Doing the right thing or doing things right?


I’m a pretty faithful reader of Dilbert and I can’t remember a strip of his about entrepreneurs. But given that Dilbert works in a seemingly large bland, established corporation that is no surprise. But this is at least the second time I’ve found a Dilbert strip that worth commenting on for founders.

Not only is this strip very funny, there’s a lesson behind it, as there are with many of Scott Adam’s strips. It’s the difference between doing things right and doing the right thing. When it comes to startups we all focus on doing the right thing – that’s the big idea, vision of the founder that drives the formation of the venture, that will captivate investors, and convince millions of customers to use and pay for the product of that vision. And there is no question that startups start with the idea. In fact since I’ve been a kid I’ve always questioned the status quo and often felt that I knew a better way of doing things. That’s what drove me to start my first company, Real Time Audio. As a music fan since being totally enthralled by Gene Vincent’s Be Bop a Lula while at summer camp I attended a lot of music events. And as an audiophile – someone obsessed with reproducing music as realistically as possible in their home – I felt that most concert and club sound was terrible. I knew I could do better. That was the idea, provide audiophile standard sound for bands. Unfortunately, being beyond totally ignorant about business I didn’t realize how capital intensive the sound reinforcement business was. And while I quickly got customers it was only those bands who couldn’t afford their own P.A. and thus could afford to pay me much either. So that vision fell by the wayside.

What brings up the difference between doing the right thing and doing things right has been the recent trials and tribulations of Elon Musk. I admire him and follow him as I regard him as being one of today’s great entrepreneurs. He looked at how NASA sent up rockets and very wastefully let the booster section fall back into the sea, wasting millions of dollars. His big idea for SpaceX – doing the right thing – was to build re-usable booster rockets, which could be retrieved and used over and over again, saving millions of dollars and thousands of hours of operations time. SpaceX has been a big success.

But he’s not in the news lately for the successes at SpaceX – he’s in the news for problems at Tesla. And there’s little doubt that his vision of doing the right thing by building cars than would run on electric power and not fossil fuels has been the right big idea – every car company in the world is now on a crash course – whoops! – to catch up with him.

And up until recently with the production woes of the Model 3, Tesla has done things right to an extraordinary degree. Doing things right is all about execution and the Tesla Model S is the only car to ever receive a perfect score of 100 from Consumer Reports, just one of many indicators that Musk could execute not just at a world-class level, but world leading, standard-setting level.

But as he’s admitted, he’s been in production hell with the Model 3. Worse yet, according to a recent news report, in the past year or so he’s lost 30 top executives! So not only has he repeatedly failed to meet his production goals for the Model 3, he’s lost top flight personnel to Apple and other companies. What’s wrong with this picture? What’s wrong is that Musk feels he must work 120 hour work weeks to get the Model 3 up to the necessary production levels. He’s sleeping on the factory floor. Well here’s the lesson for founders – in a word, delegation.

Building great companies means building great teams. And to do that the founder has to hire the best people in the world, not just people who could “do the job.” Steve Jobs doesn’t receive enough recognition for his incredible ability to attract, retain, and engage incredibly talented people, many of whom have gone on to great success since leaving Apple. Perhaps because he was at best a mediocre engineer, he had to delegate. There was no way he could write the code necessary for an operating system nor design extremely complex hardware like the iPhone. So he was forced to delegate. Apple executed at the highest level; its customer satisfaction levels lead the industry. And while Jobs did work long hours, especially during his first tenure at Apple, I don’t recall any stories about him sleeping on the floor of Apple’s factories or flying around the world to solve problems on production lines. That wasn’t his job. His job was to have the company do the right thing: combine a phone, Internet communicator, and music device all into one form factor, with a revolutionary touch interface. It was everyone’s job at Apple to do things right. And they did. Apple was and is famed for it’s level of execution., When the screw up, as every company does, it’s worldwide news.

Why can’t Elon Musk retain great talent? Why is he sleeping on factory floors and driving himself to exhaustion? Obviously he can’t delegate. And as a brilliant engineer, unlike Jobs, he can actually add value not just in design of Tesla’s cars, but in how they are manufactured. But execution is where the company has fallen. And until he starts replacing those thirty top execs and who knows how many top flight staffers he’s also lost, he will be sleeping on factory floors. Jobs was a micro-manager, just as Musk is, but the difference is he enabled his people to exceed their own expectations and they were able to take enormous pride in the products they produced, used and loved – yes loved – by millions. While I can name at least half a dozen of the original Mac team I can not tell you the name of a single person at Tesla other than Elon Musk!

So founders, as Bill Belichick, Head Coach of the five-time Super Bowl winning New England Patriots says, “Do your job!” Your job is to set the company direction, and provide the resources for your teams to execute your big idea – the right thing, to constantly communicate and make mid-course corrections as necessary. But you need to step back and your employees each figure out how to do things right. Because the true driver of excellence is not salary, stock options, titles or the number of staff who report to you. Those are all extrinsic drivers, the true driver is intrinsic: the feelings of accomplishment, teamwork, pride, and knowing you have done world class work. If as a founder – no matter how great an engineer you are – you constantly step in and don’t let your staff figure out how to do things right, if you never delegate. you too will find yourself not only sleeping on a factory floor, but having a Board of Directors that may decide to replace you with someone else.

My big lesson as I went from an individual contributor mixing sound to an executive with dozens of people reporting to me and a budgets of millions of dollars, was the definition of management was getting things done through other people. And getting things done was the reason so many founders who had the vision, who knew what the right thing to do was, recruited me to run their operations – to do things right.

While Elon Musk is about as far from the  Dilbert’s dumb boss as you can get, he’s acting exactly the same way. Whether he pulls out of this nose dive and gets back to his winning ways is not the point. The point for founders is to learn from his mistakes so you don’t make them yourself. Recruit a great team, give them clear direction, and get the hell out of their way!

Author: Mentorphile

Mentor, coach, and advisor to entrepreneurs, small businesses, and non-profit organizations. General manager with significant experience in both for-profit and non-profit organizations. Focus on media and information. On founding team of four venture-backed companies. Currently Chairman of Popsleuth, Inc., maker of the Endorfyn app for keeping fans updated on new stuff from their favorite artists.

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