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Stretch for Accountability Like Elon Musk

Categories: Culture of Accountability

He’s worth $21 billion today, but 10 years ago, Elon Musk was flat broke.

In 2007, Tesla was on the verge of collapse. The retail price of the Tesla Roadster wasn’t enough to cover the cost of building one. On top of that, they could not even build more Teslas because the manufacturing plant did not have the right tools to build the car. A list of mechanical issues, including the transmission and the air conditioning, needed to be solved. Rather than let his company implode, Musk poured all of his remaining cash into the business and brought in top talent to solve the problems.

It worked. Today, Tesla’s market value is near $48 billion.

Musk’s story is an example of pursuing a stretch project with an ownership mindset to achieve extraordinary results.

Technically, Musk was an owner of Tesla – but he also demonstrated the highest level of accountability and stretched beyond anything that had been done before.

If you successfully encourage the people in your organization to pursue stretch opportunities, they’ll also become more comfortable with “failing forward,” effectively learning from mistakes to achieve better results every time.

Here are some lessons from Elon Musk that you can apply in your organization:

  1. Understand the risk of failure. Musk knew what was at stake with Tesla and he decided to go for it. When discussing a stretch project, talk through the risks, expectations, consequences of failure (they must be tolerable), and learning opportunities. If there is no risk of failure, it probably isn’t a stretch opportunity. But if the cost of failure is too high, consider other opportunities.
  1. Gain new skills, knowledge & tools. When Musk started Tesla, he did not yet have the knowledge (technology) to design the Roadster. Pursuing a stretch project requires you to develop yourself. When considering a project, you can delegate to someone on your team. Consider stretch opportunities that will be powerful learning experiences. Whether that means learning the difference between a combustion engine and an electric engine, or honing influence skills, the key is to understand what’s needed to achieve the goal. Talk with your team members about potential gaps as well as resources for getting what they need to be successful.
  1. Own the project. Musk could have pointed a finger at the CEO and said, “This guy is to blame for Tesla going down the tubes!” He could have blamed the engineers for not designing the parts properly. He could have pointed to the economy and said, “We can’t succeed because no one wants to invest in the company right now.” Ultimately, he did not point the finger at anyone. He took ownership of every issue and found a way to collaborate with others to achieve a solution. Taking on a stretch project will involve hitting a few obstacles – and those obstacles will be the drivers to demonstrate true accountability.
  1. Ownership doesn’t mean going solo. Musk never could have made Tesla successful by himself. He brought in a new CEO in 2007. He hired Mazda’s lead North American designer to develop the Model S in 2008. Musk had some of the top engineers in the industry working with him on his “stretch project.” If you don’t need to collaborate with anyone to complete a stretch project, it probably isn’t much of a stretch. Encourage your team members to collaborate when working on a stretch project. Tell them, “You’re not in it alone!” and make it clear that ownership doesn’t mean doing it by yourself.

Stretch opportunities are a key ingredient to increasing accountability, innovation, collaboration and overall success. They are also an empowering career strategy, as we described in our last blog, “Owning It: Why It’s Time to Stop Renting Your Job.”

For more support in empowering your team to take on stretch opportunities, check out BRODY’s interactive workshop on accountability, which helps managers and leaders Create a Culture of Accountability to increase operational efficiency, drive higher levels of employee engagement, and encourage results-driven collaboration between employees and managers. You can download a full outline of the workshop here.

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