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When It Comes To Automotive CEO Longevity, Tesla’s Elon Musk Is Now King

What makes Elon Musk such a successful, long-standing CEO?

Elon Musk is trying to change the world into a better, longer-lasting place. In 2006, he wrote a Tesla Master Plan focused on creating a low-volume all-electric car, which would entail first creating expensive vehicles and progressively more affordable ones as his company’s production efficiency improved and electric vehicle (EV) tech costs came down.

Image by Chanan Bos | CleanTechnica

Elon is famous for making bold claims and big bets. He’s built a name for himself by pulling off what seemed impossible, such as making electric cars into mass-market products before 2020. But some say he may be expanding his portfolio too quickly and making it into something that distracts rather than builds upon his past successes. He’s known for missing his own deadlines, and that can get more attention than the fact that even when late, Tesla is far ahead of the competition. He’s said to be a rigorous boss, with an abundance of self-confidence, demand for accountability, and sometimes little patience. He’s achieved the quintessential American Dream to an extreme degree yet is continuously forced to defend it.

But Musk has an interesting claim to automotive fame that speaks to his vision and tenacity: he’s the longest tenured CEO in the automotive world right now. That’s an amazing feat.

Musk moved to the top of the automotive CEO longevity list in May when Dieter Zetsche stepped down from Daimler. Zetsche guided Mercedes to the top of the sales charts for premium cars in 2016, overtaking rivals BMW and Audi in the process. “Everything is under scrutiny,” Dieter Zetsche said May 22 at the annual shareholder meeting in Berlin, citing costs, investments, and the Mercedes-Benz maker’s product range. “We cannot and will not be satisfied with the current level of profitability.”

Ola Kallenius, 49, is now charged with financing the shift toward electric cars and digital services, acknowledging that the late start will stymie profitability in these segments for years to come. Daimler expects more than half of global deliveries to be fully electric or plug-in hybrid cars in 2030 and plans to make its entire model lineup carbon-neutral by 2039.

Musk was over a decade ahead of Daimler in the vision for a sustainable transportation future.

What Qualities Does a CEO Need? What Makes Musk a Valuable CEO?

Effective leadership is central to a company’s success. A CEO must possess certain traits. Let’s see how Elon Musk, 48, matches up.

Ability to learn from the past: A CEO must have the ability to learn from past experiences and instill lessons for the future. Musk was fired as the CEO from own company, Zip2. He was sent packing from PayPal while on his honeymoon. Many SpaceX rocket launches failed. He may have spoken too often and indiscreetly about the sales growth of Tesla, at least according to the SEC. (It’ll be hard to forget the “funding secured” tweet for a while, which some see as justified and others don’t but without a doubt ended up costing Tesla and TSLA.)

Musk has been reflective on his decisions as he has grown Tesla to the forefront of zero-emissions transportation. His mantra is, “Constantly think about how you could be doing things better and questioning yourself.”

Strong communication skills: Communication is key in any setting and, as someone in charge, a CEO must learn how to communicate effectively to impart messages that promote, sustain, and invigorate the company. Yes, Elon Musk has more than a touch of P.T. Barnum about him and seems to have an unnatural ability to get people excited even as he has the potential to disappoint them.

But he’s changed the way that major companies market their products, tweets in a special and influential way, has developed a widely praised company website, spurs word-of-mouth sales like no other, and long ago set up unique Tesla galleries instead of conventional auto dealerships. He’s caused competitors to shake their heads in dismay as they see their own advertising expenditures soar into the millions or billions annually. Automotive dealers, local dealer associations, and manufacturers will spend approximately $11.3 billion on local advertising across the USA in 2019, BIA Advisory Services estimates, while Tesla continues to spurn conventional advertising.

Willingness to take calculated risks: Often times, risky decisions may take a business leader on a new, important path. Musk confessed to entrepreneur Jared Friedman in a Y Combinator interview that, “I feel fear quite strongly.” But that hasn’t stopped him from moving ahead with options that might seem folly to others. Over a decade ago in 2005 when Musk and SpaceX were first starting to create the Falcon I and Falcon V rockets, Musk told Fast Company that, “failure is an option here. If things are not failing, you are not innovating.”

Innovator. Disruptor. Game-changer. Musk has consistently reached beyond what most legacy car companies have attempted. The Gigafactory system (1 in Nevada, 2 in Buffalo, 3 in Shanghai), for example, has called for substantial and risky investments, yet they’re increasingly seen as prescient today.

Intelligence: Intelligence is the ability of the mind to comprehend, reason, and problem solve. The ability to acquire knowledge isn’t enough — one must be able to use it practically. Intelligence is important, but as a standalone tool for leadership, it lacks penetrating substance.

Elon read the entire Encyclopedia Britannica as a child. At age 10, he developed an interest in computers, taught himself how to program. At age 12, he sold his first software product — a game he and his brother Kimbal created called Blastar. He graduated from the University of Pennsylvania with two undergraduate degrees: in economics and physics. He considered Stanford for a PhD in physics but decided to focus on the Internet boom instead. Yes, Musk has the smarts to be successful, but he’s also had to muster social and emotional intelligence to bring Tesla to the pinnacle where it stands today. More than anything, Musk brings wisdom as well as intelligence to Tesla — that deep understanding of the reality of people, things, events, or situations, resulting in the ability to choose or act accordingly to produce optimum results.

Birthday = Workday for Elon Musk: An example of Musk’s leadership that can’t be overlooked is his work ethic. His June 28 working birthday was generally required (according to Musk) because of Tesla’s upcoming second quarter goals. He sent emails to his staff, asking them to work hard to hit the company’s vehicle production and delivery numbers. “As you may have noticed, there is a lot of speculation regarding the vehicle deliveries this quarter,” Musk wrote in the email, obtained by CNBC. “The reality is that we are on track to set an all-time record, but it will be very close. However, if we go all out, we can definitely do it!”

Clearly, Musk’s presence is so essential at Tesla that he seems irreplaceable. Ross Gerber of wealth management firm Gerber Kawasaki, a vocal Tesla supporter and investor, asked, “Why would you invest in Tesla without Elon Musk? It doesn’t make sense.”

Who are the CEOs of Auto Companies around the World?

The following is a list of car company CEOs as well as their starting year as chief executive of their respective companies:

  • Tesla: Elon Musk in 2008
  • Toyota: Akio Toyoda, 2009
  • General Motors (GM): Mary Barra, 2014
  • Peugeot: Carlos Tavares, 2014
  • Honda: Takahiro Hachigo, 2015
  • BMW: Harald Krüger, 2015 (though he has recently confirmed that he will be stepping down as BMW’s CEO)
  • Ford: Jim Hackett, 2017
  • Nissan: Hiroto Saikawa, 2017
  • Mazda: Akira Marumoto, 2018
  • Volkswagen: Herbert Diess, 2018
  • Fiat Chrysler: Michael Manley, 2018
  • Suzuki: Toshihiro Suzuki, 2018
  • Daimler: Ola Kaellenius, 2019
  • Renault: Thierry Bolloré, 2019
  • Mitsubishi: Takao Kato, 2019

Shoutout to Simon Alvarez for compiling the fabulous auto CEO list.

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Written By

Carolyn Fortuna (they, them), Ph.D., is a writer, researcher, and educator with a lifelong dedication to ecojustice. Carolyn has won awards from the Anti-Defamation League, The International Literacy Association, and The Leavy Foundation. Carolyn is a small-time investor in Tesla. Please follow Carolyn on Twitter and Facebook.


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