There has been a lot of talk and admiration for Elon Musk, CEO of Tesla, genius boy wonder in technology, who is tackling humongous problems that far bigger and older companies have either failed at, or have not paid much attention to.
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Take for instance the once inconceivable idea of fully functional wholly electric-powered cars. Can a car exist that does not use one drop of petrol, looks stylish, drives fast, and won’t embarrass you on a date? A few years ago, this was certainly a tall dream, a dream that the established car companies scoffed at.
Today, Tesla’s Model S owners around the world are the first to reach the 1 billion electric miles milestone (1.6 billion kilometres), while General Motors’ Volt owners and Nissan’s Leaf owners have each travelled a total accumulated distance of 629 million miles and 625 million miles respectively as at late 2014.
The Tesla Model S went on sale to the public in June 2012, almost two years behind both General Motors’ Volt and Nissan’s Leaf which both came into the market in November 2010 and December 2010 respectively. How then did Tesla’s Model S not only surpass the first comers by a wide gap in miles travelled, but also in how it could perform compared to the other two models?
The answer is multifaceted. It can be found in the technology, it can also be found in the company cultures, but most importantly, it resides in the nature of the leadership, the thought-driver of the organisation. These are some of the key indices that have set Tesla, SpaceX and now, SolarCity apart from similar endeavours. They are not secrets of technology, neither are they hidden traits particular only to Elon Musk, even though some of these traits do seem to come naturally to him. After all, we know that genius is 1% inspiration and 99% perspiration.
So, what does Elon Musk do differently?
Elon Musk does not run the conventional type of organisation where the CEO’s office is in the penthouse of a high-rise with a panoramic view. Elon is the hands-on guy whose office is on the ground floor, on the factory floor, where all the magic is happening. He knows the soul of his organisation to his bones, he knows how everything works.
The benefits of this, even though already apparent to some, are that there is little or no red tape between an idea that originates from the factory floor and the office of the CEO. In other conventional situations, the thought of taking such an idea to top management, through the written form, up the lift, past several secretaries and probably still not be able to meet the CEO face to face is enough to kill the momentum, even though it might just be the next idea that transforms such a company to the next level.
The lesson here is very clear: easy access and free flow of important information, without mortgaging organisational structure, leads to quicker turnaround times, quicker innovation and better products by many miles. In any event, who should motivate and lead the team if not key top management people? CEOs should learn to get their hands in the oil and grease more often; in fact, always.
The value of an open mind
Elon Musk runs, or is involved in the running of three highly technical companies where there is absolutely no faking it till you make it. You either know the stuff or you don’t. Thank you very much. One of the key successes to Elon’s vast empire is to find an alternative way to solve the same problem others have solved. The great question is “What if?”
In designing the power solutions for the Tesla Model S electric car, a simple question constantly asked eventually led to the development of the safest, high capacity, highly efficient battery the world has ever seen. Thus, the Tesla Model S, on a full charge can drive for 265 miles (426 km), twice the range for the next best competitor on a full charge. 426 km is about the same distance you can travel on a full tank of petrol. This is no mean feat, but it was only possible by pushing the limits of the “What if?”
In essence, we all try to solve problems in ways others have solved them. This brings about no creativity and usually only leads us to a somewhat stereotyped solution. To be different, to be extraordinary, we must be able, like Elon, to reduce huge problems or challenges to basic individual units. We must be able to ask the “what if?” and there are absolutely no stupid questions in this regard. These are the very same questions the bigger and older boys failed to ask, and their eventual solutions and how they compare, are definitely not the same.
Really, this should be sub-titled “devour the right kind of information”. How does one individual run a space travel company, an electric car company and a solar energy company? These are widely different industries. It is not as simple as hiring the smartest minds available because you have the means to do so. You also have to be able to converse intelligently on a molecular level (the nitty-gritties) with those who work for you.
Elon Musk is a voracious reader. He once hired a rocket scientist as a consultant and borrowed all the rocket science texts off the man. We have all heard and understood that to be CEO, you don’t need to be the smartest person in the room. However, you do need to be smart enough to understand what the really smart people are talking about. Yours is the vision, theirs is the task at hand. You navigate, they pull the oars.
A common trait we see in these parts is not knowing a thing and not agreeing to not knowing it. This is one of the surest paths to failure. Nobody was born a fountain of knowledge as we all acquire it as we go. But to close one’s mind to information or to disagree that a dissenting opinion may be right after all, is one of the pitfalls that are the hardest to be saved from. Business leaders must learn to keep abreast of information in and outside their fields and to have open conversations about these things with key people in their organisation.
True success in any venture is the accumulation of many small successes. Some of these little milestones are harder to reach because the organisational structures we operate are so unnecessarily convoluted, hindering the free flow of information hither and thither. At least, there now exists a model anyone can follow and also gain success for themselves.