Career Advice, Executive Feature, Interviews

The Art (& Science) of Leadership: Inside The Mind of Elon Musk

Elon Musk is out of this world.

As CEO and Lead Designer of SpaceX, Musk has spent the last 15 years manufacturing and launching advanced rockets and spacecrafts. His goal? Enabling humans to live on other planets.

Just this year, SpaceX successfully achieved the first re-flight of an orbital class rocket, a milestone on the road to full rocket reusability. NASA relies on Musk and SpaceX to fly numerous cargo resupply missions to the International Space Station. Those are just a handful of the 70 future missions on SpaceX’s manifest and over $10 billion in contracts. 

However, his biggest accomplishment to date is leading over 4,000 SpaceX employees on the journey of a lifetime, which has earned him his first recognition on the 2017 Glassdoor Highest Rated CEOs list. Musk, 45, oversees both the revenue and the company culture of a uniquely talented workforce, one that is arguably the smartest in the world. He splits his time between SpaceX headquarters in Hawthorne, California; launch facilities at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Florida, and Vandenberg Air Force Base, California; a rocket-development facility in McGregor, Texas; and offices in Houston, Texas; Chantilly, Virginia; and Washington, DC. That’s not to mention his duties as CEO of Tesla.

Elon 4 (1)Despite a jam-packed to-do list that includes building a self-sustaining city on Mars, Musk has a 98% CEO approval rating on Glassdoor. Employees rave: “Insanely intense magic,” “challenging but highly rewarding,” and “a family like relationship.”

One composite technician at SpaceX HQ sums up the hype by saying, “I absolutely love working at SpaceX. I am living the dream of building Space Rockets. The free perks, full benefits, SpaceX clothing, drinks, food, stocks and everything else that Uncle Elon gives us is truly amazing, astonishing, unbelievable, mesmerizing and no words can truly explain what’s it like to be part of the SpaceX and what we do. Thank you very much from the bottom of my Heart, Mr. Elon Musk.”

Employee reviews — those both glowing and critical — reveal that Musk and his leadership team have managed to build a remarkable company culture as impressive as their Dragon spacecraft. But what is it, specifically, about Elon Musk’s leadership that breeds innovation? Perhaps it’s his background: The South African-born Musk immigrated to Canada at age 17 and then to the U.S. as a transfer student to the University of Pennsylvania. Maybe it has to do with his undeniable track record: He made his first fortune as a cofounder of PayPal.

Or perhaps he is, simply put, the Kobe Bryant of aerospace — relentlessly pushing himself to be an inspiring leader just as he is to redefine transportation.

For answers, we turned to the man himself. Who better to give insight to how he leads, what inspires him and what he looks for in a new hire, than Elon Musk himself. In an exclusive interview with Glassdoor, Musk reveals the science and strategy behind SpaceX.

 Glassdoor: What does leadership mean to you?

Elon Musk: Your title makes you a manager but your people make you a leader. We want our leaders to find ways of motivating and inspiring their teams, reduce the noise in their work and help remove blockers. If you are a manager or leading at any level at SpaceX, we stress that your team is not there to serve you. You are there to serve your team and help them do the best possible job for the company. This applies to me most of all. Leaders are also expected to work harder than those who report to them and always make sure that their needs are taken care of before yours, thus leading by example. 

Glassdoor: What’s been your most rewarding moment as CEO?

Elon Musk: One of the most rewarding moments at SpaceX was the world’s first successful re-flight of an orbital class rocket. The team had been working hard to achieve this pretty much since SpaceX was founded. I’m super proud of the SpaceX team for making it happen.

spacex office

Glassdoor: What are some of your productivity hacks or ways that you manage your time?

Elon Musk: I’d say focus on signal over noise. Don’t waste time on stuff that doesn’t actually make things better.

Glassdoor: Any advice for burgeoning leaders?

Elon Musk: Hire great people…this is 90% of the solution as hiring wrong can cost you so much. We challenge our people leaders to hire people that are better than themselves, therefore making the company better with each hire. Other advice I would give is to not blindly follow trends. Question and challenge the status quo. Make sure you understand the fundamental principles of what you’re trying to do before you get into the details, otherwise you could be building on faulty ground. 

Glassdoor: What’s most important to you as CEO?

Elon Musk: I think it is important that we all have a future that is inspiring and appealing. To be doing something that is useful to the rest of society. This could mean something that makes a big difference but affects a small number of people, or something that makes a small difference but affects a vast number of people.

 Glassdoor: What was your first job?

Elon Musk: Wrote and published games software at age 10. First adult job was cleaning out the grain silos on my cousin’s farm in Saskatchewan.

Glassdoor: What’s your morning routine?

Elon Musk:

  • Deal with critical emails for 30 mins
  • Say goodbye to the kids when they go off to school
  • Shower
  • Drive to work
  • Have mostly engineering and design discussions

Glassdoor: When you’re not planning trips to Mars, how do you like to spend your free time?

Elon Musk: Burning Man, playing team first-person shooters with my kids, movies, hanging out with friends, occasional wild parties. 

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