What can HR professionals learn from Mary Barra and Elon Musk?

Actively seeking out feedback helps drive success for both leaders – but it can be hard to open yourself up to criticism. Sally Percy explores the benefits to business and shares tips on how to make it easier

On the face of it, Mary Barra and Elon Musk don’t have much in common. Other than both being the leaders of major automotive companies, that is. As chief executive of Detroit-based General Motors, Barra is known for her quietly assertive, empathetic and measured leadership style. On the other hand, South African-born Musk, who has led electric car maker Tesla since 2008, comes across as brash, intolerant and unpredictable. In fact, his seemingly chaotic approach to management is one of the reasons he’s rarely out of the news. 

Scratch beneath the surface, however, and Barra and Musk have more in common than you might think. One clear commonality is they are both strongly committed to an ‘all electric’ future when it comes to cars. General Motors, which boasts iconic marques including Cadillac and Chevrolet, plans to completely phase out vehicles that use internal combustion engines by 2035. Tesla is already a renowned pioneer in the electric car space.

Different, but similar? 

As well as pursuing similar business strategies, Barr and Musk share some important personal traits. First, they are both very hardworking. Barra is an advocate of the philosophy ‘Hard work beats talent when talent doesn’t work hard’ while Musk is an open workaholic, who once said of working for his businesses: “There are way easier places to work, but nobody ever changed the world on 40 hours a week.” 

The two leaders also take a lot of interest in the nuts and bolts of their companies, fearlessly wrestle with major challenges and are great visionaries with a long-term perspective. There is also another important trait that Barra and Musk have in common – a trait that doesn’t necessarily come naturally to leaders, especially as they rise within their organisations. This is the willingness to actively seek out feedback from others.

The power of feedback

Leaders should seek feedback for many reasons. Obviously, there’s nothing like the morale boost that comes with a pat on the back for a job well done. We all get a buzz when we do things right – and that buzz can spur us on to achieve even greater things.

Even more importantly, however, feedback can help us to understand what we’re getting wrong so that we can enhance our own performance as individuals, as well as the performance of our broader team. By seeking constructive feedback, we get insights that we can learn from and build on. In turn, the process of seeking feedback will enable us to create more open communication channels with others while improving our self awareness.

Barra believes that everyone, regardless of their seniority or their role within an organisation, has the capacity to improve. That’s why she has described feedback as a ‘gift’ and regularly asks for feedback from the General Motors board of directors, as well as her team. 

Musk also values feedback highly. “Constantly seek out criticism,” he has said. “A well thought-out critique of whatever you’re doing is as valuable as gold. You should seek that from everyone you can, but particularly your friends.” Going a step further, he even recommended that people believe they are wrong from the outset, explaining: “Your goal is to be less wrong.”

Significantly, Musk exposes himself to criticism via social media platform X, which he bought in October 2022, when it was still known as Twitter. A couple of months after buying Twitter, he launched a poll on the site, asking whether he should quit as CEO. More than 17.5 million votes were cast, with 57.5 per cent in favour of him stepping down.

Later, Musk acted on the findings of the poll and appointed US media executive Linda Yaccarino as chief executive of X, while he transitioned to the roles of executive chair and chief technology officer. While it’s likely that he had always planned to step back from the CEO role, he potentially used the findings of the poll to confirm this would be the right decision.

Few leaders would be brave enough to submit themselves to public scrutiny in the way that Musk does. But it takes bravery to open yourself up to any kind of criticism. So, what can leaders do to make the process of seeking feedback easier on themselves?

How to seek feedback

First, think about what you would like to gain from the feedback process; what are the specific areas of your performance that you want feedback on? Then prepare some meaningful, open-ended questions in advance such as: ‘How can I get better at…?’ In doing so, you are acknowledging your own need to improve and giving the other person permission to be honest in their response.

When seeking feedback, think about using the ‘stop’, ‘start’ and ‘continue’ approach – where you ask people which things you should stop doing, which things you should start doing that you aren’t doing now, and which things you are doing well and should continue doing. This approach allows the people giving feedback to share both positive and negative views in an environment of psychological safety.

Finally, be ready to respond to whatever feedback you get with a positive, open mind. The people whose feedback you seek will ultimately want to help you and will feel flattered at being asked. And remember the important lesson that both Barra and Musk know: a willingness to listen to and act on feedback is one of the secrets to success. 

Sally Percy is a business journalist and editor, specialising in leadership and management. She is also author of 21st Century Business Icons