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Tesla Gives Execs Rare Taste of the Spotlight

June 1, 2016, 11:06 PM UTC
Canadian International AutoShow
Tesla Model X is shown at the 2016 Canadian International Autoshow in Toronto on Thursday, Feb. 11, 2016. (Nathan Denette/The Canadian Press via AP) MANDATORY CREDIT
Nathan Denette — AP

This week, electric car company Tesla did something quite rare for the Silicon Valley auto darling—but quite common for many other tech companies: It showed off a group of executives who have worked at the company for years on a variety of projects.

The move could represent a warmer Tesla that’s willing to publicly embrace its notoriously hard-working employees and a maturing company that will one day have to look beyond its spotlight-friendly leader CEO Elon Musk.

On Tuesday afternoon at Tesla’s shareholder’s meeting, Musk and chief technology officer JB Straubel welcomed onstage engineers who have worked at Tesla for a decade in many cases, thanked them for their hard work, and asked them to share stories. At the end of Musk and Straubel’s prepared remarks, dozens of execs who have worked at Tesla since its early days in near obscurity, at least to the public, joined the two onstage.

Musk addressed the team and said: “thanks for the late nights and weekend. It’s been an honor working with you.”

It was the first time that many Tesla-watchers had seen most of these loyal hands who have spent years working on crucial technology that powers Tesla (TSLA) cars. The company’s engineers spoke about reworking battery packs, deliberating over car designs, trouble-shooting sensors, and writing software systems.

One of the engineers was VP of Technology Drew Baglino, who has worked for Tesla for 12 years, and who discussed how hard it was to reproduce the original electric car tech from startup AC Propulsion into Tesla’s Roadster car. Another executive was Colette Bridgman, Tesla’s Global Director of Marketing, who’s been with the company almost a decade and who described a “frat house” type of atmosphere at Tesla in the early days.

For more on Tesla’s Model X watch our video.

More often than not, the only person who speaks publicly for Tesla is Musk, with far less frequent appearances by Straubel and Tesla’s VP of business development Diarmuid O’Connell. Most of the time, Tesla’s external communications are a one-man Musk show.

But Tesla’s new willingness to put its loyal execs in the spotlight could signal a few things for the battery innovator.

First, Tesla could be putting on a friendlier face to attract and retain talent. The company needs to hire new workers as it embarks on new initiatives like its upcoming Model 3 car, and its battery factory under construction outside of Reno, Nev.

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Tesla has always been an exciting and attractive place to work—partly because of its electric car mission—but it’s also notorious for its brutal hours and Musk’s difficult management style. A study earlier this year found that Tesla employees considered their work highly meaningful, but also highly stressful. In addition, that study found that Tesla employees received comparatively lower pay than other tech companies in Silicon Valley.

A biography written about Musk, by Bloomberg Businessweek writer Ashlee Vance, included a number of descriptions of some difficult times at Tesla during which Mush pushed loyal employees to and beyond their limits. Musk refuted one example in the book in which a former employee had said he was chided for missing work for the birth of his son.

Many in Tesla’s key management team have left or been pushed out over the years, some abruptly leaving amid projects, and others opting for early retirement. Last month, Bloomberg reported that five of Tesla’s vice presidents had left within the last three months, following problems with development of the Model X, an electric SUV.

Showing public appreciation for dedicated employees could be one way that Tesla could be trying to curb that image of being a harsh (albeit meaningful) place to work.

Tesla is also maturing as a company. It’s grown rapidly over the years from 3,000 employees at the end of 2012, to more than 13,000 at the end of 2015.

For a company that large, it’s unusual that so few people on management team would be publicly unknown.

Musk, who co-founded the company in 2003, has been spending long hours at Tesla for 13 years now. While running Tesla he also runs rocket company SpaceX.

In the same way that Apple (AAPL) had to learn to operate without Steve Jobs, Tesla will have to one day manage without Musk. It will be massively difficult shoes to fill considering that Musk works so intensely that he’s been known to spend the night in a sleeping bag on the factory floor, and is also willing to spend millions of his own dollars on the company.

At this point it’s hard to picture anyone at Tesla who could take over in a post-Musk era. Straubel is clearly his No. 2, but at this point to me he seems more like a technology genius instead of business leader. Don’t expect Musk to voluntarily leave for years to come, though, at least until after the Model 3 is shipped and the battery factory, known as the Gigafactory, is built. Barring unforeseen health problems, he’s likely there until at least 2020.

Highlighting longtime employees could be one way Tesla has to identify its future leaders.

In addition, a maturing Tesla that’s entering a new phase—though one which could be as crazy as its early days—is at a turning point and at a time of reflection. The company survived the Model X problems, just raised hundreds of millions of dollars, and pulled off what some have called one of the biggest product launches in history with its Model 3.

Musk said during the shareholder meeting that he’s more fired up than ever before to lead Tesla through this new phase. No doubt Musk’s show of appreciation for his employees is also genuine appreciation for all they’ve been through. And all they’re about to go through.