New York, New York — Rosalie Nathans is a Partner at Tesla, where she manages a team of high-potential leaders who solve critical problems across the company. She is also an Executive Director at Interact. After becoming an Interact Fellow, Rosalie joined the Interact Board of Directors in 2018 to lead the Fellowship and venture partnerships. Anna Mitchell, Interact’s Fellowship Communications Lead, caught up with Rosalie in New York.
Where are you from and where do you live now?
I was born and raised in Baltimore by parents who are both molecular biologists. The majority of my extended family works in academia, and I was raised on dial-up internet without a cell phone or television, so it’s a bit of a paradox that I work for a self-driving car company. I moved to San Francisco several years ago and have been based here since.
You were the #1 salesperson at LinkedIn. What did you learn from the experience?
My first job after university was at a rotational leadership program at LinkedIn that included customer operations, recruiting, and sales. It wasn’t exactly glamorous. I spent most of my time on the phone with upset customers, unqualified candidates, and sales executives who wanted nothing more than to hang up the phone on me (which they often did). Selling to salespeople is tough because everyone knows the game, so there is no room for BS. I learned to have thick skin. And I learned to build relationships quickly with all different types of people. In retrospect, those were very useful skills to pick up early on.
Now you’re working on leadership initiatives at Tesla. How did you make that transition?
A prior manager and mentor recruited me to join Tesla, where my job started out as more of a problem statement than a specific role. When I joined, Tesla had just acquired Solar City, we were integrating vehicle and solar sales, and we were preparing to start Model 3 production. Those major changes were a challenge for many teams, and we were seeing a steep drop-off in retention of our senior managers. We were spending significant time and resources hiring new leaders, only to lose them within a year. Tesla is so dynamic; we need a dynamic approach to leadership, too. For the past two years, I’ve been focused on solving this problem.
Once you understood the problem, how did you concretely begin building a solution?
We started small, with a pilot team of five people. The idea was to build an experimental leadership program that would make an impact in two ways: in the short-term, program participants could be deployed at a moment’s notice to whichever part of the company needed critical support, and with time, those who were successful would become a vetted bench of high-potential candidates for leadership roles across the company. I have placed members of my team into roles in sales, delivery, service, finance, supply chain, energy operations, engineering, and manufacturing. Over the last two years, we’ve hired and deployed 65 people via this model.
This sounds like a daunting task. What made them think you were the right person for the job?
Elon Musk often describes taking a first-principles approach to engineering and design, but we rarely talk about what this means when it comes to people. One of my favorite aspects of Tesla is our willingness to take bets on people who, on paper, don’t look like a natural fit for their jobs. Tesla is a hard place to work, but as someone who is constantly thinking about talent and potential, I can also see how this pushes us to our limits, in a good way. For certain people, setting the bar so high that it appears unreachable is hugely motivating. There is nothing on my resume to suggest I am cut out for this job. Maybe that’s scary. I think it’s awesome.
That’s amazing. How do you spend your time now?
Roughly half of my time is spent surfacing and understanding critical business priorities: meeting with leaders, asking them what is keeping them up at night, and distilling those challenges into a scoped role that someone could step into for the next 6–12 months. The rest of my time is spent matching people with those problems, and coaching and motivating them along the way. It’s a very “Tesla” approach to leadership development. My team won’t learn to be effective leaders by sitting in a classroom; they’re out there solving real problems.
Beyond Tesla, you serve as Executive Director of Interact, investing a lot of time building and shaping the community of Fellows. What led you to care so deeply about Interact?
I joined the Interact community at a turning point when I was moving away from structured learning environments into the nebulous “real world,” and asking myself the big questions about what matters most to me, what values I hold, and what impact I want to make over the course of my lifetime. Interact created a space where I could explore those questions out loud, with other people my age who were wondering the same things. What sets Interact apart in my mind is the combination of optimism and conviction that we can, and will, make a positive difference in the world. It’s an unspoken shared commitment that means something slightly different to everyone. Maybe it means advancing scientific research, exploring a new artistic medium, founding a company to increase access to healthcare, or, in my case, furthering sustainability.
It seems like a common theme of your work at Tesla and Interact is scouting and nurturing human potential. What is your philosophy on talent?
I believe we are all inherently capable. But the organizational structures we’ve built don’t usually allow us to contribute as fully and as creatively as we could. My work starts with recognizing this capability in others. I am constantly on the lookout for raw potential — whether in a highly motivated young founder, or in a seasoned leader. More important than identifying capability, though, is the next step: creating the community and the environment for people to fulfill their potential. This is at the center of my work at Tesla, as well as with Interact. It would be easy to wake up every day feeling overwhelmed by the insurmountable problems we are facing in our lifetimes; I choose instead to focus on the high-potential humans who will solve them. I’m betting on them.
Interact is a community of mission-driven technologists. Applications for the Class of 2020 are now open at joininteract.com.