Saving Tesla by Observing SpaceX

Saving Tesla starts with understanding Elon Musk and his style of management.

This short video lays out the key takeaways from this article.


In the first in this series, we’ve taken a deep look at the distinct ways that one man, Elon Musk, is running two large companies that are on very different trajectories — SpaceX, which is succeeding tremendously and Tesla, which is struggling mightily. In part two, we have pinpointed the key management distinction between the two firms — the presence of a strong execution master at SpaceX, Gwynn Shotwell. Tesla currently has no “second in command,” though pundits, as well as company stakeholders, are calling for management change.

We’ve seen that the vital attributes Shotwell bring to SpaceX include:

  1. An ability to translate Musk’s vision for SpaceX to actionable, results-producing actions across the team;
  2. An ability to allow Mr. Musk to be in the spotlight, even while her own star rises among industry colleagues;
  3. An ability to trouble-shoot for Mr. Musk when his public comments and audacious goals result in concern among stakeholders, including customers, financiers, and regulators.

Finally, we’ve seen that in addition to great ability, Ms. Shotwell shares Mr. Musk’s audacious goals for SpaceX, perhaps even embodying a more expansive vision for what is possible in space travel and galactic exploration. Her immense vision for the company, along with her temperament, industry experience and management skill all enable her to function powerfully as the one who can tie rocks to clouds at SpaceX. Elon can live “in the clouds” as an audacious visionary. Shotwell can “tie rocks” to the clouds, keeping the SpaceX team focused on producing results, without disempowering the visionary spirit of the company.

At Tesla, there is nobody in a similar role. Mr. Musk has no trusted second-in-command who can translate his vision for the company into actionable results. We’ve seen that pundits and stakeholders are calling for some kind of management change at Tesla, sensing that Mr. Musk’s management style requires a buffer, a steady hand who can engender trust among stakeholders.  Mr. Musk need look no further than SpaceX to see the logic in this. Yet, as I’ve previously written, trusting someone else with one’s vision is akin to trusting them with a precious child. Sharing power isn’t easy for visionaries, because they often fear that nobody else can truly hold their vision,  Yet without a trusted second-in-command most innovative companies will fail.

I can’t say exactly who that perfect execution master is for Tesla. That is for Mr. Musk and his Board to figure out. But I can suggest a set of qualities that a person needs to embody. We can point to other highly successful vision masters — execution master pairings as well: Zuckerberg/Sandberg at Facebook, Jobs/Cook at Apple, Gates/Ballmer at Microsoft, even Buffet/Munger at Berkshire Hathaway.

So, what should Mr. Musk be looking for in an execution master to help turn the tide at Tesla? Let’s start with the basics. In my book Born to Star, I outlined three distinctions between vision masters and execution masters that should serve as Mr. Musk’s guide (and yours!):

  • The Vision Master is the generator of ideas, and the Execution Master is the implementer of those ideas;
  • The Vision Master is the strategist, and the Execution Master is the tactician;
  • The Vision Master asks “why?” and the Execution Master asks “how?”
  • The Vision Master disrupts and the Execution Master stabilizes.

Notice how these distinctions embody the skill-sets and roles of Musk and Shotwell at SpaceX. Elon needs an implementer, a tactician at Tesla, someone who, like Shotwell, asks “how are we going to accomplish” Musk’s big “why?”

It is both fascinating to me as well as confounding that Mr. Musk had the self-awareness to promote Shotwell into the key execution master position at SpaceX, see the astounding success of their partnership, then try to go it alone at Tesla. The missing ingredient is likely to trust. Shotwell earned Musk’s trust over time at SpaceX. Recall that she wasn’t hired as second-in-command, but rose to the position over time. Perhaps there is someone at Tesla who could take a similar path, but the feeling is that there is not, or that there isn’t time to find out, hence the need for an outside agent.

It certainly wouldn’t be the first time a large company bought in someone from the outside, with no ties to the company, to be an execution master. Apple famously did it twice, once unsuccessfully, once fabulously successful. Steve Jobs’ own maturing, because of his ousting as CEO at Apple, may have had much to do with that second success. It may be that Musk will have to go through something similar. But it’s frustrating to all fans of Musk (I am one of them) that he doesn’t seem to see what’s missing at Tesla simply by seeing what’s present at SpaceX.

I think it is also worth pointing out that Elon Musk didn’t start Tesla Motors. Musk became the company’s largest investor, rose to Board Chairman, was involved in the ouster of existing CEO Martin Eberhart, then later assumed the mantle of CEO. I’ve detailed the story of how Eberhart lost control of the company he founded. Sadly, the very same set of incompetencies that cost Eberhart his leadership role at Tesla are now challenging Musk. It boils down to one inescapable fact: it is very, very rare for the disparate sets of values, viewpoints, and abilities of vision masters and execution masters to be embodied in one person.

The vision master and execution master are simply different animals. A good pairing of their disparate talents makes for excellent partnerships that can produce excellent bottom-line results for innovative companies, somewhat like a falcon and falconer make for a better hunting party than either of them can be alone. On his own, the falconer (vision master) is left to hunt from long-range, without the sharp claws, brilliant eye-sight and devastating dive to the kill embodied in the falcon. At the same time, the falcon (execution master) is left to fly around all day finding its’ prey without the massively higher brain power of the falconer, who knows where to hunt, when to hunt, why they’re hunting in the first place.

Perhaps its’ not a perfect analogy, but you get the point: they need each other to perform at their very best. SpaceX is enjoying that. Tesla is not.

For those of you visionaries seeking an execution master (if you don’t have one you SHOULD be seeking one), the following will be a useful guide, taken from Born to Star:

You, the vision master, are characterized by disruptive leadership. The execution master you need is characterized by managing leadership. Your company needs both. Period. Here is a list of the different characteristics of disruptive leaders versus managing leaders. Notice how you, the vision master, embody most of the characteristics of disruptive leadership. Then, take the red pill for a reality check — note how you probably lack many of the characteristics of managing leadership:

Disruptive Leadership is characterized by the following qualities in a leader:

  • Determining direction – where is the company going?
  • Placing value on the chosen direction
  • Goal-oriented more than people-oriented
  • Creating disruptive actions
  • Thinking long-term

Managing Leadership is characterized by the following qualities:

  • Determining specifically how the company will “get there” and drive the process
  • Valuing the speed of direction – loathing factors that slow them down
  • More people-oriented (though they certainly set task-related goals)
  • Thinking more in the short-term (what’s the next thing to be done) rather than long-term
  • Practicing defensive thinking – what could go wrong and what can we do about it?

Fans of Tesla’s innovative approach to manufacturing and selling environmentally sustainable automobiles are watching with great attention to see whether Elon Musk will find an execution master to help lead the company forward. Among those watching most carefully are the company’s investors. Investors (especially potential investors) in your company will be looking for the same. Follow the path of SpaceX. Find your execution master. Trust he or she with your vision. Build a company that can thrive.

Many investors are calling for an auto industry expert with vision himself like Alan Mulally who “saved Ford Motors.” See:

Unfortunately, Mr. Mulally is in his mid 70’s and might not be open to a second-in-command position if available at all.

There’s not much time to waste here, not the many months it takes to develop trust.  If company value drops steeply, expect Berkshire Hathaway to swoop in, and it wouldn’t be a bad choice.

Good news, showing that Musk is listening:

Tesla announced Jerome Guillen has been promoted to president of its automotive division.
We’ll see if he’s as good as Gwynne working with Musk.  Right now, he has Musk’s trust.
If you read this announcement in detail, you’ll see that Musk still has (in my opinion) too many corporate officers reporting directly to him.  So he still needs an overall second-in-command.  Stay tuned and learn more about saving Tesla.

Key Takeaways:

  • SpaceX is succeeding while Tesla struggles because of the vision master/execution master pairing at SpaceX
  • You, the vision master, should follow the lead of Musk at SpaceX, not be the Musk at Tesla
  • Virtually no single person embodies the disparate skill sets of both vision master and execution master
  • Innovative companies need the qualities of both disruptive leadership and managing leadership
  • Investors — your prospective investors — know this and will be looking to see whether you know it
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