SpaceX hits as Musk struggles with Twitter

Gwyneth Shotwell numéro deux de SpaceX lors d'une conférence TED

In parallel with Elon Musk’s digital crusade on Twitter, Gwyneth Shotwell holds the helm brilliantly at SpaceX.

The takeover of Twitter by Elon Musk caused a veritable earthquake in the digital world. Since this acquisition, the billionaire has launched a huge project with the aim of profoundly transforming the network and is leading the charge on the front line (see our article). Meanwhile, the other businesses he runs operate in relative autonomy. Unheard of under the leadership of this inquisitive and omnipresent leader… and on the side of SpaceX, some employees are asking for more.

As a reminder, Musk occupies a very unusual position at this level of the industry. In addition to the social network, he is also CEO of two industrial titans who dominate their respective niches: Tesla for electric vehicles, and SpaceX for aerospace.

Inevitably, it is a particularly heavy triple hat to wear, even for a madman in this category. Running such a business is a full-time job that requires a huge investment. However, the blue bird seems to occupy most of its time for a few months.

Generally speaking, this is not a very reassuring situation for a company of this size, where the slightest lack of leadership – even temporary – can have significant consequences. Bill Nelson, the administrator of NASA, had also expressed his concern. He had asked Gwyneth Shotwell, President, COO and number two of the firm, if this change of priority would not interfere with the joint plans of the two institutions (see this Insider article). She was reassuring; and in hindsight, it seems she was right. Because on the side of SpaceX, the opposite seems to be happening. And if Bloomberg is to be believed, this is no coincidence.

Sometimes cumbersome management methods

Indeed, many employees of Musk’s companies have already spoken out about his rather unusual methods. He’s a boss ultra-invested, for better and for worse. SpaceX owes a significant part of its success to this penchant for all-out innovation, it is indisputable; but this permanent pressure on all fronts has also had adverse effects.

It is common knowledge that he imposes extremely ambitious – even downright unreasonable – objectives, changes of direction and deadlines on his teams. Moreover, he is known to have an opinion on everything and to interfere arbitrarily in the work of his teams, and not necessarily in a very relevant way.

An example: in Joe Rogan’s podcast, he confirmed that he asked the engineers to make the Starship sharper. An objectively less efficient form which was chosen… in reference to a famous scene from The Dictator, Sacha Baron Cohen’s irreverent comedy!

Bloomberg cites another particularly telling case provided by an employee on condition of anonymity. On a Friday evening, Musk reportedly summoned the entire team working on the Crew Dragon (a capsule designed to carry astronauts into orbit) to come together for an emergency meeting on Saturday morning.

But when they arrived there, there was no trace of the CEO. When he finally arrived after a considerable delay, he reportedly told the team that a delay in the vehicle’s next launch would be inadmissible, and that everyone should work twice as hard… before leaving as quickly as he had arrived. . According to Bloomberg, this brief interview would go very badly with some employees, who want to focus on the security aspect.

Gwyneth Shotwell, the rock of SpaceX

However, with Musk’s new digital crusade, it is Shotwell who manages the daily life of the company. She is widely regarded as a reliable and pragmatic leader. She has great technical expertise (she has a degree in mechanical engineering and applied mathematics) and displays a perfect knowledge of this industry. And above all, she works with much more conventional methods. Nothing to do with the big boss of the firm, who sometimes has trouble delegating. No way for her to exceed her prerogatives by inviting herself on a production line to demand arbitrary changes at the last minute, as the CEO would tend to do.

Moreover, she does not share his taste for media escapades; it displays an irreproachable record of service and has never found itself at the center of the slightest controversy. Professionalism highly appreciated by employees, who are not always comfortable with the image conveyed by the troublemaker in chief.

SpaceX: employees denounce the “embarrassing” behavior of Elon Musk

According to Bloomberg, this is therefore a real breath of fresh air. Obviously, these are mostly isolated testimonies that are not not necessarily representative of the point of view of the whole company. However, if we rely on this feedback and the previous confessions of some employees, the work environment seems to be much healthier currently with the world leader in aerospace. When the cat’s away the mice will play !

New year, new Elon Musk?

But knowing Musk, this parenthesis may be short-lived. The billionaire is currently looking for someone “crazy enough” to succeed him as CEO of Twitter. He announced it after a survey on the platform (see our article). Once he finds someone to take up the mantle, it’s a safe bet he’ll focus on SpaceX again.

SpaceX’s Starship, here during a static firing test. © SpaceX

This is all the more likely as in 2023, the firm has a very busy schedule that includes some of the deadlines most anticipated by Musk himself. We can cite the baptism into orbit of the Starship, the revolutionary vehicle which aims to transform this entire industry in depth. In addition, SpaceX will further increase the pace of its operations. Musk hopes to pass the mark of 100 Falcon 9 launches in 2023, obliterating a four-decade-old Soviet record in the process. The firm must also advance on the development of the HLS, the machine which will allow the astronauts of Artemis III to land on the Moon in a few years. And this is only the tip of the iceberg.

With such important deadlines, it would be very surprising if the sulphurous leader was not omnipresent. In absolute terms, this is not bad news; he may have his faults, Musk remains an important driver who has played a fundamental role in the immense success of SpaceX. And even though they sometimes suffer from this immense pressure, it seems that the vast majority of employees do not want to see him go.

Let’s just hope he can water down his wine. Perhaps this episode will encourage him to rely more on the very competent people he knows how to surround himself with. Shotwell, in particular, has proven herself fully capable of assuming operational leadership of the firm. Hopefully, Musk will learn lessons that will benefit employee well-being without jeopardizing SpaceX’s success.