He’s able to do this through an incredible drive and tremendous self-confidence. He’s said to work 100-hour weeks and never be satisfied.
So what’s it like to work for Musk?
“Diamonds are created under pressure, and Elon Musk is a master diamond maker,” Dolly Singh, former head of talent acquisition for SpaceX, tells Business Insider.
Singh worked for Musk for over five years and is now the head of talent for Oculus VR.
Last November, she posted a response to the Quora thread, “What is it like to work with Elon Musk?” in which she explains what it was like to be at SpaceX on Aug. 2, 2008, when the flight of the Falcon 1 rocket failed as it propelled into space. She writes:
When Elon came out he walked past the press and first addressed the company. Although his exact words escape me in how he started off, the essence of his comments were that:
- We knew this was going to be hard, it is after all rocket science; then listed the half dozen or so countries who had failed to even successfully execute a first stage flight and get to outer space, a feat we had accomplished successfully that day.
- Elon has (in his infinite wisdom) prepared for the possibility of an issue with the flight by taking on a significant investment (from Draper Fisher Jurvetson if I recall correctly) providing SpaceX with ample financial resources to attempt 2 more launches; giving us security until at least flight 5 if needed.
- And that we need to pick ourselves up, and dust ourselves off, because we have a lot of work to do. Then he said, with as much fortitude and ferocity as he could muster after having been awake for like 20+ hours by this point that, “For my part, I will never give up and I mean never,” and that if we stick with him, we will win.
I think most of us would have followed him into the gates of hell carrying suntan oil after that. It was the most impressive display of leadership that I have ever witnessed. Within moments the energy of the building went from despair and defeat to a massive buzz of determination as people began to focus on moving forward instead of looking back. This shift happened collectively, across all 300+ people in a matter of not more than 5 seconds. I wish I had video footage as I would love to analyse the shifts in body language that occurred over those 5 seconds. It was an unbelievably powerful experience.
The invigorated SpaceX team immediately got back to work, Singh says in the post, and figured out what exactly went wrong in a matter of days. After a mere seven weeks, it had another Falcon 1 ready. It launched successfully on Sep. 28, making it the first privately built rocket to achieve earth orbit.
An anonymous poster claiming to be a current SpaceX engineer for over five years is the only other user to answer from personal experience, and this person has a much more critical view of Musk. Although we cannot verify this poster’s claims, Singh tells us that she thinks “it’s a legit post.”
This person writes:
If you want a family or hobbies or to see any other aspect of life other than the boundaries of your cubicle, SpaceX is not for you and Elon doesn’t give a damn…
This side of the truth of what it’s like to work with Elon shows that absolutely no one likes working with Elon. You can always tell when someone’s left an Elon meeting: they’re defeated. These are some of the hardest working and brightest people in the world, mind you. And they are universally defeated. At least in engineering, who knows what HR and finance does. So often, PR is the real product of SpaceX so I imagine that everyone who isn’t an engineer at SpaceX gets treated fairly well.
The reason for this is that Elon’s version of reality is highly skewed; it’s much like Steve Jobs’s “reality distortion field” except Elon is terrible at public speaking and even worse at motivating people. If you believe that a task should take a year then Elon wants it done in a week. He won’t hesitate to throw out six months of work because it’s not pretty enough or it’s not “badass” enough. But in so doing he doesn’t change the schedule.
The engineer continues by saying that Musk’s leadership is “best compared to a master who berates and smacks his dog for not being able to read his mind.”
Singh tells us that “people get critical of Elon internally when he is pushing them extra hard. Sounds like the [anonymous] writer is just hitting his/her personal wall.”
She admits that you usually leave an “Elon arse kicking” feeling defeated, but that while some employees get crushed under the weight, others use it as fuel to work harder.
And everyone knows when they join Musk’s team that their lives are going to become much more difficult, she says. Singh wrote the blurb that’s still included in SpaceX job postings: “SpaceX is like Special Forces, we take on missions that others have deemed impossible.”
Musk is not some megalomaniac who loves to belittle his team, Singh says. Instead, giving “unique motivational talks” is a deliberate tactic. He always keeps his criticism related to the task at hand, she says, never veering into personal attacks. Even when his feedback is harsh.
According to Singh, Musk likes to say he pushes his team so hard that they feel like they are “staring into the abyss.”
“When he does this, he is aware of it; he is also likely aware how much it sucks on the receiving end, but he knows you will exceed your own expectations if he keeps the heat on. It’s purposeful, and it’s brilliant,” she says.
For those like the anonymous poster, this can become too much and lead to burnout.
But Singh eventually saw Musk’s intense feedback as a compliment of sorts, in that he expected so much of her. She considers working for him “one of the greatest honours of my life.”
“We were very honest with people that when you join SpaceX you are choosing a thorny path; and we sort of expect you to enjoy, honour, and appreciate that opportunity,” Singh says.
“This may sound harsh, but you don’t get to Mars … with a bunch of softies.”
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