Two Lessons from Elon Musk

Elon Musk. It’s hard to read any business publication and not run across some story of the Thomas Edison/Henry Ford of our time.  I read two particular stories – one where Elon was used to inspire action, and the other where Elon himself pledged to take action. Let’s see what we can learn from both examples.

The first example, curiously, is a BMW employee meeting. As detailed in this article, BMW employees were brought to an airplane hanger and Elon’s sinister face was used to put the fear of …well…Elon into the assembled throng:

“Inside a bright auditorium at an abandoned airfield near Munich, rows of men and women gaze at images flashing by on a giant screen: a Mercedes sedan; Porsche and Jaguar SUVs; the face of Elon Musk. “We’re in the midst of an electric assault,” the presenter intones as the Tesla chief’s photo pops up. “This must be taken very seriously.”

The audience is composed of BMW Group employees flown in for a combination pep rally/horror film intended to make them afraid about the future of the industry. The takeaway: The market is shifting in ways that were unimaginable just a few years ago, and BMW must adapt. The subtext is a recognition that the company has gone from leader to laggard.”

The scene above sounds a bit like the horror scenes force-fed to Alex in A Clockwork Orange, or perhaps the iconic George Orwell-themed Apple TV Ad introducing the first Macintosh. I like to believe the film was accompanied by some thrilling Wagner music.

My take:

  • BMW is smart to pick a villain. People respond better when they can envision an external threat (something, sadly, that political leaders know too well).
  • If you’re Elon Musk, you know that when the competition is using you to scare their employees you’re doing something right. Not that Elon really cares.
  • That said, the truest barriers to established brands’ success in the new era are seldom external.  As Clayton Christensen and others have pointed out, the eating of existing market share is consumed in small bites and enabled by business models that are constructed on new technologies and business processes.

My guess is that BMW spent quite a bit producing their internal horror flick, flying people in for the pep rally and feeding them excellent German sausages and beer.  Meanwhile, back at Tesla….

…..Elon is not happy.  A safety advocacy group recently reported that the injury rate at Tesla’s Fremont, CA factory was 30 percent higher than the industry average in 2014 and 2015.

Safety is a big deal at every manufacturing company. Every plant posts visible signs for employees announcing how many consecutive injury-free days that site has had (leading one to feel for the unfortunate worker who in a single moment gets hurt, ruins the streak, and gets everyone mad at him).

This is a good leadership opportunity for Elon. What should he do?

I suspect most CEOs would send out a “safety is our number one priority” email, and convene an internal group to study and improve on the problem.  Elon does this as well.

But in a classic Elon-esque way, he takes it one step further.  Keep in mind when you read this excerpt from the email he sent to his employees that Elon is not your average CEO. He’s rock-star famous. He has massive demands on his time – much more than most CEOs. He is spending his free time building rockets.

From his email:

“No words can express how much I care about your safety and wellbeing. It breaks my heart when someone is injured building cars and trying their best to make Tesla successful.

Going forward, I’ve asked that every injury be reported directly to me, without exception. I’m meeting with the safety team every week and would like to meet every injured person as soon as they are well, so that I can understand from them exactly what we need to do to make it better. I will then go down to the production line and perform the same task that they perform.

This is what all managers at Tesla should do as a matter of course. At Tesla, we lead from the front line, not from some safe and comfortable ivory tower. Managers must always put their team’s safety above their own.”

My take:

  • The leadership ethos of putting the welfare of your employees before your own is common in the military. It is uncommon in the civilian world.
  • Employees have perfect BS sensors when leaders say this but don’t live it.  Better to do it than to say it.
  • The fact that Elon says he will “go down to the production line and perform the same task” tells employees everything they need to know. If he fails to keep his commitment, that will as well.

As you look to your own leadership challenges, keep in mind that visualizing an external threat can be useful, but is rarely are enough to win in new markets, and that sometimes to be a great leader, you have to be willing to leave the office and stand in the production line.

Good luck!