Jennifer Hyman recounts that one of the most crucial insights she gained during her early career as a 22-year-old intern was quite straightforward. At a recent gathering at Stanford Graduate School of Business, the CEO of Rent the Runway, a company with a market capitalization of $95.93 million as of this Wednesday, conveyed this lesson to students: ‘Cultivate likability.’
During her internship at Starwood Hotels and Resorts, Hyman conceived the notion of introducing honeymoon registries, allowing individuals to contribute finances for couples’ upscale vacations after their weddings. However, persuading the company’s president was no small feat. While he didn’t outright reject the idea, he also didn’t immediately embrace it or allocate resources for its pursuit.
Insights from Hyman’s Journey
Instead, Hyman found herself in the position of persuading her colleagues to collaborate on constructing a website, implementing a reservation system, and essentially establishing an entirely new business. Mere possession of a promising concept didn’t suffice to win the support of those colleagues, she explained; instead, she needed to garner their affability.
“I had to sway numerous individuals spanning different divisions worldwide to assist me,” shared Hyman, who is now 42. “It became a personal exercise for me, teaching me that you don’t necessarily require authoritative power to assume a leadership role.”
This lesson became remarkably valuable when, six years down the line in 2008, Hyman conceived the notion for Rent the Runway. She and her co-founder, Jennifer Fleiss, recognized that people would only embrace their clothing rental service if it showcased renowned designer brands. This, in turn, necessitated engaging with prominent designers.
The duo initiated contact with Diane von Furstenberg through a cold email, and through a stroke of luck, managed to secure a meeting. In the beginning, von Furstenberg was dismissive of their concept, but Hyman remained undeterred. She explained that embodying likability involved being a proficient listener, allowing her to internalize von Furstenberg’s apprehensions and effectively advocate for Rent the Runway’s value.
As Hyman recounted, von Furstenberg’s primary concern revolved around the potential “cannibalization” of her customer base if her clothes were rented at lower costs. In response, the co-founders put forth the idea that Rent the Runway wasn’t exclusively targeting von Furstenberg’s existing clientele; rather, its focus was on providing access to younger individuals who might not typically afford DVF clothing.
Strategic Partnership and Influential Leadership
In essence, they proposed that they could contribute to the expansion of von Furstenberg’s consumer demographic. Impressed by both the innovation and the co-founders’ open-mindedness for discussion, von Furstenberg eventually formed a partnership with the brand, as Hyman recounted.
Research indicates that practicing active listening can enhance one’s likability. According to a 2017 study from Harvard University, individuals who attentively listen and engage in asking questions are perceived as more responsive, embodying qualities such as understanding, validation, and care.
This aligns with the findings of a 2009 study published in the Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, which suggests a connection between likability and persuasiveness. The study highlights how displaying warm and friendly behavior can diminish the likelihood of rejection and lead to improved social outcomes, even when interacting with individuals who possess a socially pessimistic outlook.
This approach resembles Hyman’s strategy, where her ability to foster warmth, engagement, and active listening played a pivotal role in effectively conveying her ideas, both during her tenure as an intern and as a CEO. Hyman emphasizes that elevating someone else to the role of an expert fosters an immediate sense of connection and rapport.
She noted that this mindset continues to shape her present actions. She elaborated, stating, “To truly establish something, what you require is influence. Particularly, the kind of leadership that holds influence, especially when it encompasses positivity, stands as the most potent force at your disposal.”
Jennifer Hyman’s journey underscores the power of likability. Her experiences from intern to CEO exemplify the impact of cultivating relationships, active listening, and influential leadership. These principles resonate in her successful ventures, offering a reminder that influence driven by positivity remains a compelling tool for effective leadership.