5 Skills Every Product Manager Can Learn From Elon Musk
This weekend I had the opportunity to read Ashlee Vance's Elon Musk: Tesla, SpaceX, and the Quest for a Fantastic Future. I've been a huge fan of Elon Musk since the early days of SpaceX and knew I wanted to dive deeper into the story of both SpaceX and Tesla. The book did not disappoint: it was a fascinating history starting from his childhood, to his early startup adventures with Zip2 and PayPal, to a deep dive into how he willed SpaceX, Tesla, and SolarCity into existence and ultimately to success despite the odds being continually stacked against him.
We often paint the picture of Elon Musk as a superhuman who has a boundless work ethic, willingness to take massive personal risk, and an incredible mind to make it all happen. All of this is certainly true and contributed meaningfully to his success. But as I read his story I came across so many examples of skills that Elon had mastered that any of us could also master to enable us to achieve our goals. I wanted to highlight five of those skills that are particularly relevant for product managers that can help them reach new heights in their own craft.
Be an infinite learner
Elon is a consummate infinite learner, starting right from his youth. While his classmates wouldn't describe him as a particularly precocious boy, he did absolutely love reading. It was not unusual for Elon to read 10 hours a day on the weekend, finishing up to two books a day. And this wasn't just limited to the weekend: his favorite afterschool activity was to head to the bookstore and read from 2-6pm each day. When he felt like he'd read every book that was worth reading in his local library, he moved on to just reading entries in the Encyclopaedia Britannica.
This love of reading extends to how Elon approaches learning any new topic. To get up-to-speed on rockets, he literally bought a dozen rocket textbooks and read them cover-to-cover. He was never afraid to learn something new because he knew he could rely on his love of reading to quickly learn anything he needed to.
Elon was also adept at learning from his colleagues. A SpaceX colleague remembered being called into Elon's office and getting grilled by Elon on every aspect of his job. At first, he thought Elon was testing him. But he quickly realized Elon was simply trying to absorb everything he knew about his specialty.
The product role requires you to be well versed in a ton of different areas to be successful. So all of us should leverage Elon's learning mindset when approaching any challenge at work. Next time you are about to tackle a new task, be a voracious reader and consume everything valuable on the topic before digging into solving it. You should also treat your colleagues as the incredible resources they are and seek to absorb as much as you can from every interaction you have with them.
Invest in inter-disciplinary skills
Early on, Elon took a deep interest in a multitude of domains. When he attended the University of Pennsylvania, he pursued a dual degree in physics as well as economics from Wharton. One of his professors there remarked that what stood out about Elon was that he had the ability to master difficult physics concepts in the midst of actual business plans. Larry Page, a close friend of Elon's, said more people should have the kind of inter-disciplinary skills that Elon possessed: a broad engineering and scientific background, MBA training, knowledge of how to run things, organize stuff, and raise money. Even within engineering, Elon distinguished himself with a very broad set of skills. Edward Jung, a famed software engineer and inventor, said the harmonious melding of software, electronics, advanced materials, and computing horsepower appeared to be Elon's gift.
Today when we talk about the archetypes of successful people we often describe them as either deep domain experts, with specialization in one specific domain, general athletes, who have a high-level understanding of business and can be applied to a variety of such roles, or T-shaped people, who have deep expertise in one domain but broad exposure to others. Elon takes the T-shaped concept further and develops deep expertise in multiple domains.
Product management is an inter-disciplinary role and the best product managers I know go deep like Elon into multiple verticals. In addition to product, they may have a deep understanding of design, engineering, business, or more. Or they might be experts in specific domains like AI, marketplaces, B2B SaaS, and more. So find that additional domain that you are passionate about and pursue deep expertise in it as well.
Craft a compelling vision
Elon Musk is always the exemplar I point to when people ask me about crafting a compelling vision. As Ashlee Vance puts it, "What Musk has developed that so many entrepreneurs in Silicon Valley lack is a meaningful worldview. He's the possessed genius on the grandest quest anyone has ever concocted. Where Mark Zuckerberg wants to help you share baby photos, Musk wants to...well... save the human race from self-imposed or accidental annihilation."
If you've ever seen an Elon Musk presentation, you'll know just how earnestly he speaks of the importance of sustainable energy and making humanity an interplanetary species. He frames both of these goals as simply requirements to prevent humanity's own extinction. He is also constantly tying every initiative at both Tesla and SpaceX back to their respective visions. Bringing down the cost of rocket launches by leveraging reusable components is not simply a means to reduce costs and win business away from SpaceX's competitors, but is equally essential to develop a human presence on Mars given the number of rocket launches that will reasonably be required to accomplish this.
Elon certainly didn't have to describe his businesses this way. The electric car companies that came before him didn't use such a lofty vision to describe their products. But he knew the countless benefits of creating such an inspiring vision. It helps you attract the best minds to your problem. It helps convince your team to go the extra mile in hopes of achieving this vision. And it attracts customers who are equally interested in helping you pursue this ultimate goal.
The best product managers, like Elon, craft an inspiring vision that the whole team rallies behind. And they continually remind their team how their current initiatives tie directly back to that vision.
Always be selling
Elon Musk is well known for his salesman instincts. A great example of this was at early SpaceX in 2003 when Elon decided to unveil the Falcon 1 to the public. Elon devised a plan to haul a seven-story-high Falcon 1 prototype across the country on a specially built rig and leave it - and the SpaceX mobile launch system - outside of the Federal Aviation Administrations headquarters in Washington, DC as well as hold an accompanying press conference. SpaceX engineers hated the idea of diverting resources to build this prototype when they were already working insane hours on the actual rocket. But the event was well-received in Washington as it added an element of realism on SpaceX's ability to deliver with such a detailed prototype.
Elon knew that you needed to bring people along on your journey to accomplish impossible feats. And the best way to do so was to show people a detailed glimpse of the future, even before you could actually deliver it.
Product managers have so many stakeholders that they work with that need to be brought along on their journey, whether it's their R&D team, executives, or customers. The best product managers realize that a bit of salesmanship is often the most effective way to accomplish this.
Cultivate your design sensibilities
Ashlee Vance provides an insightful perspective on how Elon developed his design sensibilities: "The idea of Musk as a design expert has long struck me as bizarre. He's a physicist at heart and an engineer by demeanor. So much of who Musk is says that he should fall into that Silicon Valley stereotype of the schlubby nerd who would only know good design if he read about it in a textbook. The truth is that there might be some of that going on with Musk, and he's turned it into an advantage. He's very visual and can store things that others have deemed to look good away in his brain for recall at any time. This process has helped Musk develop a good eye, which he's combined with his own sensibilities, while also refining his ability to put what he wants into words. The result is a confident, assertive perspective that does resonate with the tastes of consumers. Like Steve Jobs before him, Musk is able to think up things that consumers did not even know they wanted - the door handles, the giant touch-screen - and to envision a shared point of view for all of Tesla's products and services."
Any product manager can leverage a similar process to build their own design taste just as Elon Musk has.
While I hope you enjoyed my takeaways, I encourage you to read the book yourself if you've ever been interested in learning more about Elon Musk.
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Feb 23, 2020