Tesla's Elon Musk Needs to Find His Mary Barra

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Tesla is at a critical intersection, losing people at an alarming rate as it attempts to perfect mass production.

Tesla is at a critical intersection, losing people at an alarming rate as it attempts to perfect mass production.


Photo:

David Paul Morris/Bloomberg News

I’m not going to win any popularity contests criticizing

Elon Musk’s

recent efforts to aid the rescue of a dozen young soccer players in Thailand. Like a real-life

Tony Stark,

​the entrepreneur and father of five boys commissioned engineers to work up a kiddie submarine and then delivered it to Tham Luang cave where the boys were trapped.

In the end, the boys didn’t need the Musk MiniSub. And back at his own business empire, Mr. Musk is spread alarmingly thin.

His electric car company,

Tesla
Inc.,


TSLA -0.40%

is at a critical intersection, losing key people at a time when Mr. Musk is attempting to perfect the mass production of its Model 3. The ​car could save Tesla, or trigger its demise. Mr. Musk has piled on debt as he struggled with production, and unless those wundercars start reliably rolling off the assembly line soon, the company could find itself unable to pay down debt or keep pace with the luxury cars brands finally launching competing models.

With obligations mounting, Mr. Musk makes it a habit of sleeping at Tesla’s factories so he can constantly monitor progress or put out fires. It’s time for Mr. Musk to take an even bolder step.

America’s great entrepreneurs​ have a tradition of hiring strong operating executives to help realize their vision. It’s what Google Inc. did in hiring

Eric Schmidt,

or

Facebook
Inc.

did with

Sheryl Sandberg.

Mr. Musk himself long ago handed day-to-day control of his SpaceX ​rocket venture ​to

Gwynn Shotwell,

an industry veteran who eventually became president and chief operating officer.

Tesla needs someone with experience managing a big industrial company through crisis and preparing it for dramatic change. He needs someone who knows cars. The best candidate is someone who recently told a group of Wharton M.B.A. students: “Sometimes the most urgent is not always the most important.”

Mary Barra climbed the ladder at GM by being both humble and focused.Bloomberg News

Mary Barra climbed the ladder at GM by being both humble and focused.Bloomberg News


Photo:

Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg News

That was

Mary Barra,

chief executive of

General Motors
Co.


GM -0.31%

Starting at the company in 1980 as a co-op student at the now-defunct Pontiac division, she spent nearly four decades climbing the ladder at GM by being as humble as she is focused. She’s managed factories, overseen human resources and headed product development.

America got to know her during congressional hearings in 2014, when as a newly minted CEO she took intense heat for an ignition-switch safety crisis that dated back to decisions made several years and several chief executives before her administration. She’s since made several tough moves to shrink GM’s sprawling footprint, including pulling the plug on a European business mired in red ink.

One of her more recent ventures, the 2016 acquisition of Silicon Valley driverless car company Cruise Automation, now looks very smart. Recent valuations suggest the unit is now worth $11.5 billion, according to RBC Capital Markets. The firm forecasts that number growing to $43 billion when it is fully integrated into GM’s mass-market electric car fleet.

Mary Barra’s name showing up on a Tesla business card is a far-fetched idea. But shoring up Tesla would represent an opportunity for Ms. Barra to cement her legacy in a car business that she believes will change more in the next five years than it has in the past 50.

Tesla, meanwhile, has people jumping off the boat at an abnormally high rate. The recent departure of the company’s well-regarded engineering chief,

Doug Field,

is part of a broader exodus that has claimed at least 50 vice presidents or higher-ranking executives over the past 24 months.

“Elon has created enormous value,” investor

John Anderson

told me Wednesday. “But he does need more bench strength.”

Mr. Anderson oversees sizable Tesla holdings at investment manager Baillie Gifford. An admirer of Mr. Musk with no plans to sell, Mr. Anderson said “this is about execution and whether you’ve got enough people to get the execution right.”

Mr. Musk has little love for veterans of GM. The company has been the leading adversary of Mr. Musk in the fight against Tesla’s efforts to sell ​directly to customers without the use of the independent dealers that are legally mandated for auto makers.

Ms. Barra, meanwhile, has shown no interest in leaving her post. A spokesman said Ms. Barra is committed to GM and “transforming the company.”

​For Ms. Barra, one of America’s marquee CEOs, going to work for Mr. ​Musk could be considered a step down. But​ it would also be a step forward. The type of disruption the staid car business needs is woven through Tesla’s DNA. It​ just needs someone to help steer it in the right direction.

Write to John D. Stoll at john.stoll@wsj.com