The leadership lessons of Rachel Botsman

Rachel Botsman

The former venture capitalist is credited with predicting the rise of the sharing economy. A veteran TED talker and authority on trust in the digital age, she offers advice on public speaking and explains why the new principles of trust pose a challenge for business leaders

You have to be clear to venture capitalists about why you’re the best person to solve a given problem. After hearing so many pitches as a VC, I came to realise that the best entrepreneurs are intensely curious about the world and want to understand an issue better than anyone else.

Start-ups need to focus more on hiring the right people. This may sound obvious, but we’d often say to entrepreneurs: “Right idea, wrong team.” It’s unwise to outsource all your technical capabilities, for instance. It’s crucial to have that person on your founding team to solve tech problems fast. It will get costly very quickly if you don’t.

It’s hard to succeed in fields that you don’t fully understand. Working in the world of investment taught me this. The industry’s culture and working methods weren’t a great fit for me. The way I think and the ways I want to help people were better served in other places.

I had a hunch that trust would become one of the most important issues of our time. When I started writing about the sharing economy in 2008, I could see that the credibility of big institutions – traditional media, governments and even charities – was being eroded.

Trust has stopped flowing into institutions. It’s reverted to flowing directly between individuals again. You see this in social networks, of course, where people send information directly to each other; in the sharing economy, through e-commerce platforms such as eBay and Amazon; and in what’s emerging with blockchain.

Reputation remains a difficult concept for many companies to grasp. A lot of firms still view a brand as something that’s “linear” – ie, they think it can be controlled from the company to the customer. Customer-to-customer or friend-to-friend interactions actually shape what the market thinks of your business.

You can’t operate behind closed doors any more. Consumers are questioning businesses’ intentions and integrity. Leadership teams have to ask themselves: “If members of the public were to find out about this decision, would they say that it was ethical?” This is the next wave on from sustainability and CSR. People are starting to ask companies: “Do your intentions align with mine? And do you have my best interests at heart?”

Trust is a confident relationship with the unknown. Teams in companies where trust is prevalent are very comfortable swimming in seas of uncertainty and their leaders are confident that something valuable will come of this. It’s important for businesses to understand the link between trust and innovation.

Don’t ask customers to leap too high or too fast. Often a new product won’t work because you’re asking too much of them. If you take the time to earn customers’ trust, they will gain the confidence, once you do bring out a new offering at a higher price, to take that kind of risk.

I stand by the principles of practice, repetition and hard work. There is something quite worrying about our current cultural focus on hockey-stick growth, instant success and early exits. Practice isn’t boring – it’s about saying: “I have the foundations, so I can become stronger and do this at a higher level.”

I admire leaders who can motivate their people under difficult circumstances – and do so with an even temperament. Take Christine Lagarde, for instance: the MD of the International Monetary Fund has real presence. She is good at convening a room, more by how much she listens than by what she says.

Be authentic. This is the first piece of advice I offer anyone wanting to be a better public speaker. Audiences can smell authenticity (or a lack thereof), so don’t tell other people’s stories – tell yours. A presentation doesn’t have to be seamless to be great. If you digress or forget something, it’s because you’re human.

Ask event organisers: “What do you want people to feel and what do you want them to learn?” I see so many speakers who are focused on their material rather than their audience’s experience. You should practice to such a point of fluency with the content that you can devote 80 per cent of your effort to delivery, energy management and connecting with the audience on the day.

Harness tech to make your business more human. Firms that feel the most human are those that will succeed over the next decade. Using technology to help you understand and empathise with people, and then adapting what you offer them accordingly, will be absolutely crucial.

RACHEL BOTSMAN was a founding partner of the Collaborative Fund, an early-stage investor in disruptive enterprises. Her 2010 book with Roo Rogers, What’s Mine Is Yours: How collaborative consumption is changing the way we live, correctly predicted the rise of the sharing economy. Botsman’s TED talks on the topic have been viewed more than four million times. A former director of the Clinton Foundation, she was named as one of the world’s top 20 keynote speakers by Monocle and featured on a Fast Company list of the most creative people in business. Botsman now divides her time between Australia and the UK, where she has appeared as a guest lecturer at Oxford’s Saïd Business School.

About author

Hannah Gresty

Hannah Gresty

Until she left the magazine in August 2019, Hannah Gresty was the assistant editor of Director. She previously worked on a local news website and at a fashion PR company before joining the Director team as editorial assistant in 2016.

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