SpaceX President Glynn Shotwell discussed the company’s “No A-holes” policy at a virtual appearance at Northwestern University’s 2021 commencement ceremony. She said that having such a policy encourages people to “listen harder” and make positive contributions toward solving problems.
“These kinds of people – a–holes – interrupt others, they shut down or co-opt conversation, and they create a hostile environment where no one wants to contribute,” says Shotwell.
She says that the policy makes it easier for people to come forward with big ideas, even if they differ from what SpaceX’s senior staff might have in mind. These ideas might have the secret for solving a tough problem such as the ones that recently caused four Starship prototypes to experience fiery “rapid unscheduled disassembly” events during or shortly after landing during high-altitude flight tests. SpaceX got enough data out of these tests to solve the issues and successfully launch and land the SN15 prototype in one piece.
“In short, the best way to find solutions to hard problems is to listen harder, not talk louder,” she said. “Embrace the ideas of your fellow workers, especially when they differ greatly from yours.”
Shotwell is an alumnus of Northwestern University and joined SpaceX soon after its founding in 2002. She admitted that joining a startup like SpaceX did make her nervous at first but said that it could be “part of something exciting.”
After the Columbia disaster on February 1, 2003, which led to the plans to end NASA’s Space Shuttle program by 2011, America needed a new way to launch astronauts from U.S. soil. SpaceX was the first private company to accomplish this feat by launching the first crew of the Commercial Crew Program in May 2020 and landing the same crew in the Gulf of Mexico in August – an accomplishment that was only marred by too many boaters coming into the restricted zone around the splashdown site to watch.
Russian officials have occasionally expressed annoyance and frustration with SpaceX due to its breaking of the monopoly on crewed space launches that the Russians had enjoyed between 2011 and 2020. SpaceX’s launch services represent a cost savings of $31 million per seat over launches on the Russian Soyuz.
“The one accomplishment that we have that I am most proud of is helping to get our country flying astronauts again on American-made rockets and spaceships,” she said.
Such a thing might not have been accomplished if senior staff members like Shotwell and CEO Elon Musk couldn’t listen to its experts. Musk had previously expressed a preference to avoid hiring MBAs, saying that “MBAs don’t build companies.” He has also expressed a preference for promoting engineers to senior positions when possible:
“The path to the CEO’s office should not be through the CFO’s office, and it should not be through the marketing department. It needs to be through engineering and design.”
Combined with Musk’s previously mentioned “No A-hole” policy, such a concept may make it more feasible for engineers to feel like their ideas are being heard by somebody who wouldn’t blow off a concept purely because he or she doesn’t understand it.