If you’re a fan of Silicon Valley poster boy and wildly rich SPACEMAN ICON Elon Musk, you should stop reading now. If you continue, you will read an excerpt from his biography that, well…it sure doesn’t look good. From an excerpt in Business Insider, here’s how he treated his personal assistant of 12 years when she had the gall to ask for more money:
In his 2015 book, “Elon Musk: Tesla, SpaceX, and the Quest for a Fantastic Future,” Ashlee Vance shares the story of how Musk stopped working with his longtime executive assistant in early 2014.
According to Vance, the assistant, Mary Beth Brown, asked Musk for a significant raise after she’d been working with him for 12 years. In response, Musk told Brown to take two weeks off, during which he would assume her responsibilities and see whether she was critical to his success.
When Brown returned, Musk told her he didn’t need her anymore.
Wow. That’s extraordinary even by cruel billionaire standards. Jalopnik, digging a little deeper, found a story from Musk’s ex-wife about Brown that essentially corroborates the tale:
Mary Beth Brown started working for Elon soon after we moved to LA twelve or thirteen years ago (Elon and I were still married then). MB was an exceptional and devoted employee of Elon’s and lovely to deal with on a personal level. She gave her life to the job — and to our family — and the news of her departure was a shock to me.
Apparently (according, I believe, to Ashlee Vance, who wrote the book on Elon), MB asked for a raise. E told her that if she was truly critical to SpaceX, it should not be able to operate in her absence (or something to that effect). He suggested a 3-week experiment to test this hypothesis/her worth. This reminds me of something similar he once said to me, many years ago, after I came back from a week’s visit with my family in Canada — that his life had operated quite smoothly in my absence. He was letting me know that I was an incompetent house manager. (He was not wrong.) So of the different stories I have heard behind MB’s departure from SpaceX, this is the one that resonates with me. (Although you would never use the word ‘incompetent’ in association with MB!)
Wherever MB is and whatever she is doing, I hope her life is fabulous. She and I have not always been on the same side, but I have — and will always have — tremendous respect for that remarkable woman.
Now, we have no clue if there’s a more complicated backstory here—this is coming from a book (albeit one that includes an interview with Musk himself) and testimony of an ex-wife. In Vance’s book, here’s what Musk said about the incident:
As Musk recalled, “I told her, ‘Look, I think you’re very valuable. Maybe that compensation is right. You need to take two weeks’ vacation, and I’m going to assess whether that’s true or not.’ Before this came up, I had offered her multiple all-expenses-paid vacations. I really wanted her to take a vacation. When she got back, my conclusion was just that the relationship was not going to work anymore. Twelve years is a good run for any job. She’ll do a great job for someone.” According to Musk, he offered Brown another position at the company. She declined the offer by never showing up at the office again. Musk gave her twelve months’ severance and has not spoken to her since.
It may be true that there were interpersonal difficulties we don’t know about (a few commenters on the Quora post intimate that there were personality clashes between Brown and Musk’s current wife), and perhaps Brown’s request for a raise was a bit exorbitant. However, this is not the first negative story to come out about Musk’s leadership style. This particular anecdote isn’t much better:
In any case, this is not terrific PR for Musk, and a lot of people are feeling this way right about now: