It is difficult to define or understand the mind of the world’s richest man. But his way of work since acquiring Twitter has raised more than a few eyebrows and also dented his ‘genius’ image
Elon Musk’s Twitter acquisition has been no less than a high-voltage drama. From layoffs of thousands of employees to firing of techies critical of him to impersonation of an official Eli Lilly account that caused the US pharma company’s stock to drop, he has done it all.
While Musk is known to be a performance-focused, value-driven, “no-nonsense” authoritarian, his actions since the Twitter deal have drawn a lot of attention. His genius has come under doubt, adversely impacting his image since his “whimsical” offer of buying Twitter in April. And, the story that began on April 5, after Musk disclosed that he had purchased more than 9 per cent of Twitter’s shares in the open market, has still not reached its climax.
Several consumer surveys suggest falling approval ratings of the billionaire. According to a poll led by Civic Science, a US-based market research firm that surveyed about 8,000 consumers in the US between mid-April and mid-July, 54 per cent of the respondents had viewed Musk positively and 46 per cent negatively. However, by the end of July, that proportion had reversed, with 54 per cent rating Musk as unfavourable.
Of course, the surveyed period was marked by several headline-grabbing events involving Musk, including his ‘on-again, off-again’ bid to buy Twitter, a report accusing him of sexually harassing a SpaceX flight attendant a few years ago (which he denied), and the revelation that he had fathered twins last year with an executive of his brain chip company Neuralink.
Saurabh Chakravorty, a New York-based senior techie, sums up the opinions of fellow countrymen about Musk. “The general perception here is that he is unpredictable, is a ruthless boss, is intelligent and does not like the government when it does not work for him. However, a majority of the Americans have shown their support to Musk’s acquisition of Twitter as they believe that he will make the company profitable and bolster free speech.”
But a few earlier consumer studies suggest that Musk’s appeal to his fans had already taken a hit much before the Twitter saga unfolded. An April study conducted by Creative Strategies, a US-based tech market research firm, found that some Tesla owners had begun to have “negative sentiments” towards the brand due to Musk’s public actions, including his often-inflammatory tweets. A similar survey, published a year earlier by market researcher Escalent, found that EV vehicle shoppers viewed Musk as the most negative aspect of brand Tesla.
At the heart of Musk’s public persona is his image as an engineering and managerial genius. He built Tesla into the world’s leading electric vehicle company and created a profitable market for an entirely new technology. He turned SpaceX into a low-cost bid-winner for government rocket launching. Over the years, his image earned him scores of fans.
However, what he has done with Twitter so far has raised questions about his behavioural patterns. A lot of back-and-forth happened between April 25 when he made his $44 billion acquisition offer to Twitter, and October 28 when he finally sealed the deal. Then, on his first day as the Twitter head, he fired its top executives. Since then, he has taken a series of steps that have unnerved the platform’s community of more than 200 million users and prompted its most important advertisers to suspend their Twitter ad campaigns.
‘He Could Have Done Better’
Rajesh Sahay, former chief human resources officer (CHRO) at Wipro Consumer Care and currently senior partner, Flipcarbon Consulting, believes that Musk failed to recognise the ability of people who built Twitter. “Musk is able to see what others cannot, making it difficult for them to comprehend his decisions. Having said that, in case of his Twitter acquisition, he could have communicated better over the purpose of acquisition, and changed his management approach.
Even in the scenario of layoffs, there are ways of softening the blow and retaining the goodwill. Musk and his lieutenants never attempted that,” he says, drawing comparisons to Meta CEO Mark Zuckerberg. “Zuckerberg too showed the door to several of his employees, but was appreciated because of the way he handled the firings wherein he owned up to the painful decision.”
Anil Pillai, a behavioural strategy expert and director of Terragni Consulting, could not agree more. “Musk seems to be in a hurry to transform Twitter and run it his way. But things could have been done differently,” he says. “The organisations of the future are bound to be collaborative and high on mutual trust. Abrupt shifts in policies and working approach can disturb the work dynamics considerably. Additionally, a dictator leader means that the organisation is dependent on that one individual and is therefore person-centric.”
According to Pillai, Musk is focusing on two things—cutting fluff (unnecessary costs—employees, resources, processes and practices that do not add value or contribute to his vision) and building a “culture” that he believes drives outstanding results. “Such a transformation is typical of many acquisitions. But in the case of Twitter and Musk, both being extremely “salient” for many institutions and individuals, this change is probably being put under the microscope and over-analysed,” Pillai says.
He quotes Jack Welch of GE who said, “only the paranoid survive”. “What he was alluding to was that organisations need to de-construct themselves before their competition does. Elon Musk has taken that to heart and gone on a deconstruction spree. Only time will tell if this will pay dividends or lead to the doom of the brand,” he says.
Clearly, Musk does not believe in delegation. He leads the charge, believes in failing, and failing fast, and is not afraid of taking a contrarian view.
It is unlikely that Twitter will die, but it may be the end of one version of Twitter, experts believe. Musk has ensured that he has kept well within the legal employment framework in the U.S. In Europe, however, where severance laws are much stricter, it is a different matter altogether. Twitter may have left itself to be vulnerable to some number of legal disputes there. The question is not a legal one though.
“Letting go of employees on Thanksgiving, a traditional holiday of bonding and togetherness in the US, strikes a discordant note. Musk has mentioned that he has removed inefficient people and is ready to hire now. But people will be apprehensive about applying in Twitter,” says Sahay.
Viswanath P.S, MD and CEO, Randstad India, agrees that modern-day workplaces are a lot to do with reputation. “Today’s workplaces are defined by work-life balance, financial security and reputation of the management. In situations like these, the overall perception of the brand causes top talent to choose employers that are renowned for their work environment and contribution to society. It is the key to understand why over 63 per cent of highly skilled talent choose a company based on the goodwill of its management and the brand itself.”
Musk’s often confusing and contradictory tweets about his approach to ensure free speech on the micro-blogging site have left users wondering whether Twitter may become a haven for hatemongers, racists and antisemites.
In a November 4 tweet, Musk blamed the ad suspensions on his haters. “Twitter has had a massive drop in revenue due to activist groups pressuring advertisers, even though nothing has changed with content moderation and we did everything we could to appease the activists. Extremely messed up! They’re trying to destroy free speech in America,” he tweeted.
As of now, brand Twitter and brand Musk stand badly bruised. To what extent they can recover from the current backlash remains to be seen. Musk’s bulldozing of Twitter with undiscerning changes is being labeled as “stupid” by several of his critics. So, is he an astute business person or a maniac? Will he blow away $44 billion and get nothing out of it? Only time will tell.