Elon Musk runs three businesses, and his executive juggling act is the ideal illustration of how the role of the modern CEO is flawed?

Elon Musk runs three businesses, and his executive juggling act is the ideal illustration of how the role of the modern CEO is flawed?

How does Elon Musk spend his days?

That might sound like a straightforward inquiry: He works. Musk is the CEO of three businesses, including Twitter, Tesla, and SpaceX. He founded The Boring Company and Neuralink, two other projects he is involved in, and up until June he was a member of the board of the directors for media company Endeavor, which also owns the Ultimate Fighting Championship. Musk claims that in order to balance all of these responsibilities, he works 120 hours per week and follows a strenuous schedule of “go to sleep, I wake up, work or go to sleep, work, do that continuosly seven days a week.” But this all begs the question: What does he do all day?

Multiple reports indicate that Musk is acting, even if that action consists mostly of tweeting random thoughts and hounding his reports for features that actively lower the quality of Twitter’s core offering, or dismissing staff members who disagree with him. It’s unclear how much value Musk actually adds to the businesses he runs; in fact, he’s ousted other executives who were more closely in charge of their final goods.

But like many CEOs, he has built up a sizable fortune by holding multiple directorships and companies at once. However, with so many responsibilities and no one to answer to, Musk could claim that he works around the clock and it would be very difficult to refute him.

Musk may be an extreme example, but he also epitomizes the modern CEO: a disorganized mix of ineffective micromanagement and highly compensated absenteeism. Despite the fact that being the “chief executive” is supposed to be the most important position in the organization and the person who is ultimately in charge of everything, the modern executive purposefully accepts multiple roles, directorships, book deals, and speaking engagements.

I am sick of the chief hypocrites who complain that people “aren’t working hard enough” while enjoying the benefits of holding multiple jobs and roles. I am the executive of a boutique tech PR firm. The chief executive position has evolved from being viewed as being ultimately accountable for the successes and failures of a company to being used as a personality-driven stepping stone to enhance the reputation and likeability of a single well-paid individual.

What should a CEO accomplish?

A great CEO is someone who can uphold the company’s values and carry out “big picture” ideas, but also someone who actually makes a significant contribution to the business. The concept of a CEO first emerged in the early 1910s, and also many of the first CEOs were intimately involved in the day-to-day operations of their businesses, including pay scales, employee schedules, and particular product processes.

Larger strategic and deal-making calls instead of day-to-day operations were part of the CEO’s role as companies grew in size. However, the CEO was still ultimately responsible (and held accountable) for the outcome. CEOs continued to typically advance through the ranks and become deeply ingrained in the culture, all the while keeping a wider eye on various levels of product and management.

However, a new generation of “superstar” CEOs transformed the position by the 1970s and 1980s. Modern CEOs started to be defined only by their ability to maintain the stock price and investors’ satisfaction, as opposed to having their value tied to the direct performance of the company—the quality of the products and the happiness of the employees, and the value they created.

They signed book deals, gave interviews, became the company’s public face, and spent less time concentrating on the product. Unsurprisingly, this is also the time when CEO pay began to differ significantly from that of the typical employee.

However, studies have shown that the current growth of the CEO as a public figure and detached manager rather than a key member of the organization is actually detrimental to the value of the company. Given how disconnected many CEOs have become from the goals of their positions, this is not surprising.

Although a good CEO plays many different roles, they all serve the company’s objectives rather than their own financial interests. For example, they may act as a sales representative, recruiter, fundraiser, and morale builder.

They are able to strike a balance between direct supervision and clear delegation that gives employees confidence that the CEO is aware of the task and why the particular deputy is qualified to carry it out. Rather than on their own status and earnings, they are valued based on morale, customer satisfaction, funding, and execution.

Elon Musk runs 3 companies — and his executive juggling act is the perfect example of how the modern CEO job is broken

What exactly does a CEO do?

Today’s corporate CEOs spend more of their time flitting between meetings and hurriedly tweeting motivational messages than actually creating value for their companies. Some of these top executives were observed by Harvard researchers as they went about their daily business in an effort to decipher “what a CEO really does all day.” Even though the study categorized each activity into grand-sounding categories like “people and relationships” and “business unit reviews,” closer inspection revealed that not much was actually happening.

The study and others like it are meant to glorify an executive class that doesn’t often have to defend its existence, benefit operators — people who are mostly “doing a lot of stuff” without getting paid for it — and elevate busywork over actual work. Executives spend 72% of their total day in “meetings,” with no assessment of what these meetings are or who they are beneficial to. This is the most glaring example of this. In fact, the recent CEOs in the Harvard study admitted that most of their meetings could be cut in half and that they were consuming excessive amounts of their waking hours.

Some CEOs have gone as far as managing multiple sizable companies, like Musk. On an iPad, Jack Dorsey famously managed both Twitter and Square. Carlos Ghosn oversaw Renault and Nissan, two sizable automakers, before being accused of fraud in Japan. Even Steve Jobs managed Apple and Pixar concurrently.

If executives have the time to perform two “full-time” roles, either they are not giving their roles enough effort or they are not demanding enough of one’s full attention. Despite this, they are paid excessively based on perceived market dominance rather than actual value added.

The board of directors of the company is intended to act as an independent accountability mechanism to restrain the CEO and ensure that the interests of the company’s employees, shareholders, and clients are all taken into consideration. However, in practice, many of these boards have competing agendas and little direct involvement with the core businesses they’re supposed to be governing.

Just 16% of board members claimed to have a working knowledge of the company’s industry, according to a survey conducted by the consulting firm McKinsey in 2013. In a subsequent survey conducted in 2014, a majority of executives and even board members themselves cited the board of directors as the main cause of businesses focusing on short-term results rather than long-term growth.

And yet, many of these same board members serve as CEOs of other companies and earn sizable salaries by endorsing the decisions of their fellow executives. Consider the Tesla board of directors, which is involved in a shareholder lawsuit over a pay package negotiated for Musk in 2018 and ultimately valued at about $56 billion.

James Murdoch, the former CEO of 21st Century Fox, and Antonio Gracias, the CEO of the investment firm Valor Equity Partners, two longtime board members who participated in the approval process, revealed that they were close friends and had traveled with Musk on family vacations. We never had the kind of relationship with Elon where he was punching the clock, according to another board member, Ira Ehrenpreis, who oversaw the compensation committee that decided the pay package.

But nowhere does the hypocrisy of how CEOs are treated in comparison to frontline employees more starkly demonstrate the distorted reality of the modern CEO.

Consider the manufactured “overemployment” controversy, which was stoked by a scare campaign about people who “work remotely while holding down two jobs.” The CEO of a midsize tech company fired two employees who were working multiple jobs, prompting the most well-known of these complaints.

He lamented the practice of employees holding two full-time jobs in a LinkedIn post about the firing, calling it a “new form of theft and deception” that no ethical, honest person would engage in. While it’s unclear how many regular people are “overemployed,” many CEOs are juggling multiple businesses, board positions, and other endeavors all at once. They are paid more than 300 times what the average employee makes and are hailed as world conquerors instead of receiving criticism or termination.

Also appearing in the “quiet quitting” meme was this hypocrisy. The guilt-trip surrounding quietly leaving centered on someone doing “the bare minimum to get by,” but many CEOs fit that description. Executives are incredibly quick to evaluate and list the accomplishments of those who report to them, but it’s fair to say that the chief executive’s actual job expectations and deliverables are, at best, flimsy.

Elon Musk Is Many Things, But Wise Isn't One of Them - Bloomberg

Additionally, executives frequently avoid facing serious repercussions for their mistakes even when they do make strategic or product-based decisions. Better’s CEO, who led the company into dire financial straits, fired 900 employees in a Zoom call after calling them “a bunch of dumb dolphins” in an email, but he still holds the position of leadership.

Mark Zuckerberg’s unprofitable metaverse push may destroy Facebook and was a major factor in Meta’s decision to eliminate 11,000 jobs, but he won’t suffer any real repercussions. The failure to properly scale the business is conclusive evidence that the CEO has failed in their most crucial duty, even when they sincerely apologize for mass layoffs, as was the case with payments startup Stripe.

Average employees would be summarily fired if they failed to anticipate their team’s future needs, misused company resources, or had a negative impact on their coworkers’ employment, but CEOs face little scrutiny. Making important decisions about the course of the company is the one thing that these CEOs are supposed to be doing, and it is obvious that they are failing at it.

And when they do get involved in the finer points, it’s typically due to some sort of whim, like Mark Zuckerberg’s obsession with giving his avatar in the metaverse legs or Elon Musk’s interest in what “verified” actually means. Ironically, executives engage in these seemingly insignificant details in highly visible ways, but by doing so, they reveal a lack of business knowledge by concentrating on a single tree in a burning forest.

Restore value to CEOs

But I’m not saying that all executives are worthless. I work with many of the many technical executives who dedicate their days to writing code or striking important business deals, especially in the technology sector. I’ve always attempted to put in more effort than those below me at my own company as a sign of respect. As CEO, I have a responsibility to lead by example and carry the bulk of the workload. I’ve always viewed the idea of controlling the company as a responsibility rather than a power, one that I must be conscious of at all times because if I fail, everyone else fails.

The issue arises when businesses grow too large and the concerned executives become too removed from their brand. Elon Musk uses Twitter from the perspective of someone with more than 100 million followers, so he doesn’t really “get” it. The end result is an executive who is intent on resolving fictitious issues in order to appease no one. With a CEO who has a distinct vision for each company’s products, is actively involved in their development, and is willing to work with front-line staff to realize those visions, Twitter, Tesla, and SpaceX would all benefit. Additionally, Musk is not the only executive who would benefit from concentrating on a single task.

There are some indications that a switch to a CEO who is more accountable might take place. For starters, more businesses are limiting the number of external boards that their CEOs can join or forbidding them from joining any at all. But there may also be additional steps: Make it mandatory for the CEO to track the time spent on outside projects, appoint staff members to the board so they can comment directly on executive pay and performance, and demand that CEOs demonstrate their value beyond selective share-price metrics.

Does Elon Musk Have a Strategy?

While it’s easy to get sucked into the seductive tales of the executive workaholic, one must wonder if it’s actually feasible to put in that many hours and oversee that many initiatives. It may appear impressive on the surface that someone can manage a business, serve on outside boards, and have a number of charitable endeavors, but it is also reasonable to question whether one person can meaningfully contribute to so many things at once. What’s fundamentally lacking from our modern executives is a strong, meaningful connection to their work and the people who make it possible for them to flourish.

edited and proofread by nikita sharma

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