The Two Faces of Elon Musk – SpaceX’s Secret Weapon (Part 2)

Tesla is failing, SpaceX is surging. As I wrote in my last post, it is the best of times and the worst of times for Elon Musk, founder of both companies. In that post, I proposed that a major reason Elon Musk’s two businesses are getting such different results is that Musk has a very capable “second in command” at SpaceX, while he is running the show solo at Tesla. You’ll recall that many others have also come to this conclusion.

So, the obvious question is what, specifically, Gwynne Shotwell, President & COO of SpaceX (his not so secret weapon), is doing at SpaceX that’s missing at Tesla. Or, put another way, how has the Musk/Shotwell team created success at SpaceX and could it be replicated at Tesla?


The answer is deceptively simple. We can “boil it down” to three fundamental things:

  1. Musk is willing to trust Shotwell to get the job done at SpaceX while trying to do it all himself at Tesla
  2. Shotwell knows exactly what her job is at SpaceX and has the freedom to carry it out as she sees fit
  3. As a result, the corporate culture at SpaceX embodies both an audacious spirit of attaining the impossible (Musk) and a process-oriented approach to making the impossible happen (Shotwell)

I’ve previously written that one of the more difficult things for visionary leaders to do is trust others to help carry out that vision. The larger the vision, the more personally invested the visionary is in his or her vision, the more difficult it often is to delegate the grounding of that vision into reality. Yet, time and again that has been the secret formula for success in innovative companies — particularly those founded by iconic visionaries like Mr. Musk.

Musk hired Shotwell in 2002 as a business development executive. She had a long background in aerospace, along with a Masters in Mechanical Engineering. But she’d never been in a pure sales role before. Her task was to sell space in SpaceX rockets for private companies and governments to launch satellites. But over time Shotwell took on an increasing role. She managed customer and mission work, financial, legal and government affairs. The company found its first major success in 2008, a major contract with NASA to resupply the International Space Station. Shotwell, largely responsible for closing that contract, was quickly named the president and chief operating officer.

Notice the increased level of trust Musk showed in Shotwell over time, increasing her role in the daily affairs of the company. This is simply not happening at Tesla. In fact, the very set of problems Tesla is now experiencing – financials, lawsuits/regulation, “production hell” as Musk calls it and customer woes, map directly to the responsibilities Shotwell has at SpaceX. Now think of this: SpaceX had to overcome years of development costs, expanding delivery timelines for its rockets and three launch failures before it achieved success.

Is SpaceX’s success all because of Shotwell? Is she a miracle worker, a superhuman manager with unmatched brilliance and team-building qualities?

Of course not.

But she is incredibly able. She also knows exactly what her job requires: acting as a balancing force between Musk’s audacious visions and the SpaceX team, especially in light of Musk’s penchant for publicly announcing very aggressive timelines. As she put it in an interview with Forbes,” Maintaining the culture of efficiency and immediacy, as well as ensuring a connection to the goals was a concern. Internal communication becomes key to alleviating this. I meet with groups of SpaceXers in very informal settings (fireside chats) to make sure the team knows what we need to do and understands the issues we face. I always encourage employees to feel free to raise any issues that prevent them from getting good work done.”

Shotwell has also learned how to translate Musk’s visions into actionable steps. Speaking to CNBC, she explained that, “when Elon says something, you have to pause and not immediately blurt out, ‘Well, that’s impossible,’ or, ‘There’s no way we’re going to do that. I don’t know how.’ So you zip it, and you think about it, and you find ways to get that done.” Her role is then to translate the vision into something actionable. “I always felt like my job was to take these ideas and kind of turn them into company goals, make them achievable, and kind of roll the company over from this steep slope, get it comfortable.”

Shotwell had to learn to navigate Musk’s habit of “stirring the pot” whenever things got too comfortable. I noticed every time I felt like we were there, we were rolling over, people were getting comfortable, Elon would throw something out there, and all of a sudden, we’re not comfortable and we’re climbing that steep slope again,” she explains. “But then once I realized that that’s his job, and my job is to get the company close to comfortable so he can push again and put us back on that slope, then I started liking my job a lot more, instead of always being frustrated,” she says.

As I’ve written before, this is exactly the expected relationship between a Vision Master and an Execution Master.  The Vision Master’s job is to disrupt operations, to “rock the boat”.  The Execution Master’s job is to stabilize the boat, to be the steady hand.  This will naturally create tension between the two of them and sometimes sparks will fly.  “Every form of refuge has its price.” 

Colleagues agree. “Gwynne is the steady hand,” says Matthew Desch, the CEO of Iridium Communications Inc., SpaceX’s largest commercial customer. “She’s got the technical savvy, and that underpins her being a great salesperson. But she never tries to oversell, and she’s always open and honest.”  Over the years, Shotwell has earned a reputation as the person who can translate Musk’s visions into reality. “She’s the bridge between Elon and the staff,” says Hans Koenigsmann, VP of Mission Assurance at SpaceX. “Elon says let’s go to Mars and she says, ‘OK, what do we need to actually get to Mars?’ ”

At Tesla, we might conclude, nobody is tasked or empowered to be the person who says “what do we need to actually go to Mars,” or more appropriately, to get the new model launched on time and on budget.

Shotwell has also helped create a “flat” corporate culture. “Anyone gets to talk to anyone, and the best idea wins – even if it comes from an intern.” Shotwell also believes that an important skill for all SpaceXers is the ability to accept critical feedback.  “This is key to anyone’s growth and becoming better at what they do. Feedback is a gem that should be accepted gladly, but unless you are used to it or have a culture of feedback, it can be quite difficult to accept.”

But part of that ability to take critical feedback that Shotwell feels is important to success at SpaceX is surely due to her presence as a “buffer” between the emotionally eruptive Musk and the staff of engineers that have to carry out his plans. Tesla’s team isn’t benefitting from that kind of buffer, that steady hand. Maybe that’s one reason many senior executives have departed in the past few years. Recently, Musk announced that Tesla would aim for a more flat corporate culture. But will it work without a buffer like Shotwell to actually carry it out day to day?

Shotwell has taken the reins at SpaceX, helped create a corporate culture that favors efficiency and innovation, then produces results even in the wake of Musk’s incredibly demanding goals and timeliness. But we still have to ask, why is this team working so well together? Why is it that Musk trusts Shotwell to manage his vision at SpaceX? Why is it that Shotwell succeeds again and again?

The answer is twofold.

First, Shotwell shares Musk’s vision. In fact, in some way,s she maintains an even larger vision for SpaceX than Musk does. While Musk wants to take a rocket to Mars, Shotwell considers this just a small step towards galactic exploration. Because she thinks as big as Musk does, Shotwell can carry forth his huge vision from a place of full support, full belief in its’ inevitable success. This breeds trust with Musk and with the entire team.

Second, Shotwell doesn’t seek the limelight, though it sometimes finds her anyway. Musk garners the spotlight, makes the audacious public comments. Shotwell finds ways to back them up by accomplishing huge goals. Rather than two peacocks battling for dominance in the SpaceX pen, Shotwell seems content to let Musk be the peacock — the public face — while she tends to the rest which includes staff, customers, investors, regulators, and other stakeholders.

Musk simply has no counterpart like Shotwell at Tesla. But it is apparent that he’ll need to find one. In the final post in this case study, I’ll explore what others in the business community are suggesting Musk do to bring on executive team help, along with my own view of the ideal candidate for the role.

Key Takeaways:

  • Tesla and SpaceX are going in different directions, largely because of a management crisis
  • SpaceX enjoys a dynamic partnership between Elon Musk and Gwynne Shotwell, helping it navigate a similar set of challenges to those Tesla is encountering, but with vastly different results
  • A visionary like Musk (and you) need the stable hand of an Execution Master like Shotwell, to balance the corporate culture between innovation (disruption) and result-generating operations
  • An Execution Master that shares the vision of the founder Vision Master can translate the founder’s vision to the entire team — and that’s why SpaceX is thriving, while Tesla is floundering