The Two People That Could Help Elon Musk Save Tesla (If He Can Get Them)

Alan Mulally, 2011 CEO of the Year, would be a ideal mentor for Elon Musk.

When you start talking about the road ahead for Tesla’s board, you’ve got to get one thing out of the way right up front: No one is going to change Elon Musk (just ask John Kelly how that goes).

So when it comes to recruiting a new chairman for the electric car company, one that can successfully rein him in and help him be all that he can be, all I can say is: Good luck with that.

After all, Musk is the guy that, after finally settling a potentially career-destroying case with the SEC, one that brought him to the brink of losing control over his company, decided to troll the agency last week, tweeting “Just want to that the Shortseller Enrichment Commission is doing incredible work. And the name change is so on point!”

Oy vey.

Right now, Musk poses a near-existential danger to the company he founded. At any given moment, he could tank the stock with just a couple hundred characters of misplaced venting. Imagine trying to manage a guy who has concrete plans to colonize Mars.

So yeah, it’s going to be a tough go. The push-pull in the days ahead will hinge on Tesla turning up someone to chair the board who will pass the SEC’s sniff test, ie: no one he has on his board right now. Judging by his track record thus far, Musk will instinctively want to pull in someone he feels he can walk all over, ie: everyone on his board right now.

That’s not going to fly going forward. The rest of the board and SEC need someone with deep experience at complex companies, with real backbone, who can help establish guardrails for Musk. As I said above, good luck with that.

Given the company’s financial troubles and Musk’s proclivities for public immolation, there are lots and lots of reasons why the best people for the job — the right people for the job — are going to steer clear. As one longtime advisor to many of the world’s top public company boards put it to me Friday afternoon, “Who’s going to want their name dragged through the mud like that?”

But they did offer a couple of names, both of which make a lot of sense, at least on paper. If Tesla and Musk were to pull either of them in as chairman, they would potentially transform the company:

• John Doerr, the legendary Kleiner Perkins partner, who’s backed some of the world’s most successful entrepreneurs.

• Alan Mulally, the humble, optimistic, pragmatic engineer who helped Bill Ford come to terms with reality—and saved the company as a result.

The case for Doerr is simple: there’s no one with a better track record in tech. From Larry Page and Sergy Brin at Google to Jeff Bezos at Amazon, Doerr’s career is essentially the creation of the modern tech industry.

Second, and perhaps less well known, is that Musk seems to respect him. In a 2012 interview with Sarah Lacy, Musk hints that during Tesla’s Series C funding round, he almost turned down an offer with a 40% premium in favor of an offer from Kleiner Perkins—provided Doerr would join his board. When Doerr said no, Musk went with the other team.

Maybe there’s bad blood there as a result—who knows—but it clearly shows that Musk puts a high price on Doerr’s experience and abilities. Given the right situation, Doerr and Musk would make a formidable team and take a big step towards securing Tesla’s future.

Then there’s Mulally. The case here is also simple: He’s done it. A former Chief Executive CEO of the Year, Mulally took over at Ford as the company stared into the financial abyss. Within three years, he’d turned the company around, even as rival GM foundered. He’s optimistic, audacious, pragmatic and great with people. And he’s got capital I integrity.

As Bloomberg’s Joe Nocera points out (in a piece floating the idea that Mulally should take over as CEO from Musk, which is a non-starter), Musk is well aware of what the former Ford CEO accomplished, Tweeting that “Every other car company besides Ford & Tesla has gone bankrupt.” That bodes well for a potential partnership.

The trick for Tesla, and, perhaps more importantly for Musk long-term, is to find a mentor at this stage in his career. He’s brilliant. He’s bold. And he has so much to offer society. The right mentor could help him make the kind of leap that Steve Jobs once made when he returned to Apple and found a maturity and clarity that he’d never had in his first go-round.

Jobs is actually a great case study. Most people know the story of how he swept back into Apple, saved the company he created, and built the foundation for the world’s most valuable company.

What’s less well remembered is that he didn’t do it alone. It took the partnership of a great chairman to help him pull it off: Former DuPont CEO Edgar Woolard. He pulled Jobs back into Apple in 1997, and was one of only two board members that didn’t exit the company in the aftermath. Woolard became a mentor to Jobs, talking with him so often that Woolard’s wife used to joke that “your son’s on the phone” when Jobs rang the house.

Here’s hoping Musk finds some humility, and finds his Woolard. Doing so will be as easy—or as difficult—as he wants it to be.

Dan Bigman
Dan Bigman is Editor and Chief Content Officer of Chief Executive Group, publishers of Chief Executive, Corporate Board Member, ChiefExecutive.net and Boardmember.com. Previously he was Managing Editor at Forbes and the founding business editor of NYTimes.com.

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