A One-Page Leadership Textbook (Courtesy An Email from Elon Musk)
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Most people I speak to on a regular basis know that I’m a huge Elon Musk/Tesla/SpaceX fan. I truly admire the work they have done, and they have undoubtedly raised the bar on what truly is possible when a team of dedicated and hardworking people come together. If you haven’t yet, I strongly recommend you read Elon’s biography by Ashlee Vance.
Now, Elon has pushed the bar higher again- perhaps the highest it’s ever been in the automotive industry. No, not self-driving cars or any fancy gadgets- those are easy to change and replace. He’s demonstrated the irreplaceable, the highest traits of leadership: responsibility, care and empathy. This is an email he sent to the entire company a few days after a report by California-based worker advocacy group Worksafe noted that injury rates at Tesla’s Fremont manufacturing facility were higher than the industry average in 2014 and 2015:
If every business leader were to have this level of concern for every one of their team, we would see very different results- financial, growth, retention and more. If this dedication and care is what team members could expect from their managers, how much harder would they be willing to push themselves?
There are a few key points to note in Elon’s letter, and each of them is worth much deeper examination.
1. “Every injury be reported directly to me, without exception.”
Let’s admit it, as business owners and managers, we play favorites. But Elon’s success has come from an near-fanatical fixation on perfection. No issue is too small to be addressed if it is harming the company in any way.
When it comes to our values, every instance of the matter is important, not just the big ones. Initially establishing company values is an easy task; when those values get violated, it is the response that makes all the difference. What are the most important values in your business? How are you safeguarding them? What is your response when those values are not upheld?
2. “I’m meeting with the safety team every week and…every injured person…[to] understand from them exactly what we need to do to make it better."
Nobody knows a task better than the person doing it every single day. The mistake in many businesses is that process is created from the top and pushed down the chain, whereas the person actually executing the process is skipping steps and making changes, because the prescribed process is not very efficient.
Getting everyone’s input is fundamental for several reasons. Firstly, it ensures that the steps outlined actually help get the work done faster and better, because the people doing the task are bringing their experience to the table. Secondly, if there are issues in the process, only the person working on it would be able to identify them. Imagine a seven-minute process routinely taking nineteen minutes to complete because the software required always loads slowly- how would anyone besides the operator of the program know to bring that up? Thirdly, this creates an environment where people can constructively criticize an advised course of action. The process was set by a senior manager, but there was a mistake. Now, a junior member of the team can sit with the CEO and outline what went wrong- and advise what to change to keep it from happening again. This kind of openness is worth a fortune. But, ironically, there is no way to buy and install it into the company. You need to build this.
Lastly, and crucially: getting the team members -from every level in the hierarchy- to be invested in the success of the company is the best way to guarantee success. Giving everyone a share of the profit or equity in the company is unrealistic, particularly for SMEs. Giving everyone ownership, on the other hand, is not only feasible, but also recommended. People like to be challenged, to be put to the test, to be pushed. This is a brilliant way to develop leadership within every level of the organization.
3. “I will then go down […] and perform the same task that they perform.”
Talk is cheap. Walking the talk is a task only for true leaders.
This statement is powerful from multiple aspects. Firstly, if the process is correct and an injury was sustained due to negligence or non-process reasons, the injured team members’ reputation for reliability will be questioned. This helps ensure that every person does follow the process properly.
Conversely, unless someone wants to be known for being the guy whose flawed process nearly killed a team member and a CEO, each manager who signs off on a process would probably be extra-careful in carrying out their quality and control checks. It was always important to be careful- but now it’s super important.
From the point of view of an onlooker, of course, there is the feeling of safety and security that such a statement evokes. To know that the CEO cares so much about me that he would risk his own safety is an extremely comforting thought.
A semi-related, bonus fourth: Elon’s vision is unwavering, and comes out in many different ways. Even the start of the letter reminds the team why they are doing what they are doing: to make Tesla successful. This isn’t about putting the company above the wellbeing of any person. It’s a reminder to each person as to why they are part of the organization, and what the goal of the company is.
Elon Musk is just another person, and Tesla is just another company. They didn’t start with any significant advantage, but built every element of their success through focus, dedication and hard work. And that is what creates brilliance.