Workplace Spotlight: The Challenge of Maintaining Tesla's Mission-Driven Culture

Ross Brooks
Workplace Spotlight: The Challenge of Maintaining Tesla's Mission-Driven Culture

There is a lot to learn about company culture from Tesla, which might have room for improvement in important areas like workload and reward, but outshines the competition when it comes to creating meaningful work. A strong focus on sustainability and building a better future attracts some of the world’s best talent, but keeping people for the long-term requires more than a good mission statement.

“It’s exciting working for a company that wants to change the world! There’s a lot of people who have the same goals – and that’s inspiring.” So says one happy Glassdoor reviewer of the American multinational.

Established in 2003, Tesla, which designs and builds electric vehicles, energy storage and solar panels, is a company of extraordinary forward-thinking vision. Named in honour of pioneering physicist Nikola Tesla, the company is best known for its plug-in electric cars such as the Roadster and Model S.

Founding Story

While the face of the charismatic and visionary PayPal cofounder, Elon Musk, is a big part of the Tesla public image, in reality, the seeds of the company had been planted long before Musk came on the scene. These seeds were sewn by two engineers, Martin Eberhard and Marc Tarpenning.

According to Business Insider, the idea of an electric car came to Eberhard after his divorce in 2000. “I was thinking that I should do what every guy does and buy a sports car”, he said in an interview, “[but] I couldn’t bring myself to buy a car that got 18 miles to the gallon at a time when wars in the Middle East seemed to somehow involve oil and the arguments for global warming were becoming undeniable.”

In 2001, Tarpenning and Eberhard went to see Musk speak at a Mars Society conference at Stanford. They introduced themselves, and the partnership was born. Musk helped Tesla take off when he invested $6.3 million in 2004.

Company Mission

Tesla passionately believes that electric vehicles are better, quicker and more fun to drive than their fossil-fuelled counterparts – and it’s aiming for greater accessibility and affordability to achieve its mission. That mission? To “accelerate the world’s transition to sustainable energy”.

Tesla is still a relatively young company that doesn’t turn a huge profit – and neither does it offer a bundle of benefits, nor sky-high salary packages to attract talent. Instead, it relies on recruiting people who genuinely believe in its mission – of which there are many. Last year, the company received half a million CVs and applications. Chief People Officer Gaby Toledano says: “We attract people who believe in what we are doing… [because] we are mission-driven and we’re making history.”

Employees at Tesla's company headquarters

For those with a true interest in Tesla’s world-changing mission, the common goal results in engaged employees who are fiercely loyal. Famously, Musk wrote in 2015 that “If you don’t make it in Tesla, you go work at Apple.” Tesla Product Specialist, Victoria Dahany, who turned down a post with Apple, explained the car manufacturer’s appeal to Forbes: “There’s free cereal [at Tesla] and that’s it. It isn’t trying to attract talent with free stuff or benefits, it attracts talent through its core belief: are you crazy enough to change the world with us?”

Core Values

Tesla’s values are fuelled by its groundbreaking mission: sustainability through innovation. For many employees, the fast-paced nature of being at the forefront of technology is the main draw. People who thrive on being stimulated are engaged by the constant new challenges. On the other hand, for those who really believe in global sustainability, being a direct part of this environmental enterprise is enough. By continually emphasising Tesla’s mission, the team is rewarded by the knowledge that it’s playing a part in reshaping green technology.

However, innovation sometimes comes at a price. Over 180 Glassdoor reviews mention poor work-life balance and a further 160 talk about long hours (“the rumours are true. You will work TREMENDOUSLY hard”). Another recurring comment is around how strategies and processes are constantly changing, and communication isn’t always good – possibly a side effect of working for an innovative tech leader.

Tesla engineers working on a car

In the restructuring memo sent to Tesla employees on 14 May, Musk wrote: “…we are flattening the management structure to improve communication, combining functions where sensible and trimming activities that are not vital to the success of our mission.” If the Board has listened to the feedback on communication, that’s a motivating response for the Tesla team.

So, what can we learn from Tesla?

As Cindy Nicola, Tesla’s vice president of global recruiting, says: “everyone should just apply”

Have an open recruitment strategy. By taking this approach, the door isn’t closed to talented but inexperienced workers. For a ready-engaged workforce, keep organisational fit at the front of your mind throughout the recruitment process

According to Glassdoor, Tesla isn’t always transparent about its expectations of its employees

Learn from the company’s mistakes. Always be honest about the company culture to applicants, so you can manage expectations to avoid disappointment. For example, if the average day is fast-paced with high pressure, make this clear in the interview process, while highlighting the benefits. Or, if you claim to embrace diversity, ask yourself: does the actual work reflect this?

Company culture isn’t static

However strong and clear your company’s mission is, don’t assume that it won’t need to be changed. Culture changes with time, and the forthcoming restructure could see a shakeup to the way Tesla works. Even if your employees have high job satisfaction and you have a strong company mission, it’s crucial not to become complacent. Make sure you regularly review your organisation’s culture by requesting – and listening to – your employees’ feedback.

Make any adjustments you need to

With its no-frills package and emphasis on intrinsic motivation through a shared vision, Tesla demonstrates how a rich and rewarding workplace is engaging in itself. If your company’s still starting out and you really can’t afford perks or benefits, think about how else you can engage your employees. Will they be promoted quickly? Will their voices be heard, regardless of their experience? How is your culture better than your competitors? As employees realise it’s worthwhile sacrificing perks like free food for quick progression and career development, their levels of loyalty, motivation and commitment will increase.

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