How the new Tesla chairman Robyn Denholm thinks about leadership and risk-taking

Elon Musk has a new boss, and she has strong views about technology, risk-taking and leadership.

Tesla announced on Wednesday night that Australian telecom executive and chair of Tesla’s audit committee Robyn Denholm will take over from Elon Musk as chair of the company. Musk agreed to surrender the position for three years in his settlement with the SEC over fraud allegations.

Denholm is from Australia, and has worked for Toyota, Sun Microsystems, Juniper Networks and Telstra. She was promoted from COO to CFO and head of strategy at Telstra, Australia’s largest telecommunications company, earlier this year. She will depart from the company in six months to focus on her new gig at Tesla full-time.

She has been on the board since 2014 so is not a true outsider pick for chairman, but Denholm is expected to serve as a counterbalance to Musk.

Over the years, in print and video interviews and articles she has penned, Denholm has covered many topics. Here are five of the most interesting and relevant views she has expressed as she takes on two roles — reining in Elon Musk, and helping to run one of the most closely followed public companies in the world.

Denholm, 54, graduated from the University of Sydney with a degree in economics, and she went back to school later to get her master’s in commerce from the University of New South Wales in Australia.

Denholm is passionate about mentoring and cultivating talent in young people, and her alma mater, UNSW, has even started a scholarship for underprivileged women in technology named after her.

“Even before I knew it was called mentoring I used to spend a lot of time with people that were up-and-coming talent within the various organizations that I’ve worked with,” she said in a television interview.

“Fostering a community of peers is one of the most important things a mentor can do. Get people together and they can solve anything, whether they’re male or female. Mentoring the next generation of CFOs is the primary responsibility,” she told the Australian in 2016.

Denholm has spoken repeatedly over the years about the value of diversity in business.

“I think having people from diverse backgrounds, diverse genders, really adds to the fabric of how you solve problems and actually take advantage of opportunities,” she said in a Telstra video blog.

“I came up through the ranks at a time when there were very few women leaders. Most of my mentors were men,” Denholm said in the interview with the Australian. “A lot of people, and it’s valid, talk about gender diversity and ethnic diversity, but to me the root of all of that is actually how people think and the experiences they’ve had. … I don’t care what people look like. If everybody thinks the same way they won’t create the next wave of innovation. They need differences of opinion and differences in life experiences.”

“Having diverse experience and being able to share that diversity of thought is very helpful when you are sitting around the table working through challenges or toward opportunities,” she said in a Russell Reynolds Associates report on the perspective of female board members. “Having dissimilarities makes for more robust conversations and probing questions.”

Although she’s not one for extreme risks, Denholm said she likes to push the envelope.

“I don’t jump out of planes or bungy jump or any of that stuff, but I do take professional risks,” she said in an online interview. “You make the best decisions you can with all the information you have — and you have to move quickly. You’re not pushing hard enough if you never make mistakes.”

One example of a risk that paid off was when Sun Microsystems convinced her to move to Colorado in 2001 with her two children. She spoke in interviews about how it was a difficult transition at the beginning, but she has ultimately been happy with the decision.

“A global career is something I recommend to my children because it makes you a better executive and a better human being,” she wrote in a reflection for the Australian Financial Review.

“I believe that you have one life, you need to live it to the fullest. My philosophy is to be clear about what matters most to you and integrate the things that you love to get the most out of life. I love my family first and foremost and I love my work, and so my family plays an important role in my career – they know what I am doing at work and support me in what I am trying to achieve,” she told the Australian edition of Vogue last summer.

“I also put a lot of effort into being present when I’m at home. That means being focused, in the moment, not thinking about work all the time. At work, I try to do the same thing. The best advice I was ever given was to be very thoughtful and focused about where you spend your time, both at home and work and once you have made your choices about how to spend your time get on with it and don’t fret about them,” she said.

Tesla is among the most-shorted stocks in the U.S., and has a high level of debt, and ever after a profitable quarter has never been able to sustain profitability. Critics say that it needs to develop its manufacturing and logistical capabilities greatly before it will ever live up to the hype of its hefty stock price.

Denholm spoke about business transformation in a March video interview.

“I think that transformation sometimes is an overused word, but to me, actually, changing the way a business is performing, whether its from an industry perspective or whether it’s just the next phase of the company’s journey, is a very important skill set,” Denholm said. “To me, it always starts with the people. Where are we, from a business perspective? What’s the strategy that we’re trying to invoke? And then making sure that people understand where the company is trying to go and what the necessity is from a transformation perspective. And so, I think that’s a core ingredient and then being very clear. So strategy, people and then making sure that people understand the technology roadmap and what the business processes are that you’re trying to transform to achieve all that.”

“I think you’re never done transforming,” she added later in the interview. “So, it’s one of those things that you start on a particular path and then at some point you’ve finished that section of the road, if you like, and then you’re actually moving on to the next section where you’re transforming.”

—Edward McKinley, special to

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