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Who’s the boss? At Musk’s companies he is, but also young loyalists.

Tesla, SpaceX and other Musk businesses give clues to how he might run Twitter

Elon Musk in 2020. (Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg News)
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Elon Musk runs four companies, including electric car company Tesla and rocket company SpaceX, and he relies on a cadre of leaders to carry out his vision across his empire. Now that he’s adding Twitter, should the acquisition be finalized, the leadership choices he’s made at his other companies offer the best clues to how he may run the social media company.

Musk himself does not run the day-to-day operations of all his companies. Instead, he entrusts leaders under him to keep the operation humming, whether he is there or not, and to carry out his vision. Former employees and observers of his companies say he tends to put in charge extremely hard-working loyalists who are often relatively young for their level of responsibility.

“He takes these kids and puts them in charge of really big things. He trusts them and knows that they don’t have an agenda,” said a former employee of Musk’s, who was not authorized to speak publicly.

Musk’s strategy for leading companies has become a subject of enormous interest, especially since he has offered few clues as to how he will run Twitter, including whether he will keep its existing directors and executives. Putting in place executives with similar attributes to his other companies — which are particularly fast-paced and demand long hours, say people who have worked with Musk — could fundamentally change the work environment at Twitter.

Twitter, which critics say is often chaotic and poorly managed, is known for giving its employees personal freedom, allowing them to speak up to management and was among the first major U.S. companies to embrace remote work. One former Twitter employee described on Twitter the strategy under co-founder Jack Dorsey: “The product org had no conviction or direction. Twitter was treated as precious. Changes were dangerous.”

Parag Agrawal, a long time engineer who had played a key role at the company for years, took over in November when Dorsey resigned. It’s now unclear whether Agrawal has a future at the company he has barely gotten a chance to manage. He now has the unenviable role of consoling and motivating a workforce largely demoralized by the sale of the company.

When one entrepreneur offered sympathy in a tweet, Agrawal responded: “Thank you but don’t feel for me. What matters most is the service and the people improving it.”

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Twitter declined to comment.

The management style at Musk’s companies has, for the most part, worked out. He’s the richest person in the world and admired for doing what many thought was impossible. He is largely responsible for pushing the auto industry to electrify and helped kick-start a space industry that had largely stagnated.

“He’s one of the more exciting visionaries of our time, willing to speak his mind and is quite technical,” said one former colleague of Musk’s who spoke on the condition of anonymity due to legal constraints. “ ‘OMG, this is hard to do’ won’t fly.”

Twitter accepted a $44 billion takeover offer from Elon Musk on April 25. Why did he want to buy the social media giant? (Video: Hadley Green, Julie Yoon/The Washington Post)

According to people familiar with the matter, Musk has already laid out ambitions for Twitter that will fundamentally change the user experience. For instance, Musk wants to pay “creators” to produce content on Twitter, a strategy that helped build TikTok into a social networking juggernaut. Those at Twitter can expect a list of changes on a fast time frame, people familiar with the matter say.

Musk spends the most time at Tesla, his highflying electric car company. But he is also the CEO of SpaceX, the rocket company that contracts with NASA and the U.S. military and is planning on sending astronauts to the moon and Mars. He co-founded Neuralink, a company aimed at augmenting the human brain with computer implants, and the Boring Company, which wants to change transportation by building underground vacuum tubes capable of transporting people at close to the speed of sound.

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Musk, SpaceX, Boring and Neuralink didn’t respond to requests for comment.

Ross Gerber, a major Tesla and Twitter investor, said he believes SpaceX is the better company to look at for clues about how Musk will run Twitter. There, Musk appointed Gwynne Shotwell, a 58-year-old veteran aerospace executive, as president and chief operating officer. Shotwell helped SpaceX build its government contracting business, launching satellites for the United States Air Force and NASA. Musk ran afoul of the Air Force when he was filmed smoking marijuana — a violation of federal law — on the Joe Rogan podcast.

In Shotwell, Gerber said, Musk found an operator who can handle government contracts while Musk “handles the fun part of the business,” Gerber said. “Elon is not good at bureaucracies.” Gerber said Twitter may require a “Shotwell” of its own to handle the political land mines that come with running a social network. “He doesn’t think politically. He doesn’t care,” Gerber said of Musk.

Under Shotwell, Musk has put a large amount of responsibility on Mark Juncosa, a 40-year-old Cornell graduate who said in an interview with blogger Tim Urban that he was working at a car racing club when he was introduced to Musk. Juncosa is now known as a key problem solver on technical problems, said one person with knowledge of the matter who was not authorized to speak publicly. Juncosa’s title is vice president of vehicle engineering.

At Tesla’s Austin headquarters, Musk has put his confidence in Omead Afshar, a 34-year-old biomedical engineering major from UC Irvine, according to one of the former employees who spoke on the condition of anonymity. Afshar, whose LinkedIn profile says he was a part-time ski instructor at Mammoth Mountain, came from pharmaceutical company Abbott, where he was a manager in “High Voltage Operations and Operations Business Systems.” Now, he lists his job on LinkedIn simply as “Office of the CEO” at Tesla.

People who know Musk say he isn’t concerned with appearances and tenure but will instead appoint people based more on their ability to get things done. Often, those people are young and tenacious, rather than savvy at climbing the corporate ladder.

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Most people view Neuralink and The Boring Company like Musk’s personal “moon shots,” or bets on emerging technology that may not pan out.

Neuralink’s co-founder Max Hodak stepped down from running it a year ago, and the company has not announced a replacement. Hodak, who studied human-brain interfaces at Duke, founded a new company in that field called Science. People briefed on the matter say a key player at Neuralink is 33-year-old Dongjin “DJ” Seo, whose LinkedIn profile says he is the inventor of “neural dust,” or tiny computer chips that can be sprinkled onto a human brain and used to analyze it.

The Boring Company, which developed a tunnel-digging machine it says will eventually be able to dig seven miles a day, announced a $675 million venture financing round that puts the company’s value at $5.68 billion. It is led by Steve Davis, a former bar owner and frozen yogurt purveyor.

Shotwell, Juncosa, Afshar, Seo, Hodak and Davis did not respond to requests for comment.

Yale professor Jeffrey Sonnenfeld warns that if Musk runs Twitter as he does his other companies, the results may not pay off as intended. Charging ahead with spaghetti-on-the-wall product innovations aren’t guaranteed to work, he says, pointing to Rupert Murdoch’s acquisition of Myspace, which ended with him selling it at a loss. Musk’s “flamboyance and grandiosity will undermine his entrepreneurial genius,” Sonnenfeld said.

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