Entrepreneurs

How Elon Musk Motivates Teams to Achieve the Impossible


Entrepreneurs face more failures than successes, especially in the early years of building their companies. Elon Musk experienced his share of setbacks, but how he convinces his teams to overcome those hurdles is a master class in motivation.

In his new book, Liftoff, Eric Berger traces the “desperate early days” that launched SpaceX, Musk’s rocket company. Berger told me he had unprecedented access to Musk and dozens of SpaceX employees, many of whom are still with the company today.

In 2002, Musk and a small team of scientists began building the Falcon 1 rocket from the ground up. It would take another six years and three failed attempts before the team finally achieved a successful launch. Many employees took pay cuts to follow Musk’s vision and worked 80-hour weeks, toiling under the blazing sun on Omelek Island, a tiny atoll in the South Pacific where the launches took place.

Throughout those “dark days,” Musk encouraged his team by applying several motivational tactics I’ve seen from other inspirational leaders.

1. Articulate a big vision

Musk founded SpaceX with the vision to make spaceships that will eventually take human settlers to Mars. To accomplish that vision, he had first to lower the cost of sending humans to space. The goal appeared to be impossible, since no privately funded company had ever achieved the necessary first step: building a rocket capable of reaching orbit.

Here’s the key. Musk’s vision of getting to Mars was “crazy hard” and nearly impossible. But it was not entirely impossible. The challenge motivated scientists and engineers to figure out a way to do it.

Musk’s approach reminds me of John F. Kennedy’s goal to reach the moon. In the early 1960s, most people thought it was unlikely that humans would set foot on the moon by Kennedy’s deadline, the end of the decade. But a few intelligent, hardworking people thought it was still possible. Those moon scientists began to ask the question that Musk would also propose to his team: What would it take to make it happen?

People often overestimate what they can accomplish in a year (Musk is guilty of missing many self-imposed deadlines), but they underestimate what they achieve in a decade. By keeping his team focused on the big picture, Musk made sure his employees never forgot what they were striving for.

2. Break the vision into smaller steps

While Musk’s vision is to turn humans into a truly multi-planetary species, the first step was to bring down the cost of launching a rocket–and reusing it. Musk articulated the big vision early and often, but he kept his team focused on achieving one step after another.

Musk came up with ways to challenge engineers. For example, Musk promised one scientist working on computer simulations that he would buy a frozen yogurt machine for the office if the employee hit an ambitious deadline. Musk lost the bet. The yogurt machine is still in the cafeteria at SpaceX headquarters.

Successful entrepreneurs know that the only way to grow big is to take small steps. So take tiny steps, even if the final destination is hard to reach. And make sure you celebrate each win.

3. Focus on what went right

Musk is a relentless optimist who refuses to accept defeat. After the failure of the first rocket launch, SpaceX’s 300 employees felt demoralized, but Musk was able to make a powerful shift in their attitude.

First, Musk offered perspective. He told them about other iconic rockets that had failed their early tests. Second, he focused on what went right, praising the team on the performance of the rocket’s main engine, its avionics system, and more.

Musk concluded, “SpaceX is in this for the long haul and, come hell or high water, we are going to make this work.” 

One employee said that, even though the first launch failed, they’d walk through walls for Musk after listening to his pep talk.

How will you handle the relentless pressure of starting a business and the inevitable setbacks you’ll face along the way? If success leaves clues, then follow the lessons Elon Musk has left: Start with a big vision, break it up into small steps (and celebrate those victories), and focus on the positive, even when you stumble. 

The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.

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