What I learned from Elon Musk in selecting Top Talent at Tesla

When I started my working journey at Tesla, the EMEA headquarters just moved to Amsterdam and Tesla was in hyper growth mode, opening many new sales and service locations across EMEA + launching Tesla Energy. Within a timeframe of 3 years Tesla grew to 7000 employees in Europe and 33.000 worldwide. Growing extremely fast didn’t mean to compromise on hiring quality. In the contrary, Elon Musk has a specific view on what it takes to be a top performer and he is very involved in hiring, making sure that the right talent comes onboard.

In an email Musk wrote to all of us: The only way for a little company to prevail against those much larger companies is to work faster, smarter and harder. The passing grade at Tesla is excellence, because it has to be.”

In order to be successful at Tesla, you don’t need a high school or college degree to qualify. In an age when you’re judged by a couple of superficial qualities on a piece of paper, Musk has shown us that what actually matters is your mindset, drive, collaboration skills and passion for learning. Some of the world’s best innovators have accomplished great things without graduating. Musk has pointed out that Bill Gates, Steve Jobs, and Google co-founder Larry Page all lack college degrees. “If you had a chance to hire them,” he has said, “of course, that’d be a good idea.”

Musk looks for “evidence of exceptional ability. And if there is a track record of exceptional achievement, then it is likely that that will continue into the future”.

Don’t settle for anything less than the best candidate.

To us, Recruiters, Musk insisted on approving on every hiring decision on engineer-level and above himself. Every candidate we hired was measured against specific selection criteria, which defined the Tesla Cultural Fit. We needed Musk’s personal ‘ok’ for each new hire, that he sent us per email. He wanted to see a to the point write-up for each selected candidate consisting of a short cv-summary and proof of -ideally 3- excellent achievements, he wanted to know who was in the carefully choosen interview panel and see a short recommendation from the most senior interviewer. Recruiting was really a joint effort and responsibility.

What Elon Musk wanted to see in Top Talent:

“Hungry”, intrinsic strong drive

A strong drive to be part of the Tesla mission, to accelerate the transition to a more sustainable world. A personal commitment to excel in the pursuit of unselfish goals. High potentials have great ambition and want to leave their mark, but they also aspire to big, collective goals and invest in getting better at everything they do.

Problem solving skills

“Understand the truth of things, make the complex simple and come up with great solutions”

Of course problem solving skills that are relevant to the skills they need on the job. One of the questions we asked to explore: “Tell me about some of the most difficult problems you worked on and how you solved them”, so we could determine whether they were actually the one who found the solution, as opposed to merely being a member of the team that did so.

 If someone was really the person who solved it,” Musk said, “they’ll be able to answer on multiple levels. They’ll be able to get down to the brass tacks. And, if they weren’t, they’ll get stuck. And then you can say, ‘Oh, this person was not really the person who solved it.’ Because anyone who struggled hard with a problem never forgets it.”

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‘No ego’– work for a common goal

Musk’s philosophy is a call for true collaboration throughout all of Tesla — for the betterment of Tesla. He often reminded us: “We are all in the same boat. Always view yourself as working for the good of the company and never your dept.”

Persistence and determination

Persistence is very important. you should not give up unless you are forced to.”

Determination: the wherewithal to fight for difficult goals despite challenges and to bounce back from adversity. Musk is realizing some of the most aspirational goals in human history, and building his legacy right before our very eyes. Nothing can knock him out of the ring, derail his ambitions or make him throw in the towel. This is such an inspiration for anyone working at Tesla.

Curiosity

In order to be effective when working in a complex and dynamic environment like Tesla, you need to be curious, adaptive and have a good learning ability. Seeking out new experiences, knowledge, candid feedback and an openness to learning and change. A property that strong performers have: “Why is it that way? And how does it work? And why does it need to work that way? And why can’t it work some other way?”

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Tesla Factory Tilburg

Think on your feet

Staying Cool and Confident Under Pressure. Able to translate your thoughts and ideas into coherent speech quickly. Be prepared, confident and listen before you react.

No-jerks allowed

Being a good team player is a common job requirement, but for Musk there is more to a collaborative work environment. He has no interest in hiring you if he senses you might be rude to colleagues. Musk says: “Generally, I look for a positive attitude…It’s very important to like the people you work with, otherwise, your job is going to be quite miserable.”

In an email he sent to everyone in the company: “Anyone at Tesla can and should email/talk to anyone else according to what they think is the fastest way to solve a problem for the benefit of the whole company. You can talk to your manager’s manager without his permission, you can talk directly to a VP in another dept, you can talk to me, you can talk to anyone without anyone else’s permission. Moreover, you should consider yourself obligated to do so until the right thing happens. The point here is not random chitchat, but rather ensuring that we execute ultra-fast and well.

Managers should work hard to ensure that they are not creating silos within the company that create an us vs. them mentality or impede communication in any way. This is unfortunately a natural tendency and needs to be actively fought. How can it possibly help Tesla for depts to erect barriers between themselves or see their success as relative within the company instead of collective?

And last but certainly not least: Fun

“It is incredibly important that people look forward to coming to work in the morning. One of the best feelings in the world is to be part of a team that is fired up to achieve what most industry experts say is impossible! For many companies out there, work is like jail – employees look forward to Friday and dread Monday. That’s horrible. We never want to be like that.”

And fun we had! Looking back at my Tesla journey I am so gratefull of the experience and having been part of the Tesla mission. How much I learned from such an inspiring leader and dynamic working environment and how much fun I had working with like-minded colleagues.

Which made me realize that above mentioned top talents only truly flourish in an environment with a clear mission, a culture of open communication, where making failures is seen as something to learn from, and where responsibility is given to everyone in the organization.  

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