A photo illustration shows Elon Musk's twitter account and the Twitter logo

View from Washington: Twitter – a ‘Knives Out’ mystery

Image credit: REUTERS/Dado Ruvic/Illustration

Twitter: A 'Knives Out' mystery, in which this time the world’s biggest know-it-all gets it utterly wrong.

‘Reign of terror’. ‘Space Karen’. And my personal but cryptic favourite – though NSFW if you search for it – ‘Succession s01e02’.

Many reactions to Elon Musk’s chaotic early days at Twitter have been very much knives out. Given what is being learned from departing employees and the new owner’s latest tweets, that’s no surprise.

What Musk’s critics often miss is that this is exactly what he wants, even if it isn’t what he needs. Public criticism of staff and wholesale sackings, crowdsourced strategy alternating with diktat, and snarking off huge slices of the customer base look – and probably will prove – destructive.

Nevertheless, Musk has cultivated an image as a trash-talking, buccaneering CEO who wants to change the world. Added to that is an approach to branding and running companies that echoes Louis XIV’s “L’etat, c’est moi”. Nothing is beyond his purview as he lords it over anything he surveys and makes demands like an absolute monarch.

Musk’s a one-off who doesn’t give two hoots what you think because he knows best, so put your trust in the king, right?

In truth, Musk is not a one-off. He is an exaggeration – possibly even a satire – of a culture more prevalent across technology than many would like. And he is playing from its rulebook.

Shock tactics are hardly new. Thomas Edison electrocuted animals to argue against AC power and in favour of his DC alternative. Unleashing your nasty side is well established, too. We picture Sir Isaac Newton in quiet contemplation under a tree. During three decades as Master of the Royal Mint, the one-time opponent of the death penalty assiduously applied it for counterfeiting by having offenders hung, drawn and quartered.

If we have progressed, today’s rulebook’s further ideas persist that trashing critics, pursuing goals by any means necessary and pushing employees to their limits are fair game.

In the start-up world from which Musk emerged, long hours, absolute commitment and unshakable self-belief are often necessary. Accepting them involves explicit trade-offs: the incentives of potential kudos for radical innovation and financial gain if the business secures a handsome trade sale or even a public listing.

Moreover, a corporate avatar, promoting the boss like a minor deity, makes sense early on. Start-ups don’t usually have the resources for big marketing campaigns. A super-pumped CEO front-cover or interview can provide a big leg-up.

Yet once companies begin to scale, these tactics weaken.

Newer staff may have rejected much of the start-up trade-off (they see life differently, they’ve made it before and that was enough, or they haven’t the personal bandwidth).

‘Hardcore’ commitment is much harder to foster across a big company and needs different incentives (those share options ain’t so tasty now). And a CEO who could think small but has come to believe his or her hype may not be able to adapt to growth.

On that last issue, other commentators rightly point out that Silicon Valley has a fetish for founders and leaders who get companies going. Yet doubts are growing. Travis Kalanick crashed at Uber. Adam Neumann was evicted at WeWork. Sam Bankman-Fried was recently cashiered at FTX.

Let’s remember, the leaders who seeded today’s taste for rockstar CEOs turned around large existing enterprises. Lou Gerstner at IBM and Jack Welch at GE were ruthless operators, but did recast their companies. Andy Grove was another tough boss at Intel, but he oversaw its critical pivot from memories to microprocessors.

The challenges Musk faces at Twitter are not entirely dissimilar from what those three faced. He wants to energise a company that has been floundering. He wants it to pivot as ‘X’, a mega-app with payments, chat, messaging and more, like China’s WeChat.

However, the skills required to achieve that – common to Welch, Grove and Gerstner – include either a deep existing knowledge of a business or time spent getting it. Metrics rather than exhortations - and washing as little of your dirty linen in public as possible.

Musk has amped a diametrically opposed strategy up not to 12, but 44 billion. It does feel like the world’s most expensive-ever satire.
Though at least, satire is meant to be instructive.

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