What SpaceX President Gwynne Shotwell can Teach us About Leadership

The Editorial Team
  • Gwynne was one of the first employees of SpaceX. She rose through the ranks to become the President and Chief Operations Officer of the company that now has over 6,000 employees and a valuation of $33.4 billion.
What SpaceX President Gwynne Shotwell can Teach us About Leadership
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“I always encourage employees to feel free to raise any issues that prevent them from getting good work done.” Gwynne Shotwell

SpaceX is a shining example of American ingenuity, technological prowess, and business leadership. The company was able to make breakthroughs in an industry that was supposed to be in the exclusive domain of the government and government funded agencies. While Elon Musk is the face of the company, it is Gwynne Shotwell who handles the day-to-day operations. 

Gwynne was one of the first employees of SpaceX. She rose through the ranks to become the President and Chief Operations Officer of the company that now has over 6,000 employees and a valuation of $33.4 billion.  

Gwynne ia Cheerleader 

In order to lead a team at SpaceX, or be an employee there, one needs to have technical skills. Gwynne’s undergraduate degree was in mechanical engineering. She later took applied mathematics in her Masters, which is engineering analysis, and she had a minor in economics. But, there is one more skill set that comes in handy for Gwynne as a leader. 

Gwynne was a cheerleader in high school. She uses that experience to be the corporate cheerleader of SpaceX. Gwynne is the cheerleader for her employees. Every time a team is struggling, Gwynne is there to support them.  

Staying positive is an important part of any leader. When companies go through a rough patch, you need people who can raise the spirits and push forward. For SpaceX the difficult time came in 2015-16, a time when even Gwynne couldn’t stay positive all the time. But, the team was able to overcome the challenges, and the COO is once again upbeat about the future. 

Leadership is All About Managing People 

Being the head of a multi-billion dollar company can look glamorous. However, The CEO or the COO can’t achieve success by themselves. Elon is seen as a tech genius and a visionary leader, but he and his companies are only as good as their employees. 

Employees create great products, and it is employees who interact with customers and create the best experience. One of the biggest challenges that Gwynne faced as a first time manager was managing people. 

People are not like machines. There are times when some members of the team are not able to deliver that 100 percent. One of the biggest challenges that Gwynne had to face as a manager was to counsel an employee who wasn’t doing great work.  

The engineer who wasn’t performing was very senior to Gwynne. Counseling is different from staying positive and giving people a pat on the back. As a leader, you should be able to sympathize with your team members’ situation and share with them specific strategies to help them overcome their problems. 

Firing People Can Teach You Something 

Losing a job can be painful. If you are a manager who is forced by circumstances to fire someone in your team, it can also be painful. If a company is in that situation where downsizing is the only solution, the fault lies in the top leadership. It means that the leadership wasn’t prepared for the eventual downturn that every business has to face. 

Mid-level managers who have to do the uncomfortable job of letting people go can actually learn something from the experience. 

Gwynne has also faced a situation where she had to fire someone as a young manager at a company called Microcosm. What turned her into a great leader was how she used that experience to learn and grow. 

Gwynne got motivated by the firing incident and she went to work. She worked hard to make sure that her company was never in a situation where firing becomes a necessity. She built a strong sales pipeline to improve the financial health of the company. 

At SpaceX, Gwynne manages about 6500 employees and about 1000 contractors. As a leader, the COO feels that she works for her employees. Her job is to clear the paths of the employees and enable them to do their best. 

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Leadership is About Listening and Setting the Right Example 

You can’t be a good leader if you are not a good listener. You will be able to understand what the employees’ needs are only when you listen.  

In Gwynne’s case, she believes in listening hard. She takes great care to understand her team’s concerns. Only when she is able to understand the problem well does she have the ability to clear the paths for her employees.  

Apart from being a great listener, a leader has to also set a good example. When things get tough, it is important to put on a positive outlook. This doesn’t mean that you have to be fake. You just have to be positive, even though it can be difficult.  

Employees look to leaders for cues on how to react to situations. If the leader is unhinged or depressed, that feeling will trickle down to everyone in the company. That is why it is important to set a positive example during the tough times. 

Gwynne’s Advice for Young Leaders 

If you are in college or still figuring out what you want to study, Gwynne’s advice is to take up math or science. You don’t have to be very good at math or sciences or take up a profession in that field. Just the exposure to these subsets will teach you to think differently. 

An engineering degree, for instance, teaches you things like logical thinking and problem solving. You don’t have to get excellent grades in math or sciences. Just the willingness to put in the effort and learn should be enough! 

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