Opinion | What Steve Jobs might say to Elon Musk

Elon Musk could start acting like Steve Jobs. He could grow up.

Joe Nocera, Bloomberg
Updated6 Oct 2018, 07:55 PM IST
Tesla CEO Elon Musk. Photo: Bloomberg
Tesla CEO Elon Musk. Photo: Bloomberg

Friday marked the seventh anniversary of Steve Jobs’s death, which has me thinking not only about his remarkable life, but also about the man most often compared to him in terms of charisma, audacity and vision. That, of course, would be Elon Musk.

When Jobs was pushed out of Apple Inc. by then-chief executive John Sculley and the board, he was a brilliant brat, someone who led through insult as much as inspiration. Despite co-founding the company, building first the Apple II and then the Mac, he had become such a disruptive force that he had to go.

When Jobs returned to Apple in 1997, after 12 years in the wilderness, he was 42 years old. He returned as a grown-up; someone, yes, who could still be caustic, but who had learned how lead, primarily from watching Ed Catmull, the president of Pixar Inc., which Jobs had purchased in 1986. As Brent Schlender and Rick Tetzeli have pointed out in their 2015 biography, Becoming Steve Jobs, he managed the company with a maturity that had been entirely lacking during his earlier stint at Apple. He molded his top executives — Tim Cook, Jonathan Ive, Eddy Cue and others — into a cohesive team that could dream up great products and execute them brilliantly.

Musk is five years older than Jobs was when he returned to Apple. He has done some truly remarkable things — more remarkable than Jobs, when you think about it. He built one company that not only sends rockets into space, but also lands the first stage of the rocket on what amounts to a giant trampoline. It is an astonishing feat, something that NASA could never do, and, because it allows the first stage to be reused, saves most of the cost of building a new rocket.

Musk has also, of course, created Tesla, the world’s first serious effort to build an all-electric car. And he has succeeded. A few months ago, the Wall Street Journal’s car reviewer, Dan Neil, described the latest Tesla Model 3 as “magnificent” and “the next step in the history of autos.”

He noted, though, that Wall Street bears were swarming all over Tesla’s stock, not because of the quality of the car but because of the quality of the chief executive. “I think we can all agree,” he wrote, “many brilliant people can be putzes.” I would put it somewhat different. Steve Jobs grew up. Elon Musk never has.

A grown-up CEO doesn’t go on a crusade against short-sellers; he or she “beats” the shorts by increasing revenue and earnings, and by satisfying the marketplace — by performing — not by calling for short-selling to be outlawed, an absurd idea that Musk has voiced.

A grown-up CEO is able to hold onto key executives instead of watching them race for the exits. According to Business Insider, 15 top executives have left this year alone, in such key roles as director of manufacturing engineering, head of human relations, chief accounting officer, and head of global supply management.

A grown-up CEO doesn’t overpromise and underdeliver, which has been Musk’s trademark ever since he took Tesla public in 2010.

A grown-up CEO doesn’t sleep on the factory floor; he or she hires skilled factory managers who can solve problems that crop up and keep the assembly line running.

A grown-up CEO doesn’t spend all his time on Twitter.

A grown-up CEO doesn’t take time from his incredibly demanding day job to get involved in a cave rescue in Thailand — and then call one of the rescuers a “pedophile” when his solution isn’t used.

A grown-up CEO assembles a board that combines expertise and independence. There isn’t a single person on the Tesla board, other than Musk himself, who has experience in the auto industry. Although the company lists seven of its nine directors as “independent,” that’s a joke. All but two of the directors have some kind of relationship with Musk — they either once worked at SolarCity, the company he folded into Tesla in 2016, or helped finance Tesla. The two truly independent board members, James Murdoch and Linda Johnson Rice, are both media executives who were handed their high positions by their fathers. (And let’s not forget that Musk put his brother on the board. What grown-up CEO does that?)

Finally, a grown-up CEO doesn’t announce a deal to go private when there’s no such deal, then acknowledge later that the deal never existed, then tell the board that he’ll quit on the spot if it accepts a sweetheart settlement with the Securities and Exchange Commission, then agrees to a tougher settlement after being talked off the ledge by Mark Cuban, and then mocks the SEC on Twitter even before the settlement has been approved in court.

No, a grown-up really doesn’t do that. Musk’s petulance in calling the SEC the “Shortseller Enrichment Commission” has endangered 15 years of incredible work and ingenuity aimed at making a mass-market electric car a reality. He has redefined what it means to cut off your nose to spite your face.

Let’s face it: Not every founder is cut out to be a chief executive. Musk has become such a cult figure among his supporters and shareholders that the stock would tank if he were to leave, and the game would likely be over. Musk knows that, and I’m convinced that’s one reason he has been able to act out with such impunity. (I also think that’s why the SEC went so easy on him.)

But the right thing for him to do now is relinquish the CEO post, while also making it clear to Tesla shareholders that he will remain a key part of the company. He could be the chief technology officer or the chief innovation officer. Then the board could bring in a chief executive who knows how to manage a mass manufacturing company, which is what Tesla is desperately trying to become. My candidate, as I mentioned in a previous column, is Alan Mulally, the former Ford Motor Co. CEO. I’ve heard other names that also make sense. The main thing is that it has to be done soon, before it’s too late.

The other possibility, of course, is that Elon Musk could start acting like Steve Jobs. He could grow up. But I’m not holding my breath.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Joe Nocera is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering business. He has written business columns for Esquire, GQ and the New York Times, and is the former editorial director of Fortune. He is co-author of “Indentured: The Inside Story of the Rebellion Against the NCAA.”

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First Published:6 Oct 2018, 07:55 PM IST
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