Tech giant Elon Musk has quickly become one of the most accomplished innovators of his generation. Garry Nelson, commercial director at Zest Benefits outlines what HR professionals can learn from the tech billionaire 

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Source: Bobby Yip/Reuters

Elon Musk has hit the jackpot several times. Having created and sold several tech-based organisations - most famously revolutionising online payments and selling PayPal to eBay - Musk has inspired a whole new generation of young entrepreneurs and companies. He continues to dream big wanting to colonise Mars with Space X and revolutionise the way we travel with Tesla. Many of these projects have been deemed as overly ambitious or even doomed to failure but Musk has succeeded in moulding his ideas into some of the most forward-thinking companies of the 21st century. So, what has made this one man so incredibly successful? And, what can HR and reward professionals learn from one of the biggest names in tech today?

Tireless optimism

Musk has a ‘glass half full’ mentality. His optimism and ambition has empowered him to keep going despite failed Space X launches, delays in production with Tesla and the risk of losing everything he’d worked for. Musk understands that failure is an option and he isn’t afraid to accept his mistakes, learn from them and move on.

“If you wake up in the morning and think the future is going to be better, it is a bright day. Otherwise it is not.”

Musk shows us is that having an optimistic outlook can work wonders. This is backed up by a study from The University of North Carolina which shows that some of the highest performing teams have been known to have a ratio of 6:1 positive comments to negative comments. Optimism isn’t just infectious, it drives efficiency too.

Musk’s acceptance of the risk of failure has brought him to the brink several times. By accepting that failure can happen you are able to make the innovative changes that really make a difference to your organisation.

Evaluation

Musk is well known for changing the way things are done; from online payments to travel - whether it be by road, in space or even via Hyperloop. His success has come from his drive to evaluate how things are done, how they work and how they could be improved. But Musk doesn’t believe in disrupting things for the sake of it, he approaches new projects and goals where he can see real value in tackling the issue.

“A lot of motivation comes from personally looking at things that don’t work well and feeling a little sad about how it would manifest in the future.”

Your objectives change and your workforce is always evolving which means their needs and expectations are evolving too. Evaluating existing strategies, measuring success and continuously tweaking your efforts could lead to better levels of employee engagement, retention and productivity.

But there’s no point in doing something for the sake of it. Just because your competitor introduced bacon sandwiches every Monday it doesn’t mean that you should be doing the same. Consider what is really going to benefit your people and build from there.

‘First principles’ thinking

Musk always makes sure that he understands and questions the most basic ‘why’ behind any rule, theory or idea. This reduces the amount of time spent learning new concepts and often results in innovative problem solving.

“I think its important to reason from first principles rather than by analogy. (With analogy) …we are doing this because its like something else that was done, or it is like what other people are doing. (With first principles) you boil things down to the most fundamental truths and then reason up from there.”

By questioning every assumption you think you know and tackling each problem as if seeing it for the very first time you develop a unique view to innovate and problem solve. This can be applied to understanding your workforce. Allowing you to provide more targeted, suitable and effective services to your people. Not simply following what has been learned before.

Organised

It’s said that Musk’s top aides organise his schedule into five-minute slots and that he uses ‘batching’ where multiple tasks are completed together. For example, answering emails whilst reviewing spreadsheets, particularly when those emails require statistics from the data you are reviewing.

“I’ve not actually read any books on time management.”

Musk’s system works for him but the key takeaway here is finding a timetable which works best for you and your role and then sticking to it. Structuring your time and knowing you have set deadlines and targets to hit can eradicate procrastination and can help to motivate and drive forward those around you.

Communication

Musk can often be seen replying to emails whilst in meetings, with his children or completing other activities. He is known to frequently forego calls in favour of mediums like email which don’t require real-time responses.

“I’m very good at email. That’s my core competency.”

Musk’s approach to communication may not suit every HR and reward professional in an industry where personal, face to face contact is highly valued. However, his focus on providing the right messages at the right time in an efficient and thoughtful manner is a great tool for communicating essential messages to your workforce. For example, triggering an email that allows an employee to increase their life assurance contributions when they register a new dependant could really provide peace of mind to a new parent.

Finding a form of communication which works for you both in an efficient and effective manner can be the key to a more productive work day.

Sense of purpose

Often described as being one of the few big picture thinkers of the modern day, Musk lets his sense of purpose guide what his goals and objectives are.

“Going from PayPal I thought ‘Well, what are some of the other problems that are most likely to affect the future of humanity?’ Not from the perspective, ‘what’s the best way to make money?’”

Having a strong sense of purpose can have a real impact on your HR, reward and benefits strategies. Look at what the purpose of your organisation is. What is the ultimate goal? What is your mission statement? What kind of people align with this and how can you bring them to the table? Let this sense of purpose help craft and design your strategies and, as a company, you’ll all be singing from the same hymn sheet.

These attributes have provided Musk with the success he enjoys today and, in a similar fashion, benefits and reward professionals can also benefit. Mix the right attitude with the right technology and every organisation can exploit the Elon Musk factor.