Understand, as leaders, you need to create an environment in which people feel free to speak. It can be as simple as the anonymous suggestion box. Allow people to be able to be unafraid. It’s a combination of an open door policy to come into the office and say if there’s something that you believe could be different to make your experience here better.


Faris: How does a leader go about changing a toxic work environment?


Saint John: This is the million-dollar question. A leader can’t do it, not alone. It is absolutely a group effort. It’s everybody. Helping people to understand that it is everyone’s responsibility to do it is really, really important.


  • The difference between diversity and inclusion: “Diversity is being invited to the party. Inclusion is being asked to dance.” – Verna Myers


If we’re going to really change the way culture is, it’s not leadership who writes policies. It’s not in the handbook. It’s not up to another employee. It’s up to us. It’s our responsibility. We all have to step up and do it, and we’re all leaders in that capacity.


Faris: How do we as leaders show up as our true selves?


Saint John: By not pretending. Show your cracks. Show your emotion. You don’t need to be buttoned-up and perfect all of the time. People want to connect with you. Share with your team and they will probably do the same.


Faris: What advice can you give on the power of empathy?


Saint John: Sometimes we’re afraid to let other people see our emotions. We’re afraid to let them hear what we’re going through. I think we need to give people the ability to connect. We need to give people the ability to come into our circles knowing the full story of who we are, because we’re humans not superheroes.


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