Bartleby: The bird and the boss
A billionaire’s challenge to management thinking
Elon musk’s takeover of Twitter raises questions of policy: is it right for the world’s richest man to own such an important forum for public debate?
It raises issues of law: is his decision to get rid of so many workers within days of completing the acquisition above board?
And it raises questions of strategy: can Twitter make money by moving from a business model based on advertising to one based on subscription?
But it is also an extremely public test of a particular style of management.
In the way he thinks about work, decision-making and the role of the CEO, Mr Musk is swimming against the tide.
His attitude to employees is an obvious example of his counter-cultural approach.
For a futurist, Mr Musk is a very old-fashioned boss.
He doesn’t like remote work.
Earlier this year he sent an email to employees at Tesla demanding that they come to the office for at least 40 hours a week.
Anyone who thought this was antiquated could “pretend to work somewhere else”, he tweeted.
Whatever the legality of his decision to fire so many Twitter workers, his methods are brutal: people locked out of corporate IT accounts, careers ended with an impersonal email, half the workforce gone at a stroke.
It is as if Thanos had decided to try his hand at business.
For those who remain, hard graft is the expectation; insiders say that one of Mr Musk’s first acts at the firm was to cancel monthly firm-wide “days of rest”.
The template for the modern manager tends to be a low-ego, compassionate boss who gives people autonomy.
Someone didn’t get the memo.
His critics have to accept that the my-way-or-the-highway approach has worked before.
At his other firms, like Tesla and SpaceX, Mr Musk may not have offered empathy but he has provided a planet-sized sense of purpose, from popularising electric vehicles to colonising Mars.
Whether this can work for him at Twitter is less clear.
His vision for the product as a “digital town square” where free speech flourishes is a typically grand one.
This time, however, he is not taking on lumbering incumbents, but fixing an existing business where judgment and politics matter as much as engineering.
The way that Mr Musk takes decisions also cuts across consensus.
Comparatively little research has been done on how CEOs make their choices, but a Harvard Business School working paper published in 2020 had a bash by asking 262 of the school’s own alumni how they went about making strategy.