Elon Musk is CEO of SpaceX.
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Elon Musk expects total commitment from employees at all his companies.Walter Isaacson’s new biography reveals how Musk pushed some SpaceX staff to the limit. Several employees shared their stories about the pressure of meeting Musk’s demands.
A number of former SpaceX employees told Walter Isaacson about the impact of Elon Musk’s management style for his new biography.
Elon Musk is known for his intense and unrelenting attitude to work, and for expecting the same from his employees. Musk’s management style allows him to “move faster, take more risks, break rules, and question requirements”, Isaacson writes in his biography published this week.
He’s made impressive accomplishments using that approach, such as sending humans into space and orbit and building the world’s most successful EV maker. But Musk’s “demon mode” has consequences for his employees.
“A cloud comes over and he gets into a trance and he can just be tough in a cold way,” Isaacson told The Wall Street Journal.
One engineer, Kiko Dontchev, described how having just returned home to his wife after working three days straight, he was told Musk wanted him back at the hangar.
Despite having started on a bottle of wine, risking the wrath of his boss was not an option, he told Isaacson: “I worried about getting pulled over for drunk driving, but that seemed less of a risk than ignoring Elon.”
In several cases the brutal management style and intense expectations of the SpaceX CEO prompted employees to quit.
Employees of SpaceX work on the Crew Dragon reusable spacecraft.
Lucas Hughes started as a financial analyst at SpaceX in August 2021. He had recently lost his first child when he was called into a meeting with Musk.
When Hughes did not have all the component costs of a new engine part to hand, Musk told him in a emotionless monotone, “you better be fucking sure in the future you know these things off the top of your head,” Isaacson writes. “If you don’t improve, your resignation will be accepted.”
By the end of the next day they had a roadmap to reduce the engine costs from $2 million to $200,000 in 12 months.
However, Hughes left SpaceX in May 2022. “You definitely realise that you’re a tool being used to achieve this larger objective and that’s great. But sometimes, tools get worn down and [Musk] feels he can just replace that tool,” Hughes told Isaacson.
It’s a lesson that even senior employees at SpaceX have had to learn. “I learned never to tell him no,” Tom Mueller, former propulsion chief at SpaceX, said of Musk in the biography.
“I give people hardcore feedback, mostly accurate, and I try not to do it in a way that’s ad hominen,” Musk said when Isaacson asked if he was too harsh with employees. “I try to criticize the action, not the person.”
“Physics does not care about hurt feelings. It cares about whether you got the rocket right,” he told Isaacson.