Photo: Flickr via OnInnovation
Elon Musk is the rare kind of CEO that other CEOs become fanboys about.
Musk, the co-founder Tesla, is also known for his leadership at rocket company SpaceX, PayPal and Zip2 and OpenAI, not to mention his plans for the superfast train system known as the Hyperloop. Musk also launched NeuraLink in March of this year.
Some of his revolutionary ideas include taking people to Mars through SpaceX and digging underground tunnels in LA to avoid traffic through The Boring Company (which has reportedly begun). Musk was also ranked in eighth place out of 100 executives on the 2017 Glassdoor Highest Rated CEOs list for his leadership at SpaceX.
But this is not to say that Musk’s companies haven’t faced challenges— for example, as CNBC points out while referring to Musk’s spot on Glassdoor’s 2017 list and a positive employee review on the site, “though SpaceX recently finalized the settlement of a class action lawsuit filed by employees claiming unfair compensation, clearly many of those who work for him are big fans.”
Musk built all of that, then rebuilt it again after 2010, when he was broke.
What’s the magic that makes Musk so successful? Here are some of his advice and practices, which you can use to get ahead at work—if you can work as hard as Musk himself, who is infamously a workaholic.
Start early and keep going
Musk was bullied in school, to the point where he had to be hospitalized after his schoolmates ganged up on him. He looked for an outlet and found it computers and in the business world, and got started on a new project at 17. He became rich through PayPal.
While many people would have stopped there — $170 million is enough for anyone to live on for their entire lives — Musk kept going and kept inventing, looking for something new. The result: cars and rockets, and who knows what else in the future.
Musk doesn’t let anything or anyone stop him — and a lot of people have tried. He just goes harder.
“And that is the key to Elon Musk,” Tom Junod wrote in Esquire. “He has the will. ‘Elon is not afraid of breaking things — he will break himself if he has to,’ says Justine Musk, his first wife and the mother of his five children.”
Choose carefully who you work with
Musk famously asks interview candidates one question, and listens closely to what they say. The answer tells him who really knows what they’re doing and who’s grandstanding, and it helps him choose employees who are likely to share his goals and work ethic.
Here it is: “Tell me the story of your life and the decisions that you made along the way and why you made them and also tell me about some of the most difficult problems you worked on and how you solved them.”
Musk is not known for standing on ceremony. When there’s a business deal to be done, he’ll be direct about it. One of his business partners, Jim Cantrell, recounted Musk’s intense approach to getting a business meeting — complete with cloak-and-dagger machinations to keep his plans and his phone number a secret. Here’s the incredible anecdote from Esquire:
“A month later, an aerospace consultant named Jim Cantrell was driving home after work in Utah when his cell phone rang. “I had the top down on my car, so all I could make out was that some guy named Ian Musk was saying that he was an Internet billionaire and needed to talk to me. I’m pretty sure he used that phrase, ‘Internet billionaire.’
I told him I’d call him back when I got home, but when I called, I got a fax machine. I said, ‘Sure, Internet billionaire.’ Then my phone rang. I asked him what was with the fax machine. He said, ‘I don’t want you to know my cell number.’ Then he launched right into the same pitch he has now. ‘I want to change mankind’s outlook on being a multiplanetary species.’ I listened, and he said, ‘Can we meet this weekend? I have a private jet, I’ll fly to your house.’ Well, that rang my alarm bells, and I said, ‘No, I’ll meet you at the airport in Salt Lake.’ Tell you the truth, I wanted to meet him in a place where he couldn’t bring a weapon, so we met in the Delta Crown Room. Adeo [Messi, Musk’s business partner] came, and I finally thought, Holy crap, this is interesting. I said, ‘Okay, Elon, let’s put a team together and see how much this is going to cost.'”
Employees work for the company, not their managers
Musk made the 2017 Glassdoor Highest Rated CEOs list, and defined how he thinks of leadership in an interview with the company this year.
“Your title makes you a manager but your people make you a leader. We want our leaders to find ways of motivating and inspiring their teams, reduce the noise in their work and help remove blockers. If you are a manager or leading at any level at SpaceX, we stress that your team is not there to serve you. You are there to serve your team and help them do the best possible job for the company. This applies to me most of all. Leaders are also expected to work harder than those who report to them and always make sure that their needs are taken care of before yours, thus leading by example,” he told the site.
Show gratitude (especially to customers)
Whether you’re making cars, writing articles or producing widgets, you are nothing without your end customer. Musk displayed this idea in a recent tweet to Tesla’s consumers.
Wanted to say thanks to all that own or ordered a Tesla. It matters to us that you took a risk on a new car company. We won't forget.
— Elon Musk (@elonmusk) July 3, 2017
Put a lot of time into your work
Admittedly, Musk’s work ethic is intense, and contradicts every piece of good advice about taking vacations, taking breaks, and doing only one thing at a time.
His favorite method of working, for instance, includes multitasking— such as Musk’s claim that he manages emails while spending time with his kids.
But be careful with this one: while it’s good to be dedicated to your work, Musk said that entrepreneurs need to work 80 to 100 hours weekly in a 2010 interview for Vator. That cuts not only into life, but into sleep, and can be dangerous for your health.
Inc. reported in 2017 that in an interview, Musk said he consistently worked 100-hour weeks, but that he has cut back to working around 80-90 hours weekly instead.
Seek to help others through your product
In an interview with Y Combinator, Musk talked about his desire to help society.
“Well, first of all, I think if somebody is doing something that is useful to the rest of society, I think that’s a good thing. Like, it doesn’t have to change the world. If you make something that has high value to people… And frankly, even if it’s something, if it’s like just a little game or some improvement in photo sharing or something, if it has a small amount of good for a large number of people, I think that’s fine. Stuff doesn’t need to change the world just to be good. But in terms of things that I think are most like to affect the future of humanity, I think AI is probably the single biggest item in the near-term that’s likely to affect humanity.” Musk told Y Combinator.
Inspire those you work with
Musk turned his youthful introversion and silence — and a traumatic history of being bullied — into a considerable amount of adult charisma. He talked about how he does this in an interview with The Henry Ford: by asking his employees to imagine the future their work could create.
“Well, I try to make it a really fun place to work, really enjoyable. And I talk about the grand vision of SpaceX, where we wanna go, what we wanna do; we wanna take people to orbit and beyond. We ultimately want to be the company that makes a difference in extension of life beyond earth, which is one of the most important things that life itself could achieve. And so sort of you construct this great Holy Grail potential in the future. You have to stay grounded in the short term. ‘Cause if you don’t do things that pay the bills you’re not gonna achieve the ultimate long-term objective. But it’s nice to have that sort of Holy Grail long term potential out there as inspiration for coming to work,” he said.