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Elon Musk has founded an interesting variety of companies since dropping out of the physics PhD program at Stanford. In the 1990s, he was among the first to see how the Internet could be used to distribute useful information (at Zip2) and pay for online sales (at PayPal). By the turn of the century, his vision was expanding and he founded SpaceX and Tesla, seeing a future with commercial spaceflights and electric cars. It’s been a long and not always smooth journey for those two companies.
Musk’s vision is undeniably critical, but sometimes the detailed work of building two vastly complicated companies has suffered. Look no further than Tesla’s struggles manufacturing its Model 3, in part owing to an over-reliance on robots–at Musk’s behest. “Humans are underrated,” the CEO was forced to admit this spring. His shoot-from-the-hip communications style, particularly on Twitter, has also been a source of distraction, or worse. And it’s thanks to some tweets that hadn’t, shall we say, secured the truth, that Musk had to step down as chairman of Tesla’s board this week. He remains CEO, despite joking recently that he’d give up all his titles and become “the Nothing of Tesla.”
Rumors were that it would be another visionary executive guy taking over the chairmanship: James Murdoch. But Tesla has gone in a very different direction. Instead, it named four-year board member Robyn Denholm, currently the CFO and head of strategy of Australian telecom carrier Telstra, as chair. Denholm was one of the first woman named to Tesla’s (TSLA) board and has had a long and varied career focused on what the folks at Harvard Business School like to call business process re-engineering. Before Telstra, she spent nine years at Juniper Networks, helping broaden the company’s focus from telecom to the cloud. Earlier, she headed strategic planning at Sun Microsystems and oversaw various financial functions at Toyota Motor’s Australian unit.
A nuts and bolts operations expert with a keen eye for finance, and even a little experience with traditional automotive manufacturing? Sounds nothing like Elon Musk. But it also sounds like a perfect complement to Elon Musk, if the pair can form a strong working bond à la Steve Jobs and Tim Cook (who was also brought in to help a voluble and visionary boss get his production lines in order). Yes, the regulators made him do it, but this may be yet another brilliant move by Musk to see what’s needed.
(This story was updated on Nov. 9 to correct that Robyn Denholm was not the first female board member of Tesla.)