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Mercurial and Magnetic, Elon Musk Flips the CEO Script


Jane S. Howze, J.D.

Elon Musk Royal Society crop2

After a season of holiday merriment, we're all familiar with art of cocktail chit-chat. The typical conversation usually starts with “where are you from or what do you do?” Those of us who are executive search consultants can count on the following conversations. “I’m about to retire. Can you give me advice on how to get on a board?” Or “my third cousin wants to move to North Dakota, and I was wondering if you had any advice.”

After forty-two years in the executive search business, I am used to it and happy to opine (but I don’t have current searches in North Dakota).

The more interesting conversation asks for my assessment of an executive in the news. In 2016, (and continues to this day) it was “would you ever present Donald Trump as a candidate for one of your search engagements?” While I’m not about to blog about Donald Trump at this late stage of the game, I do have some thoughts about the most talked-about executive of the year—Elon Musk.

First, some caveats. No two executives are the same nor are two CEO roles the same. Each company or organization has its own DNA. Many times, we have seen how an executive who has had measurable success at one company was unsuccessful at another company. Examples include Carly Fiorina, former axed CEO of Hewlett Packard who enjoyed a meteoric rise at AT&T but did not adapt well to the Silicon Valley technology ethos, and former Target star Mark Tritton, who found what worked at Target did not work at Bed Bath & Beyond.

Second, companies need different types of CEOs at different times. Remember when Steve Jobs was fired from Apple, a company, he founded only to be rehired ten years later as a returning hero?

The third caveat is you can’t believe everything you read in the press, even on Twitter. Currently, any story about Elon Musk is guaranteed to get read or clicks—some of the stories are true and come from Elon himself. He has been more than willing to contribute to his own legacy, both good and bad. There are many who are rooting for him to fail. Some of it is due to his politics. Some of it is due to the age-old story of tearing down leaders and those in the public eye, and of course, some of it is due to his decisions. With the visibility of his Twitter acquisition, everything he does is open to scrutiny.

With these caveats in mind, here is my response to those who ask:

Elon Musk is an innovator. He is not afraid to try out different ideas realizing that not all of his ideas are good ones. He is not afraid to reverse course as we have seen during his early days of Twitter where he decided to charge subscription fees, fired and then rehired staff and reinstated previously suspended accounts.

Musk is not relationship driven and is not particularly concerned with what people think. More than one executive has commented that in their time working for Musk, he never asked a personal question. For many companies, this would be a massive CEO red flag. Companies that recruit CEOS from outside the company are known to have a high turnover rate—more than 50 percent within 18 months. One key to a long-term tenure for a CEO hired externally is building relationships with the existing team and the board. Unless a company is in dire circumstances, someone like Musk would not work well with a board or an existing management team. He is simply not relationship driven.

Musk has successfully built a company and one that has changed the world. Many recruiters believe that there is an “A” athlete type of leader who can perform well wherever they work. These "A" athletes can move effortlessly between industries, cultures, and organizational challenges. I’m not convinced this is always the case. Besides executives whose style does not fit a particular company, there is an outlier personality type of CEO-- think Steve Jobs, Mark Zuckerberg , Bill Gates or Elon Musk who have built companies but might not be effective moving to an existing company unless they tore it down to rebuild it again. Perhaps this is what Musk is doing with Twitter.

Musk is committed to customer service. Regardless of Musk’s faults, few accuse him of not wanting to provide a superior product and service. Several executives who have reported to him describe him as customer service-focused at a macro level. No, he is not the kind of guy who will want to glad-hand customers, but he has hired some highly talented executives recognized for developing systems that deliver an exceptional customer experience.

Musk is a mercurial and demanding boss. For some, a mercurial and demanding leader is not their cup of tea. Many have come and gone under Musk. Some respect him but burn out from the relentless stress of working for an erratic and somewhat unstable genius. Yet there are a group of managers who have worked for him in several incarnations. They describe him as setting goals that might not be attainable, but they are better for having tried.

There are many other qualities that go into selecting a CEO and whether that CEO will succeed, but I believe the above attributes will either make Twitter a successful turnaround or not. It will be interesting to watch how it plays out.

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