Musk's style has fans among some tech bosses

Bosses may not agree with every move Musk makes, but many of them think he’s right on the big-picture stuff. Tech companies are bloated and unproductive. Woke HR departments have gone too far. Workers should stop being activists and focus on doing their jobs

By Kevin Roose

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This screenshot of a video posted by Elon Musk on Wednesday shows him carrying a sink as he enters Twitter’s headquarters in San Francisco. Photo: AFP
This screenshot of a video posted by Elon Musk on Wednesday shows him carrying a sink as he enters Twitter’s headquarters in San Francisco. Photo: AFP

Published: Sun 18 Dec 2022, 7:25 PM

Kevin Roose

It may seem obvious, to most people outside Silicon Valley, that Elon Musk’s ownership of Twitter has been an unmitigated disaster.

In less than two months since taking over, Musk has fired more than half of Twitter’s staff, scared away many of its major advertisers, made (and unmade) a series of ill-advised changes to its verification program, angered regulators and politicians with erratic and offensive tweets, declared a short-lived war on Apple, greenlit a bizarre “Twitter Files” exposé, stopped paying rent on Twitter’s offices, and falsely accused the company’s former head of trust and safety of supporting paedophilia. His personal fortune has shrunk by billions of dollars, and he was booed at a Dave Chappelle show.

It’s not, by almost any measure, going well for him. And yet, one group is still firmly in Musk’s corner: Bosses.

In recent weeks, many tech executives, founders and investors have expressed their admiration for Musk, even as the billionaire has flailed at Twitter.

Reed Hastings, CEO of Netflix, praised Musk at a New York Times DealBook conference late last month, calling him “the bravest, most creative person on the planet.”

Gavin Baker, a private equity investor, recently claimed that a lot of venture-funded chief executives were “inspired by Elon.”

And several partners at Andreessen Horowitz, an influential venture capital firm, have tweeted similar encomia to Musk’s management style.

Some of the elite cheerleading probably boils down to class solidarity, or naked financial self-interest. (Andreessen Horowitz, for example, invested $400 million in Musk’s Twitter takeover.) And some of it may reflect leftover goodwill from Musk’s successes at Tesla and SpaceX.

But as I’ve called around to C-suite executives and influential investors in Silicon Valley over the past few weeks, I’ve been surprised by how many are rooting for Musk — even if they won’t admit to it publicly.

Musk’s defenders point out that Twitter hasn’t collapsed or gone offline despite losing thousands of employees, as some critics predicted it would. They see his harsh management style as a necessary corrective, and they believe he will ultimately be rewarded for cutting costs and laying down the law.

“He says the things many CEOs wish they could say, and then he actually does them,” said Roy Bahat, a venture capitalist with Bloomberg Beta.

Bahat, who has criticized some of Musk’s moves, characterized his Twitter tenure as a “living natural experiment” — a divisive but illuminating window into what other executives might be able to get away with, if they tried.

“He’s giving people a lot more knowledge of what’s possible,” he said.

Tech elites don’t simply support Musk because they like him personally or because they agree with his anti-woke political crusades. (Although a number do.)

Rather, they view him as the standard-bearer of an emergent worldview they hope catches on more broadly in Silicon Valley.

Writer John Ganz has called this worldview “bossism” — a belief that the people who build and run important tech companies have ceded too much power to the entitled, lazy, overly woke people who work for them and need to start clawing it back.

In Ganz’s telling, Silicon Valley’s leading proponents of bossism — including Musk and financiers Marc Andreessen and Peter Thiel — are seizing an opportunity to tug the tech industry’s culture sharply to the right, taking leftist workers and worker-sympathisers down a peg while reinstating themselves and their fellow bosses to their rightful places atop the totem pole.

Some Musk sympathisers do view things in such stark, politicized terms. Writer and crypto founder Antonio García Martínez, for example, has hailed Musk’s Twitter takeover as “a revolt by entrepreneurial capital” against the “ESG grifters” and “Skittles-hair people” who populate the rank and file at companies like Twitter.

But while some tech CEOs might blame a sleeper cell of gender-studies majors for their problems, many of Musk’s elite fans adhere to a more straightforward, business-school kind of bossism. They admire him for ruling Twitter with an iron fist and making the kinds of moves that tech executives have resisted for fear of alienating workers — cutting jobs, stripping away perks, punishing internal dissenters, resisting diversity and inclusion efforts, and forcing employees back to the office.

These bossists believe that for the past decade or so, a booming tech industry and a talent shortage forced many CEOs to make unreasonable concessions. They spoiled workers with perks like lavish meals and kombucha on tap. They agreed to use workplace chat apps like Slack, which flattened office hierarchies and gave junior workers a way to directly challenge leadership. They bent over backward to give in to worker demands — DEI workshops, flexible remote work policies, company wellness days — to keep them happy and prevent them from jumping ship to a competitor.

Then, Musk showed up at Twitter, and refused to do any of that. Instead of trying to ingratiate himself with Twitter’s workers, Musk fired many of them and dared the rest to quit — forcing them to attest that they were “extremely hard core” if they wanted to keep their jobs. He had done some of this before at his other companies. But at Twitter, he did it all out in the open, using his Twitter account as a cudgel to keep workers in line.

Twitter’s former leaders, steeped in the conciliatory style of boom-time management, had allowed for an atmosphere of open debate and discussion — one of the company’s core values was “communicate fearlessly to build trust” — but Musk replaced that with a culture of absolute fealty. He dressed down Twitter employees in public and fired any who dared to criticize him. He was especially dismissive of the company’s diversity and inclusion efforts — mocking an old “Stay Woke” T-shirt found in a Twitter closet and disbanding the company’s employee resource groups.

For many people, Musk’s moves seemed like a case study in how not to manage a company. But for some Silicon Valley elites, they were a lightning bolt — a long-awaited answer to the question, “What if we just treated workers … worse?”

Bosses may not agree with every move Musk makes, but many of them think he’s right on the big-picture stuff. Tech companies are bloated and unproductive. Woke HR departments have gone too far. Workers should stop being activists and focus on doing their jobs.

Musk is not the first tech leader to air these views. Companies like Coinbase, Kraken and Basecamp have all tried to limit employee activism in recent years, with debatable results. (More recently, Meta barred workers from discussing “disruptive” topics like abortion and gun rights on workplace forums.)

What’s different now is the backdrop. For the first time in nearly two decades, economic pressures have cut into the tech industry’s profits and companies that once spared no expense to keep workers happy are trimming their sails and conducting layoffs. Executives with sagging stock prices are declaring themselves “wartime CEOs,” and workers who could have credibly threatened to leave their jobs for cushier ones a year ago are now hanging on for dear life.

All of this has shifted leverage away from workers and toward bosses.

“When a job market loosens, the attention that management places on employee desires — whether workplace perks or better DEI — can wane, simply because they have less need to offer those things to recruit or retain,” said Margaret O’Mara, a history professor at the University of Washington who has written about Silicon Valley’s labour culture.

In other words, Musk has picked the right time to start a management revolution. Now, the question is: How many bosses will follow him into the fire?

This article originally appeared in The New York Times

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