Maybe you heard this. Last week, Elon Musk announced some big changes.
It started with an email to top Tesla executives saying that remote work was a thing of the past. Of course, the email leaked to the whole world almost immediately.
Then, he sent another email, this time to the entire Tesla workforce. That email leaked, too.
Then, on Friday, he reportedly sent a third email to his executive team, in which he said he had a “super bad feeling” about the economy, and that all hiring should be paused and headcount reduced by 10 percent.
You guessed it: News of that email leaked to the world.
Then, he reportedly sent yet another all-hands email in which he confirmed the reduction in “salaried headcount by 10%,” but added that “anyone actually building cars, battery packs or installing solar” has nothing to worry about.
And that email — well, you get the idea: It leaked, too.
You can learn a lot by following Musk, and what he says, and tweets, and emails.
My Inc.com colleagues Suzanne Lucas and Jason Aten weighed in, for example, arguing that Musk’s first email salvo announcing the return-to-office edict was “brilliant,” and “makes [an] important point every leader should follow.”
They’re both correct. There’s is a good argument that in a manufacturing industry like Tesla’s, it makes sense to require employees to be on-site. And, analysts seem to agree that Tesla might be a bit top-heavy when it comes to management positions.
Yet, it took me a minute to realize why Musk’s big announcements over the past few days all feel like they need to be read as if they end with giant asterisks.
I think it comes down to this. If you’re a critical thinker (and much like you, I’d like to imagine I am), one of the questions you ask yourself when you see what someone has to say is: Who is their intended audience?
For most of us, it’s fairly easy to track backward and figure it out. But when we’re talking about Musk these days, it’s darn near impossible, and people are left wondering what to make of it.
Musk now has to assume in advance that everything he sends to his team will leak to the world. So who is he really talking to?
- Maybe it really is just his team. Or else, maybe it’s the rest of us, who will pay attention once the messages are inevitably leaked.
- Maybe the goal truly is a narrow one: leading his employees and getting them ready to return 100 percent to work onsite, and for a lower employee headcount.
- Or else, maybe there’s a broader objective, or multiple ones. Maybe it’s about setting investor expectations, or affecting consumer sentiment.
- Maybe there’s no deeply envisioned plan at all, given that Musk is said to take mainly his own counsel, and to acknowledge he often acts on impulse.
I don’t think we know. Also, you’ll notice that to this point we haven’t even mentioned Musk’s Twitter account, or his intention to buy Twitter outright.
Although, I do think the wittiest line in all of this was when someone asked Musk on Twitter how he’d respond to employees who thought his new “no remote working” policy was outdated.
“They should pretend to work somewhere else,” he tweeted. (Oh snap!)
When Musk speaks, or tweets, or his emails get leaked, things happen that don’t happen for other business leaders: markets move, agendas get set, conversations get sparked.
Sometimes, folks get trolled.
He’s a master marketer and influencer on a level I don’t think we’ve seen before. Exhibit A would be the fact that Tesla has a market cap well over $700 billion ever after shedding value, and yet the company has never run a single paid advertisement.
Also, I admit that I’ve gotten sucked into his pronouncements in the past — for example when a company that makes modular homes suggested (wink-wink, nudge-nudge) that Musk lives in one of their tiny abodes, and Musk took his time before denying it.
Or else, when he tweeted three years ago, either jokingly or impulsively, that Tesla would develop “a quiet, electric leaf blower.” (Cut me a break, I live in the suburbs. This would be a big deal here if it were serious.)
Or else, to bring this back around to his reported message on Friday, when the words he chose to describe his outlook for the economy — a “super bad feeling” — happened to fall on June 3, which as some folks observed, is the date on the fake ID used by “McLovin'” in the 2007 comedy, Superbad.
You can’t tell me that’s a coincidence, any more than offering $54.20 per share for Twitter, or floating the idea of taking Telsa private a few years back, at $420. Or any one of a dozen or a hundred other examples.
Look, I’ve been writing about Musk for a long time. In fact, when I go back and look at my free ebook, Elon Musk Has Very Big Plans, it can read like a time machine, with contemporary references to the (now laughably small) monteary values of Tesla and Musk, or the idea that Musk might have entertained selling Tesla to Apple at one point.
But pretty soon, Musk is likely to be not only the world’s richest person, but the leader of its most valuable car company, controlling owner of an enormous space exploration company, and additionally, the private owner of a social media empire that he calls “the de facto public town square.”
It’s impressive. No matter what people think of Musk as a leader, you have to respect that level of accomplishment. But at the same time, I don’t think anyone really knows what to make of it yet.