What Can We Learn From Musk?

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I recently finished the new Elon Musk biography by Walter Isaacson. 

Elon Musk has always been polarizing if you’ve followed his meteoric rise as a silicon valley entrepreneur. But in the last few years, he’s become a rockstar to some, and the village idiot to others, thanks in large part to his frequent rants and tantrums on Twitter. To date he’s posted more than 19k tweets on the platform. 

In spite of his behavior on Twitter and his insane workaholic persona, if you look at the sands of time, Musk has consistently deployed a handful of key behaviors and principles in every business he’s been involved with. 

Here’s four key takeaways I had from the biography: 

Know your business and stay connected to the front line

Whether it was regularly sleeping on the floor of the Tesla factory, or sleeping under his desk during his early days at Zip2, Musk spends a lot of time with his frontline engineers, doing work alongside them.

He expends great effort to know what’s going on in his business and how things are working. And while you can find a lot of naysayers  and former Musk employees that would never work for him again, most admired the connection he had to his businesses. And many were intensely loyal to him and his businesses for this one reason. 

That flies in the face of the E-Myth and other philosophies that point toward scale and removing yourself as CEO from the “day to day” stuff. Spend more time working “on the business” versus in it. 

Well maybe Musk has shown us that true leadership wisdom lies somewhere in the middle. That the most senior of leaders need to find ways to stay connected with what’s happening on the front lines, the real work of the work. What might it look like for you in your resto biz? Have you become too self-important and removed from your teams in the field? 

Are you failing as a leader to both push your people, and support them, because you’re too disconnected from what they’re doing and encountering in the field? 

Drive a maniacal sense of urgency

Musk is notorious for driving ridiculous timelines for projects. There are endless stories of his leaders telling him, “That will take 6 months to accomplish,” and then Musk will order them to get it done in “three weeks.” 

While the team rarely met his outlandish timelines, the push nearly always resulted in them completing the task in a fraction of the time they initially said it required. 

What can we learn from this? Where are we giving our teams far too much time to implement a new process, or make headway on a project? How much more could our teams accomplish if we led with a more aggressive sense of urgency?

Fail fast to learn, but take responsibility

Musk could regularly be heard saying, “Just do it, if it fails, it’s my fault. Go try it and see if it works. Maybe it won’t, but we won’t know until we try.” From boring a tunnel under Los Angeles to modifying the size of the door jam on the original Tesla roadster, Musk routinely challenged his teams to make big leaps and take expensive risks. He fired people for not moving fast enough, rather than making the wrong choices. 

Musk didn’t just push people to “fail forward” or glamorize failure in his businesses. Failure isn’t a buzzword in Tesla or SpaceX, it’s a methodology. 

Musk created a culture of wild experimentation, and he routinely accepted responsibility for terrible decisions and bad ideas. 

But they were bad decisions or ideas in the service of their mission. Not a CEO being reckless, but a CEO prioritizing action over deliberation. Trying something versus endlessly talking about it.

And consequently, Musk’s companies have been marked by extraordinary growth and transformative achievements in their respective industries.

Where could we be more aggressive in our restoration businesses? Where should we be pushing our people to be more aggressive and risk failure?  

Mission over money

Musk is a bit of an outlier amongst billionaires. He definitely had a season of indulging in his riches. After he sold Zip2, one of his first purchases was a $1M Maclaren supercar. He bought several mansions. 

But many of the people that Isaacson interviewed for his book remarked about how little Musk seemed to care about his wealth. The money didn’t motivate him. He was motivated to change the world as we know it. After Zip2 and his exit from PayPal, Musk has spent the last 15 years tackling one huge problem after another. 

Musk has no shortage of talent lining up to work for his various companies, despite his public persona and his reputation for being demanding and even tyrannical at times. People want to be a part of something great, something special. And they’re willing to put up with a lot of stress and suffering to make a difference, to have a part in changing the world. 

But we can’t get too lofty. Musk isn’t a Puritan or saintly figure. There is no doubt, Musk also cares about the money. It’s just that he’s created a pattern of first identifying the mission, and then figuring out a way to make it profitable. He starts with the biggest problem he can tackle, then figures out a business model to support it. 

It’s this fierce orientation around the mission that seems to catalyze Musk’s successes, over and over again. It seems like it’s the magic that allows him to keep winning, in spite of his character flaws, social awkwardness and impulsive behavior. No one around Musk ever doubts his motivation or commitment to the cause.

Applying Musk principles in your business

Musk’s flaws and bad behavior are obvious to most of us. Name-calling on Twitter and blasting people we disagree with in public aren’t behaviors any of us are likely looking to deploy in our leadership. But what if we learned to apply Musk’s sense of urgency? What if we found a renewed sense of purpose and mission that we could dedicate ourselves to, and rally our team behind? Could we build a more innovative and resilient team if we embraced a fail-fast and fail-often culture? What would happen to our recruiting if we had a bigger mission, a bigger target we were aiming for? This to consider for this new year… 

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Chris Nordyke

Chris began his business career in direct sales, selling Cutco Knives for Vector Marketing at age 19 while going to school. He was a personal sales leader, and subsequently a Top 20 branch office manager in Los Angeles, directly responsible for all recruiting, training, team development and revenue across a team of more than 40 sales reps.

Vector proved to be a foundational training ground in entrepreneurship, team-building, and sales leadership that Chris continues to draw on in his work with restoration teams. 

Chris’s primary B2B sales training came during his tenure as a Contract Sales Rep for Cintas Corporation, a Fortune 500 laundry services firm. Here, Chris was introduced to Requirements Based Selling (RBS) which informed the Pain-Solution selling model Chris continues to use today with clients. 

Prior to joining Summit Cleaning and Restoration in 2014, Chris spent 8 years with State Farm Companies, 5 of which he spent owning and running a successful agency. 

From 2014 to late 2019, Chris served on Summit’s leadership team overseeing all business development and marketing with a special emphasis on developing Summit’s customer experience and service culture. He’s a founder and Co-host of the Head Heart & Boots podcast, co-founder of the Floodlight Consulting Group, and co-founder of the Floodlight Leadership Circles. Chris resides in the beautiful state of Oregon with his wife of 20 years, Cara, and their 3 children- Lily, Jack and Simon.

Email Chris at: chris@floodlightgrp.com

Listen to the Head Heart and Boots Podcast on Apple iTunes and Spotify.

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