Elon Musk Defies Management Mantras With His Rapid Overhaul at Twitter

In Elon Musk’s first week at Twitter Inc., he flouted much of the advice management gurus have dished out for decades.

The billionaire’s swift actions stand in contrast to those of many new leaders, who often use the first 90 days to meet with employees, listen to concerns and assess how to improve a company’s products before embarking on strategy shifts, executives and corporate consultants say.

“At a minimum, this is an untraditional approach,” said Joel Peterson, the former chairman of JetBlue Airways Corp.

, who has served on dozens of corporate boards and advised chief executives across industries. “It’s iconoclastic, it’s unusual, it’s not what everybody would do—but I don’t really fault him for it.”

Sweeping layoffs at Twitter have eliminated roughly half of the company’s workforce.


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Leonardo Munoz/VIEWPress/Getty Images

Mr. Musk—who once described himself to The Wall Street Journal as a “nano manager” steeped in the smallest details—appears to be employing many of the management tactics he has in building his other companies, Tesla Inc.

and Space Exploration Technologies Corp., executives and advisers say. Those include a hands-on obsession over product decisions, a distaste for corporate structures and a focus on speed. Tesla is now the world’s most-valuable car company, and SpaceX is the world’s busiest rocket-launch operation.

Management specialists have long said that the first few months of an executive’s tenure are critical, a time when corporate chiefs can plot their agenda and begin to reset a corporate culture. Well-known books on the subject, such as “You’re in Charge—Now What?” Say that new leaders should strike a balance, setting expectations internally and shaping their management team, while learning about the organization, too.

Peter Crist, chairman of Crist Kolder Associates, an executive-search firm, said new leaders typically spend the initial months looking to understand the talent within a company, learning employees’ strengths and weaknesses before making changes to staffing.

“Normally, a CEO from the outside coming in isn’t going to wipe the slate clean on the first day,” Mr. Crist said, adding that swift personnel changes can create uncertainty for the workers that remain. “There has to be both a stabilization of the enterprise model and importantly a stabilization of the talent, and it’s got to get done relatively soon,” he said.

Mr. Musk is hardly the first corporate iconoclast. He is also more than familiar with Twitter, having more than 100 million followers.

Twitter Purchased by Elon Musk: A Timeline of How It Happened

On top of that, he is acquiring a company that for years lagged behind its rivals in attracting users and generating revenue, and the industry broadly is facing a slowdown in growth and other challenges that have slashed the valuations of companies such as Facebook owner Meta Platforms Inc.

Some of Mr. Musk’s early actions struck corporate veterans as routine. He spent part of his week meeting with advertisers on video calls and in other settings, aiming to reassure customers that the platform remained a safe place for brands, the Journal reported. Several large advertisers, including General Mills Inc.

and Pfizer Inc.,

temporarily paused their advertising. Mr. Musk tweeted on Friday that Twitter had experienced a massive drop in revenue, which he said was due to “activist groups pressuring advertisers.”

Hubert Joly, former CEO of retailer Best Buy Co.

, said listening tours with customers and employees can be helpful in the initial period of engineering a turnaround. When Mr. Joly took the reins of Best Buy in 2012, he spent days in retail stores observing customer behavior and holding pizza meetings with staffers. In those gatherings, he asked three questions to employees: “’What’s working? What’s not working? What do you need?’” Mr. Joly said.

Elon Musk has purchased Twitter, ending a monthslong saga over whether or not he would go through with his offer to acquire the social media platform. WSJ takes an inside look at the tweets, texts and filings to see exactly how the battle played out. Illustration: Jordan Kranse

Mr. Joly said that while he wanted to act fast, he resisted the temptation to quickly close stores or cut head count, as some proposed, or to immediately impose his ideas on the organization without understanding the existing dynamics. “My job was easy: Show up, ask these questions, listen carefully, take notes, and do what I was told because they had all of the answers,” he said of employees.

Mr. Musk has solicited feedback from some Twitter users, including prominent ones. He asked the author Stephen King whether he would consider paying a price of $8 a month to have his account verified. Members of Mr. Musk’s team also polled Twitter users about a subscription feature.

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Twitter on Saturday said it has begun rolling out software updates to charge users $7.99 a month for its Twitter Blue subscription service, up from $4.99 currently. Subscribers get their accounts verified, a service that has been free and offers a blue check mark to notable accounts.

Mr. Musk has said in the past that he believes CEOs err when they allocate too much of their schedule to meetings, rather than focusing on refining a product. “Spend less time on finance, spend less time in conference rooms, less time on PowerPoint and more time just trying to make your product as amazing as possible,” he said in a Journal interview in 2020.

During an executive’s first few days at a company, though, leaders can become overwhelmed, advisers say. Some say it is important to focus on key strategic decisions, assemble a team and then delegate.

At an investment forum in New York on Friday, Mr. Musk said that after buying Twitter, he is now working 120 hours a week instead of his typical 70 or 80 hours. Still, he expected that to eventually change. “Once Twitter’s set on the right path, it’ll be much easier to manage than SpaceX or Tesla,” Mr. Musk said.

Write to Chip Cutter at chip.cutter@wsj.com

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