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What Elon Musk could be looking for in a Twitter CEO

In launching a search for new chief executive of Twitter, Elon Musk has not exactly made the job sound appealing. After a poll of Twitter’s own users called for the entrepreneur to step down as CEO, he tweeted that anyone “foolish enough to take the job” will “have to like pain a lot”.

Yet it is his own rampage through Twitter in the eight weeks since he bought it that has done much to account for the challenges his successor will face: a traumatised and shrunken workforce, defecting advertisers, polarised and angry users, and politicians and competitors scenting blood.

One Twitter co-investor and loyalist predicts that Musk’s savage cost-cutting will prove to be a beneficial shock to the system, clearing the way for a new company culture. But it has also left Twitter wounded and increased the risk it will struggle with essential functions, like maintaining its technical infrastructure.

The savage retrenchment will at least leave the new CEO with a degree of financial stability, if Musk is to be believed. He claimed this week that the swingeing job cuts will bring Twitter’s finances into balance again, despite projected revenue of only $3bn next year — 40 per cent below its last year as a public company. Yet it is hard to escape the conclusion that, in trying to save the village, he has come perilously close to burning it to the ground.

This will put the next CEO in a very different position to the leaders Musk has elevated at his other companies. Those businesses were built from the ground up around lofty missions that involved grand engineering challenges such as building electric vehicles or space rockets.

That has defined the archetypical Musk lieutenant: technically accomplished, rising to the top through an engineering-led organisation where speed of action is paramount. To all outside appearances, they are intensely loyal and never likely to challenge the boss on the big issues or steal too much of the limelight. Typical of the breed is Gwynne Shotwell, an aerospace executive who joined SpaceX in 2002, the year Musk founded it, and rose through the ranks to become president and chief operating officer.

There are important differences at Twitter. One is that Musk has said he is looking for a CEO, a title he has kept for himself at Tesla and SpaceX. That suggests he wants to hand over more responsibility for rebuilding the organisation, from staffing to repairing relations with advertisers — though he seems unlikely to cede all control over the company’s content policies.

That might point to a CEO with social media experience and a strong business record — one reason, perhaps inevitably, that the name of former Facebook number two Sheryl Sandberg has been widely touted. But after bowing out of one highly successful social media career at the top, Sandberg seems an unlikely person to sign up for Musk’s Trumpian antics at Twitter.

Others who are closer to Musk’s way of thinking — and who have already had a hand in his Twitter overhaul — include David Sacks, who once headed business social network Yammer, and investors Jason Calacanis and Sriram Krishnan.

Yet if Musk’s reason for buying Twitter was to defend freedom of speech and fight back against “woke” culture, he has also toyed with an engineering challenge that could makes Twitter more similar to his other companies. Musk has mused about trying to turn it into an “everything app”, something that would fulfil many of its users’ daily needs in one place.

Adding payments is a first step — a reason that speculation has fallen on executives including Sarah Friar, head of social app Nextdoor and a former chief financial officer at Jack Dorsey’s payments company, Bloc; or David Marcus, a former PayPal executive who at one point headed Facebook’s cryptocurrency. Neither, however, has the strong engineering background that would make them obvious fit for one of Musk’s companies.

One person who might fit the bill, according to growth stock investor Cathie Wood, is Bret Taylor, the former Twitter chair who recently stepped down as co-CEO of Salesforce and has held key jobs in the past at Google and Facebook. His steady and unflappable demeanour might also present a balance to the hot-headed Musk.

Whether he — or any other potential candidate — would want to throw their lot in with the mercurial Musk is impossible to predict. But with one of Silicon Valley’s most prominent jobs up for grabs, there is likely to be no shortage of willing candidates.

richard.waters@ft.com


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