I think Elon Musk made a mistake leaving President Trump’s Advisory Board and, in doing so, created a teachable moment.
I sit on a number of advisory boards and one of the things you have to get through your head is that, on an advisory board, you get influence but you don’t operational power. You don’t get a ton of influence up front either, largely because the executive(s) you are influencing don’t know whether they can trust you yet and they have far more folks trying to influence them whom they see more often and know more deeply than they know you. But, if you know how to work an advisory board, you can gain a lot of influence over time and make a difference. If you quit the board in a huff because you aren’t being listened to, not only will you lose whatever influence you might have, but the executives might take it personally, meaning they may move against your earlier advice more aggressively to prove you wrong.
This is just one of the reasons why I think Musk’s departure from Trump’s advisory board was short-sighted and strategically stupid. I expect it will work against several of his companies and his overall goal to help the environment.
Living as an Influencer
One of the few skills a successful analyst has to master is living as an influencer, and it goes against almost everything you’ve likely been taught working for a company that builds stuff. While this may seem easy, it isn’t.
There are a number of painful aspects to this. First, if your advice is ignored, it is hard not to take it personally. The more powerful you are, the more it feels like the person you are advising is disrespecting you if they don’t heed your wisdom. You have to learn to suck it up because the executives own the decision and will be held accountable for it, so it remains theirs to make. If you could do their job, you’d likely have it.
Second, you have to swallow the need to say in some form or other, “I told you so,” largely because this doesn’t endear you to the executive and will likely just piss them off. If you were unable to convince them to avoid a mistake you saw coming, part of the fault is yours for not being as convincing as you needed to be.
Third, you don’t get credit if things go right. This is often one of the hardest parts to deal with, but the credit for a good decision generally goes to the decision maker. You know you helped, and so likely will some of your co-workers, but even though it was your idea, the person that executes gets the credit.
Fourth, you have to get into the head of the decision maker before providing your advice or you are likely to give bad advice they can’t or won’t execute. There are limits to what any executive can do and firms are bound by policies, external and internal limitations, and personnel capabilities. If you understand this, you can provide advice that the firm is more likely to be able to execute and more likely to execute.
Finally, building influence takes time, often years. You build up rapport with the decision maker over time so they are more likely to listen to you and trust what you have to say. You have to do this partially by providing more praise than criticism initially. Once you’ve done that, you have a chance of making a difference. But if you don’t do the groundwork, you’ll never get the influence.
Wrapping Up: Musk’s Mistake
Musk has three businesses with potential revenue ties to the government: Space X, which launches things into space, often government satellites; Tesla, living largely off of government subsidies, which are slated to go away; and the Hyperloop Train, which needs serious government backing if it is ever to go anyplace in the U.S. In short, Musk likely needs Trump more than Trump needs Musk. The danger of Musk departing is this fashion is that Trump now is more likely to move against Musk’s interests than to support them. At this point, Musk would have likely been better off not getting on Trump’s council in the first place.
In the end, this is the best advice. If you can’t accept the limitations of an advisory council and you aren’t able to work through building influence, then joining one is not only a waste of your time but you could end up doing more damage to efforts you care about than good.
Rob Enderle is President and Principal Analyst of the Enderle Group, a forward-looking emerging technology advisory firm. With over 30 years’ experience in emerging technologies, he has provided regional and global companies with guidance in how to better target customer needs; create new business opportunities; anticipate technology changes; select vendors and products; and present their products in the best possible light. Rob covers the technology industry broadly. Before founding the Enderle Group, Rob was the Senior Research Fellow for Forrester Research and the Giga Information Group, and held senior positions at IBM and ROLM. Follow Rob on Twitter @enderle, on Facebook and on Google+