Former Tesla employees reveal what it's like to work with Elon Musk

Rashid Umar Abbasi / ReutersTesla CEO Elon Musk.

Tesla CEO Elon Musk is a complicated figure.

This year, he has both been named the most inspiring leader in the tech industry and fallen from Glassdoor’s ranking of the top 100 CEOs (which is based on employee feedback).

People who have worked with Musk have given similarly diverging accounts to Business Insider and other publications, saying Musk can be both brilliant and temperamental.

Nine former Tesla employees who worked with Musk or interacted with him on multiple occasions shared their impressions of him. (Eight requested anonymity for fear of reprisal from the electric-car maker.)

Here’s what they said.

Are you a current or former Tesla employee? Do you have an opinion about what it’s like to work there? Contact this reporter at [email protected].

Some employees were afraid of him.

REUTERS/Brendan McDermid/File Photo

Two former senior-level employees said people were scared to tell Musk they disagreed with him.

“Because of the pressure that he puts on his entire executive team, his senior leadership team, even if they have the experience, they wouldn’t dare speak up against him,” one of the former employees said.

A former manager who was on several phone calls with Musk last year said he believed Musk never learned his name – which he liked, because when someone’s name came up for the first time during a conference call, that person would often leave the company shortly thereafter.

He’s very smart.

John Raoux/AP Images

Multiple employees who worked or interacted with Musk noted his intelligence.

“He’s highly intelligent. He’s already 10 steps ahead of you,” a former manager said. “You have to think 10 times more audacious than he does to be able to be successful.”

If Musk liked your idea, he wouldn’t hesitate to put it into action, the former manager added.

He makes his employees better.

Patrick Fallon / Reuters

A former senior-level employee said that 90% of the time he disagreed with Musk, he later realised Musk was right.

“I feel like I’m 10 times smarter now than when I first joined,” he said.

Read more:
9 ex-Tesla employees reveal the best parts of working there

He’s very responsive to social media.

Rich Pedroncelli / Associated Press

Two former senior-level employees said Musk wouldn’t hesitate to change a team’s priorities if a customer’s social-media post caught his eye.

“What ultimately triggers him to act and make a decision is what he reads on social media,” one of the former employees said. “When you’re in a business meeting with him, he will pivot the direction of the organisation literally overnight. So manufacturing could be a problem today, and as soon as it stops being reported on social media, as soon as it stops being reported in the news, then he’ll move on to whatever the news is claiming the new problem is.”

He didn’t always give senior-level employees a lot of autonomy.

Mark Brake / Getty Images

Three former senior-level employees said Musk didn’t give his senior leadership team much autonomy to make decisions.

“I think the level of autonomy that folks tend to have is nearly zero,” one of the former employees said.

“There was only one decision-maker at Tesla, and it’s Elon Musk,” another former employee said.

He has very high standards.

REUTERS/Mike Blake

A former manufacturing engineer said Musk had very high standards, which could lead him to discard someone’s work and tell them to start over.

The former Tesla engineer said Musk sometimes took that impulse too far, increasing costs and reducing efficiency, but the quality of Tesla’s vehicles is a testament to Musk’s perfectionism.

“Tesla is an engineer’s paradise where the pencil is literally never down,” the former Tesla engineer said.

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He can set unrealistic goals.

David McNew/AFP/Getty Images

A former manager said Musk would sometimes set “unrealistic stretch targets without a realistic plan in order to achieve them.”

“It’s a culture in which if you don’t have a solution to a problem and you don’t have that problem resolved within a few days or a week or two, you’re gone,” the former manager said. “So it’s better to keep your mouth shut.”

Musk has been known to make public predictions about areas like Tesla’s financial performance, autonomous-driving technology, or production targets that the company has not met on his original timeline.

When he gives his attention to a project, it can be good and bad.

Getty Images/Joshua Lott

A former senior-level employee said that while Musk was good at removing obstacles and building momentum behind an initiative, his presence also put employees on edge and could damage projects outside his area of focus.

The former employee compared Musk’s attention to the Eye of Sauron from “The Lord of the Rings.”

He thinks outside the box.


“He thought way outside the box,” said Mitchell Stephens, a former senior manufacturing engineer who worked at Tesla from 2010 to 2012.

Stephens said the first time he met Musk, the Tesla CEO asked him and a group of his coworkers what they saw when they looked at a soda can. According to Stephens, Musk said you could see a spaceship if you multiplied the soda can’s size.

He’s very energetic.

Mike Blake/Reuters

A former engineering manager said Musk was energetic, adding that his energy level was “very contagious.”

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