What’s Eating Brother Elon?

Let’s start with what needs to be said before all else: I am an enormous fan of Elon Musk. I think he is quite likely the most important and visionary entrepreneur today leading the way in technology, business, and innovation. He walks in the American continuum of Edison, Disney, Gates, and Jobs.  I wrote as much in a post dating back to 2014.

So when a guy as brilliant as Musk goes sideways, I start to ask myself some questions. Like, what’s up with all the weirdness?

Clearly I have no ability to understand what’s going on in this amazing individual’s life, other than to observe the monumental toll that stress can take on even the mightiest of titans. To guess at what might be at the root of Musk’s recent unpleasant run in the headlines would seem a fool’s errand.

While I am unable to fashion an informed evaluation of why Musk appears in many ways to be undermining his own success of late, I am thinking about the learning that might be had from observing his stress. I am reasonably certain he will have no interest in my reflections of what his behavior could be telling us, but perhaps this will provide a mirror for others on what some of this means and how it possibly could be addressed.

Here are five thoughts on that.

Focus Is No Small Trick

Can one person really be an effective CEO at more than one company? It’s hard enough to be a decent CEO period. Now add longevity to the CEO run and enormous competitive forces, and you start to wonder if running both Tesla (after integrating SolarCity) and SpaceX is remotely possible. Let’s also not forget that Musk is additionally CEO of Neuralink and The Boring Company. If you have ever been CEO of a high-growth company or even know one, you are aware that the job requires super-human energy, and even then the clock is always ticking against the corner office. Musk is beyond super-human, not only as a leader but as a founder who tackles some of the most difficult problems of our day. Will he succeed at all of his goals? I am sure a lot of investors and customers are counting on that, but wouldn’t the odds be more in his favor if he narrowed the scope of his personal agenda and delegated authority with a much broader brush?

A Competitive Advantage Is Not Forever

Tesla has created leading-edge, clean-exhaust automobiles. These electric vehicles are as beautiful and luxurious as anyone could have imagined. Most Tesla owners are evangelists for the company and fiercely loyal to the brand. There is no question that Tesla has been an inspired market leader, but all it takes is one visit to the showrooms of other luxury car companies and you start to see that high-end electric cars are on a fast path to becoming commodities under many brands. BMW and Jaguar already are introducing competitive product lines. Others are on the way. Staying ahead of the pack is its own form of madness and a lot less fun than introducing first-of-a-kind category killers. Can playing king of the hill without a summit in sight have a troubling impact on the psyche? How can it not?

Production Efficiency Is as Difficult as Innovation

Why hasn’t a new auto manufacturer in the U.S. survived at scale beyond the Big Three? The bulk of car buyers want cheap—most consumers don’t have an option to spend more, so the entrenched behemoths take small margins to achieve broad sales and then make money in other ways like service and financing. When you are playing with other people’s money, the demands of Wall Street can be insanely demanding. It’s hard to make big bucks selling very few cars. While Model S and Model X are both category-defining luxury cars, they remain low-volume production units with difficult margin economics given their scale. Model 3, the low-cost mass-market entry, is supposed to change the scale of Tesla, but realizing the dream of high-volume, low-cost, low-margin automobile economics seems precisely what is eating away at our hero. Is the problem perhaps not solvable with the reality of capital constraints all businesses face? Is there another business model beyond manufacturing that Tesla might want to explore with respect to the investment burden they carry?

Health Matters

A lot of people at the upper echelons of business take pride in working themselves to death, or at least appearing to do so. I will admit I am personally not beyond this criticism, and have winced more than once when listening to colleagues celebrate the notion of work-life balance even in the most competitive environments. Many leaders demonstrate manic obsession in their devotion to their enterprises, and it is hard to argue a company can be at the top of its game with a standard forty-hour work week. That said, no matter how much we wish to argue the contrary, we are human, our bodies have limits, and when we cross our own lines of practicality, we can become counterproductive. Sleep matters. Nutrition matters. Some relief from stress is necessary to be consistent in exercising good judgment and productive reasoning. When our vitality breaks down, it is only a matter of time before we collapse or the responsibilities we own become compromised.

Authenticity Does Not Require Unrestrained Drama

The modern workforce is not put off when a boss exhibits some vulnerability. Relationships defined by org charts actually can be strengthened when a manager exhibits humility toward his or her own limitations. Leaders who acknowledge that emotions and potential exhaustion set them on a level playing field with peers and subordinates can foster a dynamic environment of trust and support. That doesn’t mean employees and other stakeholders want executives to ramble, wander, or become media fodder. Remember that old saying, “When you’re in a hole, stop digging.” Random proclamations to shareholders and needlessly quirky public appearances can leave deep craters on the social graph. All organizations want some form of predictability in the leaders they choose to follow. When they lose confidence in top management because of repeated, silly, and unnecessary antics that can demoralize their aspirations, they can make another choice. They vote with their feet.

I am rooting for Elon Musk to win, for SpaceX even more than Tesla, because he has proven that not only government bureaucracies can build dependable rockets. That is forcing innovation around reusability in space exploration and keeping admirable government spending on otherworldly travel in check. While I probably can’t put a dent in Musk’s corrective arc (which I want to believe is on the horizon), perhaps I can open the eyes of a few mere mortals to the underlying tension of his story. Perhaps your story of stress and self-expectation has similar subplots of immovable market forces. What could you be doing to course-correct that might give Musk reason to pay attention?

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Elon Musk Blows My Mind

I don’t know Elon Musk. I wish I did. This guy knows stuff. He’s the real deal.

MuskIf there is a possible next Steve Jobs or Bill Gates, it could be him. He’s not goofing around with thin stuff that’s going to come and go. He already did consumer software engineering as his opening act as a cofounder of PayPal. With the massive payday he got from eBay for the sale of his companya company that continues to operate as such an important platform it could someday be spun off again as an independent entityhe could have taken the path of least resistance and become an elder statesman of the industry, a board member, an investor, a wise individual of counsel. Not Elon Musk. He started not one subsequent company, but twoTesla Motors and SpaceXand leads both as CEO. He is also the CTO of SpaceX and the chief product architect of Tesla. Not exactly a path to retirement. He’s really, really changing the world.

I don’t know if he’s a nice guy. Like I said, I have never met him. But he is truly impressive and worth studying. Here are some perhaps not so obvious reasons why:

A real track record of repeat innovation.

A lot of people talk about being serial entrepreneurs. Elon Musk has pioneered three immensely important companies. The ability for an innovator to find repeat success in entirely new ventures is perhaps the rarest of proven attributes. Edison did it. So did Walt Disney and Steve Jobs. Musk made a mark in digital payment systems, then battery-powered automobiles and low-cost rocket propulsion. He didn’t start life as a rocket scientist, but he challenged himself to become one. Try to find a resume like his anywhere. I don’t think you can. He not only articulates a clear, bold vision, he leads from the front lines as a player-coach. He is simultaneously a thinker, a doer, and a peer-respected personal risk-taker with real skin in the game. He makes disruption make sense. That’s how you fire up a team and get results.

The work he does is important.

It was not clear to everyone in the first dot-com bubble that digital payments would be essential to our economy. Heck, most of us were lucky if we had a phone that could do email back then. PayPal opened our eyes. People have been betting against alternatives to fossil-fuel powered automobiles since the first suggestion of battery power on our roads. No matter how many failures it takes, we know that we can’t rely on the limited resource of petroleum forever. Space travel has been massively expensive, the province of federal bureaucracy and a very few goliath government contractors to date. We no longer have the luxury to spend endlessly on going into orbit and beyond, yet we know it is human destiny to explore our universe. All of this matters big time. Musk is actively pursuing a broad but selective set of challenges that he decides warrant his time and focus. This is real turf with lasting impact. It creates sustainable, well-paying jobs. Even when it fails, it moves the ball forward.

He is courageous and daring, but not reckless.

Earlier this year when Elon Musk was profiled on 60 Minutes, he said he was an engineer first. I do think he believes that, which is part of what makes him great, but even more than an engineer, even more than innovator, he is a pioneer. To be a pioneer in technology doesn’t just mean you have interesting ideas. It means you stand by your ideas and will them into being. Musk said in the 60 Minutes piece that with SpaceX he went “past strike 3 to strike 4,” not just betting the farm in failure, but staying with his conviction to the last test he could fund, even if it meant losing everything. He knew he was right, and if he wasn’t right, he needed to exhaust every resource at his disposal to make the case that he should have been right. When Musk recently faced a roadblock in submitting a competitive bid for a government contract controlled by Lockheed Martin and Boeing, he sued the federal government for the right to compete at substantially lower cost. Imagine the guts, to take on his own customer in a public forum, risking financial ruin for a principle. He won an injunction from a federal judge. Whether he ultimately prevails in winning the contract (and I think he will), there is little question that the price of that contract is coming down. Want to know how to get the government to think smarter about our tax money? I like this way.

He walks the walk, with standards that matter.

So much of what I write about on this blogideas like “good enough is not good” and “eat your own dog food”are very hard to understand unless you have lived them. If you’re lucky in your career, you get to work for someone for a while who grinds this stuff into your brain until you literally cannot act any other way, no matter the stakes, no matter the challenges. If you don’t get a boss who inserts that chip into the back of your spinal cord, study Elon Musk. You can’t cut corners on quality with the work he tackles, or people die. Of course you’re going to say, Well, in automobiles and rockets, people do die. Sadly in the march of progress where new machinery does fail, there is no way around that no matter the commitment to extraordinary quality, but the question is, what is the ethos at the core of an enterprise? Is it profit first, a love letter to Wall Street with lip service to safety and excellence? Or is it a standard of safety and excellence that exists a priori to all other decision-making that of itself creates value? When I see Musk discuss failure or success in any public setting after something has gone wrong or right, I don’t worry that his statement has been pureed by a publicist. I see an engineer who knows winning means perfection, and as elusive as perfection remains, he is never self-satisfied, never standing on his laurels. What do you really need to say about a reusable rocket that leaps sideways and then lands on its launchpad? The Grasshopper speaks for itself.

Why write about Elon Musk?

In this never-ending discussion of whether we are in a tech bubble, I have grown weary of broad generalizations. If all we are worried about is whether the stock market is due for a correction, then we are wasting brain cycles on an inevitable head fake we cannot control, so why bother? Our world has an abundance of trendy apps, head-bobbing diversions, and flavor-of-the-month prognostications of what at the moment constitutes cool. You know what’s cool? Stuff that lasts, stuff that can have a lasting impact on growing our economy, stuff that makes scientific dreams into tangible realities, and stuff that in doing so makes investment capital make sense. Musk is doing that, which to me looks like real leadership, and it feels good to applaud him. I don’t care that he is a billionaire. I care that he is a creative leader, with half his life likely still ahead of him to teach us things we don’t know and take us places we couldn’t otherwise find.

As Andy Grove taught us decades ago, Only the Paranoid Survive. Somewhere along the ride, Elon Musk must have gotten the memo. He is probably rewriting it with some form of ink yet to be discovered.

Product Development is Not Democratic

Following up my last post on the scarcity of successful internet brand turnarounds, I had a number of interesting discussions with colleagues in search of the answer why. While it would be impossible for me to boil that down to a single concept in a single blog post, the common theme seemed to be the extraordinary difficulty in reinventing the key products or services under a once a powerful but now fading brand, such that the new offerings were up to the standards of the original breakthrough experiences.

Digging deeper into this theme of why a brand that was created of innovation could have such a hard time finding reinvention in subsequent cycles of innovation, the culprit fueling failure often found the compass needle pointing at process. Where some form of good process once allowed staggering creativity to flourish, failure to reinvigorate good process most often led to uninspired product development, lackluster offerings to customers, and ultimately a continuation of the downward spiral where a turnaround was the hope. Called out for especially pernicious result:

1) Tepid Innovation—believing that a little idea was a big idea almost in desperation for lack of identifying a big idea. Copycat products that responded to market leaders to segment small bits of their commanding market share consumed energy where market leading ideas remained in small supply.

2) Lack of shared vision—weak leadership failed to articulate a big idea around which teams could rally, so buy-in became compelled rather than organic. Empowering strong leaders to lead is not often enough a company’s core competency, because truly creative rebels don’t want to be managed, they want to be sponsored, so that they can make change happen in cultures that prefer conformity, and conformity is not how you win market share. When the right leaders are chosen and empowered, they can build a shared vision by leading, not managing.

3) Corporate intervention—a young company acquired for its Think Different mentality and bold new ideas becomes indoctrinated in the prevailing corporate culture of the parent, and begins to see the world through the lens of the acquirer rather than for the reasons it was acquired.

4) Lack of listening—there is no longer a measurable correlation between time on the job and quality of concept. The youngest arrival in a company may just have the best ideas, but if there is no forum for real listening and discussion, the most creative voice can be too easily silenced.

5) Marketing/Engineering Wars—rather than partner, the two necessary sides of the winning formula argue for the sake of winning the argument. They forget what it means to win—that their competition works at another company.

Dynamics of Software DevelopmentMany of these themes are explored in the brilliant and surprisingly nontechnical book Dynamics of Software Development by Jim McCarthy, which I have encouraged every senior executive I have met to read as well as every staff leader I have mentored. In my experience the core issue comes down to learning how to build a consensus, understanding that consensus building is not polling or voting or majority rules. Product development is an expertise, like any other profession. Many individuals can learn to do it adequately, but few can do it extraordinarily.

Look at some of the new wave of great companies and you see the top-tier of product development pros at the helms: Mark Zuckerberg, Reed Hastings, Elon Musk, Reid Hoffman. Of course those are all CEOs of substantial, important, disruptive companies and they are not available for brand turnarounds at internet companies on the rebound, but the question remains, are the people being put in charge of turnarounds somehow similar in nature and characteristics to the great leaders of product development? Are they able to articulate a vision around which people can rally willingly and with trust? Do they listen to a multitude of opinions and then make decisions that incorporate feedback because it is critical, not because it represents a political agenda? Do they have good taste, and can they see beyond the state of today to leapfrog a competitor with perhaps something that didn’t do well in a focus test? Have they built a process in their environment where good work can shine and fast iteration can overcome mediocrity in rapid succession?

Consensus is an astonishingly complex concept; it is not at all compromise. It begins with vision, It is evangelized through leadership, It becomes stronger through group participation and feedback, but it is guided to completion by the same vision and leadership from which it emanated. Consensus goes off track when a leader feels for whatever reason that bits of all contributions most be included to create the consensus, the proverbial camel with two humps. That is wrong, because all comments and critiques will not be right if breakthrough products are your goal. Group participation is a must to achieve organic buy-in, listening is a must for a leader to bypass being feared as a despot, but for great product development to triumph, a vision must remain strong, pure, unique, original. That can never be taken for granted, and everyone on a team will not always be happy at every twist and turn. Yet if you have ever had the privilege of working on a world-class, game changing product, you know that most sins are forgiven when it all comes together through good process, and it does not look anything like the system of checks and balances we see in representative government.

Product development is driven by a different motive set, of creative destruction and inspired disruption, a high stakes arena where often winner takes all, second prize means you go home. Democracy does not work there, and democratic compromise is not workplace consensus. Show me a great product, and I know you will find iteration, but I bet you won’t find haggling.

Vision is what launches a brand. Vision will always be key to reinventing a brand. Process is the key to translating ideal vision into working reality. Consensus is the element of process that gets everyone on a team to remain part of the team, because success is owned by the team, not by its individual components. Get most of that right and product development has a fighting chance, and so might reinvention.