Execute like Elon Musk

Execute like Elon Musk

(English version)

Probably every leader – that is, every manager in a company – knows the feeling: The goals are clear, the strategy is in place, the budget is available – and yet the change does not seem to be progressing. The hoped-for new products are a long time coming, important managers are on vacation. Standstill. A terrible feeling of unconsciousness.

Yet other companies, or even other teams within their own company, seem to have mastered implementation – EXECUTION – almost effortlessly! Amazon builds new logistics centers and puts them into operation in less than a year. Google creates turnarounds in complex web apps with integrations into an entire Big Data universe within a few months. And Tesla? Tesla has transformed the automotive industry in just a few years and is now worth more on the stock market than Mercedes and VW combined.

Anyone who talks about Tesla must, of course, also talk about its boss and founder Elon Musk. He is already considered a role model by many, even respected top managers see him as a shining light and try to emulate him. Elon Musk is the master of disruption – he does not resign himself to the status quo but sees potential for change and exploits it in a unique way.

Elon Musk started his entrepreneurial career with a news portal: With Zip2, he tried to create additional revenue for classic news media in the digital world. After a successful exit, he built up PayPal – and revolutionized the way we make payments on the Internet. With the sale of PayPal to eBay, Elon created the foundation of capital that he used for further ventures: SpaceX wants to drastically reduce the price of travel to space – by operating reusable rockets whose construction accounts for the majority of the cost of a launch. And of course: Tesla – the revolution in individual mobility toward self-driving and electrically powered cars.

How does a single person create this impact? What is Elon’s recipe for successful execution?

At this point, I’ve tapped all accessible sources to get to the bottom of Elon Musk’s management secrets.

The positive news: the principles are simple and obvious. Anyone can understand and apply them.

The bad news: you must be a freak. You have to forget the concept of work-life balance as if it never existed. From now on, the term „personal life“ is unknown. You must only live for your vision of a better world, made possible by your product, by your idea, by your invention.

Are you ready? Then go!

Execute like Elon Musk
Step 1 – The vision

Every venture by Elon Musk is based on one thing: a clear vision of a better future. Sounds pathetic, you think?

Take a look back 20 years. The easiest way to pay was to fill out a Check. With luck, the recipient of this check could cash the promised amount. I myself received a Check as payment for designing a web site as recently as 15 years ago. That excitement to see if the check „cleared“! This relief when the money was actually credited to the business account. Awesome! Are you in that situation? All right. Now let’s formulate Elon Musk’s vision for once:

„In the future, I want to be able to pay at any store in the world by providing my email address.“

OK, wow. Do you already notice the reflex stirring?
How is this going to work? Is that realistic?

Elon Musk is now underpinning this vision with two crucial components:

The sheer will to implement this vision permeates every fiber of his body. Resistance and obstacles on the way there do not exist. So: Once the idea is born, once the vision is pronounced, there is no turning back. Only the unconditional belief in the good in this idea, in its positive effect on the world and its people, that is indispensable. Believe in your vision! Burn for your vision! What you now have to convey to your colleagues and team is beyond passion! Unconditional will is the term that aptly describes this habitus of the mind. It also means that this vision is not a fixed idea. It is thoroughly thought out. It has been thought through many times in its entirety, formulated, discarded, re-described, formulated, verified. Do not bring fixed ideas among the people! Bring your completed vision among the people. Believe!

The product is the second component. The implementation of the vision does not happen by itself. It is achieved through the product. In Elon Musk’s mind, this product already exists. Elon already knows its key features maybe even the user interface, but most importantly its mechanics and logic. Elon Musk is a product manager at heart. Solutions are brought through a product that can be physical or digital in nature. He has also already designed this product in detail and shaped it according to his will. The product is groundbreaking, not merely an evolution of an existing solution. The product is thus an elementary component of the solution approach to achieving the vision and its importance cannot be overestimated.

Execute like Elon Musk
Step 2 – Authority over details

The modern leader is a mentor and coach, leaving details and decisions to the team. Does this statement about the „servant leader“ sound familiar?

When we talk about Elon Musk’s leadership style: Forget this view very quickly. In Elon Musk’s ventures, there is exactly one decision-making authority – and it is called Elon Musk.

In an interview with the Wall Street Journal, he described himself as a „nano-manager. He thus takes „micro-manager,“ which is already considered frowned upon and not very desirable, to the maximum. Elon justifies this with his product expertise: „He usually sees at first glance what is wrong with a product, where it has deviated from his ideal image. And then he intervenes, as brutally as necessary, to correct what he sees as the wrong direction.

Put positively this also means that Elon Musk works as closely as possible with his team at a development level. He is not merely a strategic leader, but guides his employees down to the smallest decision-making level. In this way, he drives his people to peak performance; they virtually surpass themselves through this close collaboration and are thus able to implement things that they would not have thought possible before.

The connection with step 1 of this list is always important: Because in every decision-making process, the clear vision of the future and the detailed product vision play the main roles!

Execute like Elon Musk
Step 3 – Clear goals and objectives

The richness of detail of Elon Musk’s considerations results in the fact that goals and objectives are unambiguous and almost completely clear. This means that the achievement of goals can also be clearly tracked, and each employee is aware of his or her personal goals in all clarity. At the same time, the goals are ambitious and spur each individual employee on to top performance.

As a strategist, you do set the direction? Bullshit. You provide the strategy that describes the way to the goal – not just the direction! Don’t be afraid of details! In case of doubt, the details determine the success of the strategy!

You have probably already learned elsewhere: Goals should be SMART. That means they should be specific, measurable, attractive, realistic and timed.

A target such as „We will increase sales by 10% by the end of the fiscal year.“ may formally comply with these regulations. But is it really specific? Is it really attractive? Here we can only formulate one rule: Be as specific and ambitious as possible. This requires clear accountability.

Do you find it difficult to formulate specific goals for your employees? Then there is most likely a gap in the accountability for your business processes. Responsibility must be clear, then goals can also be formulated specifically.

Execute like Elon Musk
Step 4 – Focus on development and change

Another point becomes clear from step 2: Elon Musk’s attention is focused on development processes and change management. Of course, he doesn’t help assemble a Tesla on the assembly line. But in all likelihood, he has designed the production process and helped design the robot that performs certain steps at that station. With his detailed work on each development process, he maximizes his own impact, because in doing so he sets the framework within which each of his employees works with maximum productivity.

Elon Musk is a detail-obsessed transformer. Once a transformation has been executed and transferred into productive day-to-day business, he turns his attention to the next transformation – in the certainty that his productive day-to-day business is set up as efficiently as possible.

Execute like Elon Musk
Step 5 – Failures make you strong

The biggest enemy in the context of product innovation and change management is the fear of making mistakes. Mistakes happen and are a great opportunity to gain insights and test innovations. Mistakes are an expression of innovation. Mistakes are hallmarks of daring.

Encourage your employees to make mistakes. Praise people for making mistakes. If you don’t try anything new, mistakes won’t happen. Invite mistakes and define a learning process that transforms mistakes into positive knowledge and conceptual improvements.

If possible, report on your own failures. What happened and what did you learn from it?

During his career, Elon Musk was also confronted on several occasions with mistakes that posed an existential threat. In 2008, his third Falcon 1 rocket also exploded shortly after launch. He was facing ruin, as Tesla also burned money on a large scale. But lessons were learned from the mistakes. The fourth launch was a success and NASA placed an order worth 1.5 billion dollars.

Execute like Elon Musk
Step 6 – Knowledge is power

Do you consider yourself well-read and educated? You read several books a year? You know the current Amazon bestseller list? Fine.

In an interview with Rolling Stone magazine, Elon Musk revealed that he was raised by books. He was raised primarily by books, and only secondarily by his parents. For several years in his youth, Elon Musk read two books a day. He studied any subject that even remotely interested him by reading everything about it. In the process, he naturally came across related topics or sections, which he then studied in equal detail. He virtually accumulated knowledge.

Make absolutely sure you know everything about your field. Read every day! This is not just about technical literature. Elon Musk, for example, is a huge science fiction fan and a self-confessed admirer of Isaac Asimov, the inventor of robot laws. Therein also lies his thought on SpaceX. Yes, Elon Musk wants to make rocket launches and the transport of payloads into space more affordable. But behind that is another vision: Elon wants to make humanity a multi-planetary species. Yes, he wants to enable the colonization of other planets. This is the actual vision behind SpaceX, which also came about through intensive study of the great works of science fiction. This is how visionary knowledge of great issues emerges. For example, Joe Rogan and Elon Musk’s podcast, which has become famous, circled around the question of whether we are living in a simulation for almost 10 minutes. The conversation between Musk and Rogan is also very revealing in other ways. Take a listen – you’ll find the podcast embedded below.

But where am I going to get all this technical literature, you may ask?

  1. In your local library you will find a surprising number of works, most of which can also be borrowed online in digital form.
  2. A library card for your local university usually costs around €60 per year.
  3. Many books can be found in (semi-legal) online archives.

Where there is a will, there is a way! No excuses!

Execute like Elon Musk
Step 6 – Delegation of standard tasks

How much working time do you invest in repetitive standard tasks? Reduce the share of these activities to zero immediately! Important change and development topics require your attention. Let other people and assistants in your team take care of standard operational tasks! Invest the time gained in your strategic vision or intensive work on your products.

Execute like Elon Musk
Step 7 – Stay human

Working intensively with your team, along with highly ambitious goals, puts pressure on your team to perform. Be aware of this. Limit the number of simultaneous projects, don’t overwhelm your organization. The basic Kanban rule is: stop starting, start finishing. Bring projects to a successful conclusion, then start the next one. Stay focused!

Also, point out excessive overtime to individual employees. Take care of the well-being of your colleagues.

You want performance and execution – but not at any price. Remember that and stay human!

Summary

In sum, Elon Musk’s success is a praise of the expert who delves deeply into every issue and shapes the entire enterprise to his will. This seems to contradict common management principles, but at the same time requires profound expertise in the structures and peculiarities of the respective field. Ultimately, Elon Musk knows how to use his strengths in the best possible way. That, then, may be the advice that can be derived from this brief study: Use your strengths and apply your skills profitably! Spend less time in meetings and more time in detailed management of development processes. Work actively on the implementation of your strategy!

Links und Quellen

For more links and insights into the philosophy behind Elon Musk’s success, check the following sources.

Wall Street Journal Interview

Many more interviews have been collected by the site everyelonmuskinterview.com. All interviews are available there as videos.

Autor: Gerald Dehlow

Hi, mein Name ist Gerald. Auf diesem Blog trage ich Wissen zusammen, das mir in meiner täglichen Arbeit als Content-Stratege, Experte und Führungskraft hilft. Mich reizt die Mischung aus Technik und Inhalt, die Content zum Leben erweckt. Content is King!

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