Tesla executive shares insights on China's electric vehicle movement

Tom Zhu has gained expertise managing large international projects during his career—skills he now utilizes at Tesla Motors in China. He joined the company in early 2014 to lead the team that builds the network of car charging stations across the country. At the end of the year he was named general manager—assuming operational leadership of the company in China.

Prior to Tesla, he worked at Kaibo International, a construction project management firm, where he held several roles and ultimately led business development and the investment division of the company. In addition to East Asia he consulted on projects in Africa and New Zealand.

Zhu graduated from Fuqua's Daytime MBA program in 2012 and is also a member of Fuqua's East Asia Regional Advisory Board. He shared his industry and leadership insights in a Fuqua Q&A.

Tom Zhu, Daytime MBA 2012

Q) Can you provide some context on the Chinese automobile market that has seen unprecedented growth over the last 10 years?

The development of China’s car industry is closely related to China’s demand. In the last 10 years, China rapidly increased its rate of purchasing vehicles. To date, an inventory of 155 million private vehicles has been reached throughout the country, and that increases by 20 to 23 million each year. Therefore, China has already become the most important vehicle market in the world, both in terms of the import and domestic automotive brands—and the competition is white-hot.

Q) The Chinese government has embraced purchasing ’new energy‘ vehicles as a way to reduce energy dependence and address smog issues. How do you get the country’s population to embrace the vehicles?

The government, electric vehicle (EV) industry, and its companies should cooperate together to educate the market on the benefits of the cars.

At Tesla, we strive to make EVs more affordable, and the largest contribution that our company can make to the EV movement is to provide a solid product, matching customers’ tastes and the market’s demand. People like a product that solves a long, bothering problem, and if you produce a solid, high quality vehicle with a unique value then owners will spread their own personal experience and satisfaction to other people. We believe this is the best way to get consumers to embrace EVs and drive demand.

We want the public to realize that although at its very beginning the EV movement sounded like a laboratory experiment, nowadays it has become a viable product suited for the homes of consumers. Even more, it can become part of a person’s lifestyle.

Generally speaking, fully electronic cars will become mainstream, although there remain challenges to overcome. These include concerns associated with the infrastructure facilities needed to charge the cars (some people might have anxiety about how far the vehicles can go before they lose their charge and where they can find a charge station), customer’s recognition of EVs, and competition with traditional energy vehicles. I definitely believe in the next 10 to 20 years, or even sooner, new energy vehicles will become the mainstream.

Q) What kind of impact would be possible if and when the country begins to depend more heavily on electric vehicles?

The influences and impact will be all-encompassing. First, the energy structure will begin to change with an increased demand for electricity. Compared with fossil energy, electricity has the advantage of being cleaner, which can help alleviate issues of environmental pollution.

Second, it also changes people’s living habits. New technology brings us infinite possibilities, forming various sorts of synergies regarding vehicles: for example, communication between human and vehicle, communication between vehicles, and communication between infrastructure and vehicle. Those capabilities are inserted into an EV’s genes, generating faster responses that make transportation more convenient.

Third, the EV movement will have great influence on the future of the car industry. Once sustainable transportation is in demand on a large scale, there will be certain influences on the sustainable energy industry, causing it to move more quickly towards efforts to reduce energy consumption and labor costs. In other words, productivity will be improved, and at the same time the structure of the workforce will be optimized. The car industry will shift from a more traditional manufacturing model towards a skilled, technologically innovative industry.

Fourth, it also brings influence to policy and regulation. Tesla, for example, positions itself as a high-tech company rather than a traditional car manufacturer. We were founded in the highly innovative Silicon Valley of the U.S., and are technology-driven, producing EVs that present technological innovations.

The increased importance of technology in cars has lowered the requirements to enter the industry. This leads to more competition and innovation which will help the country go faster and further. An emphasis on technology and innovation will become more mainstream, and then affect people’s comprehension of innovation so that it generates potential creativity among the civilians in other industries and sectors. Indeed, I believe innovation can lead to a butterfly effect from a single product, to an industry, to a mindset throughout the whole country.

Tom Zhu and Tesla CEO Elon Musk
Tom Zhu with Tesla CEO Elon Musk

Q) Can you point to a specific moment in your career where you learned a valuable leadership lesson that you still implement today?

My previous experience at Kaibo was leading an interdisciplinary cross-cultural team, in a relatively tough environment in North Africa. During the procedure of finishing those difficult tasks, I gained lots of skills, such as communication, coordination and optimization.

Personally speaking, I feel like I am a tenacious person. No matter how hard the project is, I am determined to finish it. At that time, the resources were very limited, and we were given a very timely mission. The first thing that came into my mind was that I needed a team to finish this project—and a resilient one at that. Only if we complement and trust each other, could we accomplish that mission.

In addition to leading the team, it’s also important to provide enough space for the team to develop. Space to develop and room for promotion are different. My previous team and current Tesla team agree on this point that we don’t care so much about position titles, rather, we value whether each individual can provide an impact or not.

It is also important for leaders to always look to improve personal skills—this provides benefit in the future and helps move teams further toward their goals.

Last but not least, communication is the root of every success as well as every failure. We need to make information transparent and widespread in a team so that it can deliver maximum value. It is also of vital importance for leadership to eliminate misunderstandings and improve teamwork and efficiency.

Q) When managing large-scale international projects, the cultural differences of people from various regions of the world come into play. How have you found success cutting across these cultural divides in order to get the job done?

Cross-cultural and interdisciplinary teamwork is something I learned a lot about while a student at Fuqua, because the school’s culture would consciously push us to practice and implement those situations. I gained a lot from cooperating with people from different backgrounds and different mindsets, in the end reaching a consensus.

Many facets of cultural differences cannot be eliminated. Simply put, there is only one method to solve cultural differences, and that is to work toward accomplishing an agreed upon mission. It’s unrealistic to adjust everyone’s different backgrounds, work experiences and cultural experiences. In order to finish one common mission, everyone should make the necessary adjustments. Under the passion for and pressure of the mission, differences are no longer unresolvable problems.

Zhu was interviewed by Jingyi Wang, an MA in East Asian Studies student at Duke University and editor-in-chief of the Duke BlueDevil WeChat account.