Why Elon is RIght and How Other Companies Will Implement Return to Work

Richard Citrin Ph.D., MBA
Richard Citrin Ph.D., MBA

Elon Musk set the world aflutter this week by announcing that Tesla office employees would be required to return to the office for a minimum of 40 hours, and if they do not show up, Tesla would consider that they’ve resigned from their positions.

Consultants and HR professionals were up in arms. They predicted that recruiters would have a field day picking off Musk’s best and brightest and that Tesla would be fighting a battle with employees over our two favorite acronyms, Work from Home (WFH) and Return to Work (RTW).

In Strategy-Driven Leadership, co-authored with Michael Couch, we point out that the hallmark of a great leader is adjusting to and successfully managing strategic changes that happen in the organization. Covid’s onset in 2020 came with such rapidity that agile leaders led successful changes. Stuck in the mud, leaders found their businesses failing.

The real challenge to Musk’s strategic business change is how well will his management team be able to implement the new requirements. We can agree or disagree about whether Musk did the right thing. Only time will tell. We can’t argue that he is our era’s most significant entrepreneur and business leader. Maybe he knows something we don’t.

There are several skills or competencies that leaders and managers will have to address due to Elon’s decision. First, they will have to manage their feelings about the situation, which calls upon self-reflection. Musk stated some negative comments about people who want to work from home, suggesting they may not be working when at home. How would you as a manager take that comment if you felt you were very productive while at home? Next, they will be thinking about the best way to communicate with their team and the variety of people on their team. Some may be excited to get back to the office, and others are concerned about returning. What messages do you provide to them to keep your team intact and focused? Finally, Tesla managers will hopefully be thinking about how to get work done back in the office. We’ve experienced 2+ years of meeting by Zoom, and will people want to continue that practice, or will they want to meet in person. Will the old ways of connecting still work?

Let’s tackle one aspect of the challenges listed above and see how Musk’s best and worst leaders will be communicating the messages that have come down from Mount Musk. 

MessageWorst ManagersBest Managers
Reactions to Statement“You know Elon is autistic, so he just shoots his mouth off without thinking, I’m sure he’ll rethink this, and we’ll figure out a way to make this work for you.”I hear your concerns, and I understand your feelings about this. Elon is blunt, and he owns his autism as part of the reason for that  behavior., I respect this in him, and he always speaks his mind. It also creates challenges, but that is what Tesla is all about.  
The rationale for the changeWho knows why Elon decided to do this now. Maybe he just feels that if he has to be in the office, so should everyone else…although I’m not sure he is.”Elon believes that to have a world-class company, we need professional interactions that can only happen face t face. I can understand that perspective. Can you? If not, let’s talk about it.”
Practical Applications“Hey, you’re already working 70 hours a week and pre-pandemic, all  those hours were in the office, so you’re picking up 40% more hours from how you were working pre-pandemic.”I recognize that there may have been some family changes you made during the Pandemic that WFH supports. Let’s talk about what those are and how we can work around your (child care/parent care or self-care) needs to continue to see how we can make that work.”
Threat of Leaving“You don’t want to do that. It would look bad on your resume that you left when Elon announced, and I think you should stay with us for a while and see how this blows over. Anyway, even if the worst happens, it won’t be any worse than pre-pandemic, and I bet he’ll throw in some nice perks to keep us satisfied.”“I can understand your thinking, and if it comes down to you having to make a move on behalf of your family, I support you doing that. I’d also like to see if we can find other options that can work for you. I truly value you as a colleague and feel you bring something very special to Tesla. We’re building something that is changing the world here, and few people have the chance to do that in their career. I’m here and available to talk this through with you whenever you need to talk

There are several different skills that Tesla managers will want to demonstrate to ensure that Musk’s expectations are successfully met. These include:

  1. Self-reflection on how they feel about this change and whether they are comfortable putting it into play. They will want to see the guidelines being developed and interpret them for themselves and their staff successfully.
  2. Listening will go a long way to mitigating the concerns that staff members possess. As much as we’d like to think of ourselves as rational beings, our emotions play a much more significant role at work than we think. Even Tesla’s engineers can’t just turn off their limbic system. Great managers will want to flex from directing to listening and fortifying themselves for some lengthy discussions.
  3. Influencing: Arguments aren’t won by “convincing” people that your ideas are better than theirs. It requires subtle skills that many great leaders don’t possess. One way to build an influencing point of view is to find others who are ready to come on board and focus energies on them. If others don’t want to stay, so be it, but spending excessive energy on the negative folks merely brings everyone down.
  4. Superordinate: Elon creates an army of zealots both inside and outside Tesla. That fanaticism is based on the mission of reducing the role and impact of internal combustion engines. Few people have the chance to do that, and sharing that mission effectively creates a powerful community.
  5. Recognizing Limits: There is only so much a leader or manager can do to impact their team and organization. Many Tesla managers will experience frustration and aggravation due to Musk’s mandate, and coming to terms with what it means and how it impacts both the company and individuals will be something that will keep some managers up at night. Just know that Elon will be sleeping soundly.

Leadership is not about a fixed set of skills that are in fashion this week or this year. Leadership is about finding the necessary skills needed to drive success for the business, including customers, employees, society, and the owners. In our work, we help organizations find those skills and put them into play so they can find the success they need. Call us if you want some assistance. 

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