Elon Musk – Leading a quest to save the future

47 year old South African born entrepreneur Elon Musk founded X.Com in 1999. X.Com later became Paypal and was sold to Ebay in 2002. After making a cool $165 million out of the deal, Musk turned his focus to new and more ambitious ventures. First he founded Space X, a company designing and manufacturing spacecraft with goals to commercialise space travel and colonise Mars. Then in 2003, he commenced Tesla Motors and started producing zero emission electric sports cars. More recently, Musk convinced Tesla shareholders to acquire his third passion project, Solar City; a business owned by Musk’s cousin, specialising in powering homes, businesses and eventually cities with solar power.1

Elon Musk - Leading a quest to save the future

Attribution: Steve Jurvetson, CC BY 2.0 , via Wikimedia Commons

The lure of a strong vision

Musk wraps all of his companies up in a larger than life vision that attracts and inspires his employees.2 At Tesla Group, people genuinely believe they are saving the planet. At SpaceX, they are on a crusade to give humans a second chance on another planet if earth gets into trouble.3

Musk intimately understands the heady attraction of such ambitious work for highly skilled people. When releasing his electric car patents to the world, Musk openly taunted his competitors: “My vision allows me to hire and retain better people than you will ever be able to hire for any amount of money. They will be smarter, they will work harder and they will stay longer.3

I wrote about the positive effect of workers feeling a higher sense of purpose in my blog ‘Work and Happiness’.

Selecting the best talent

Musk has a reputation for hiring only the best people on the planet to work for him – whether to build a rocket or cook in the cafeteria.4 He believes that bringing on a few leading minds in the field and giving them the freedom to accomplish their responsibilities is better than hiring a lot of people to get a complicated job done. According to Musk, numbers just slow down progress and make a task more expensive to complete.

Apart from wanting the best, Musk also values a positive attitude and an easy to get along with personality. (Watch ‘Elon Musk talks Talent vs. Personality in Employees’).

Musk personally interviewed the first 1000 staff for Space X and even today still interviews every engineer. However, he encountered unique challenges sourcing talent along the way. In particular, it was difficult to entice experienced people away from established aerospace players like Boeing and Airbus. So he went after younger talent; personally scouring PhD programs from a range of universities for individuals who had built something, or had been on a team that had made something from nothing.2

At Tesla, the experience was a little different. Cars hadn’t been done in Silicon Valley before so there were a number of software engineers excited about the prospect of applying their skills to an entirely new product. Tesla also had the backing of a Silicon Valley legend – Google Founder Sergey Brin – to boost the project’s appeal and the credibility of the Tesla brand amongst target applicants. Once again, Musk stayed close to the recruitment of talent,2 even taking to Twitter himself to advertise for engineers for the autonomous vehicle division.5

Recruitment techniques

Musk makes applicants write essays about why they want the role. He also gives them a riddle to solve to test critical thinking. In the interview, Musk is known to play mind games; he barely pays attention to candidates and sits with his back to them2 before spinning around to drill them with questions.6

Musk is a proponent of behavioural interviewing techniques. Unless a prospective employee can break down the solution to a problem in granular detail, he will conclude that they do not really know the answer or have embellished the level of their involvement.6

Intense culture

Job ads on the Tesla careers website come with a warning: “These jobs are not for everyone, you must have a genuine passion for producing the best vehicles in the world. Without passion, you will find what we’re trying to do too difficult.”6

According to Dolly Singh, former Head of Talent Acquisition at Space X, working with Musk is not a comfortable experience as he is never satisfied. He pushes his team so hard they sometimes feel like they are “staring into the abyss”. However, this pressure on performance is deliberate. Musk knows that his staff will exceed even their own expectations if he keeps the heat on.7

And, as Singh points out, “you don’t get to Mars with a bunch of softies.”

Musk describes himself as a nano-manager. Even more intense than a micro-manager, he maintains a hands-on obsession with the tiniest operational and design details.1 And when there is a pressing problem preventing progress, Elon will devote the majority of his time and energy to it.2

Structure and communication

The Musk businesses run on flat structures. Staff are free to contact anyone directly, including Elon.2

At Space X, the engineers (including Musk) physically sit on the manufacturing floor in giant glass cubicles. They have to walk through the floor to get to their office so are forced to look at everything going on and interact with staff.2

Is Musk a modern day superhero?

Musk has been described as a modern day Howard Hughes and even compared to comic book hero Iron Man (aka Tony Stark). There is no doubt he is a physics genius. And, if popular media reports are to be believed, has a penchant for fast cars and beautiful women. However, Musk knows that to achieve his ultimate goal of saving the planet and establishing interplanetary colonisation, it will take a team of superheros. To this end, his approach is quite simple: seek out people who are as talented and driven as he is; ensure that the work environment is as motivating and meaningful as possible; and, establish clear and measurable objectives. Sounds easy, right?

Works Cited

  1. Wartzman, Rick. “Admire Elon Musk All You Want, but Please Don’t Manage like Him.” Fortune.com. Fortune, 21 Jan. 2015. Web. 21 May 2017.
  2. “How Elon Musk Builds Organizations That Can Achieve Anything – Recruiting & Training, Remaking R&D, Setting Strategy.” Innovation Leader. 13 Feb. 2017. Web. 21 May 2017.
  3. Lavoie, Andre. “Want to Hire the Best Talent? Be Like Elon Musk and Set a Strong Vision.” Entrepreneur. 22 July 2014. Web. 21 May 2017.
  4. Carson, Biz. “Elon Musk Is so Obsessed with Hiring, He Even Poached the Best Yogurt Shop Employee from Pinkberry.” Business Insider Australia. 02 June 2015. Web. 21 May 2017.
  5. Burns, Matt. “Want To Work For Tesla? Elon Musk Turns To Twitter To Recruit Engineers.” TechCrunch. TechCrunch, 19 Nov. 2015. Web. 21 May 2017.
  6. Tovey, Alan. “Elon Musk: Have You Got the Drive to Work for Tesla?” The Telegraph. Telegraph Media Group, 20 Nov. 2015. Web. 21 May 2017.
  7. Feloni, Richard. “A Former SpaceX Employee Explained What It’s Like To Work For Elon Musk.” Business Insider Australia. 24 June 2014. Web. 21 May 2017.

Elon Musk image By Steve Jurvetson [CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons