The Hard Thing About Hard Things: Summary & Review

The Hard Thing About Hard Things

In The Hard Thing About Hard Things author Ben Horowitz shares his experience as a tech founder and CEO, teaching readers how it was like to launch and run a company during the dot.com revolution.

Bullet Summary

  • People will love you when they perceive that you care about them
  • Don’t hide the company’s problems: you’ll gain trust (and everyone knows anyway)
  • Treat the people leaving well and the ones staying will keep working hard

Full Summary

The book starts with some biographical details about Ben Horowitz, which I will skip here.

Become a Man: Put People Who Matter First

I particularly liked the moment when Ben Horowitz realized he wasn’t doing enough for his family, and that he had to do more.
He says:

I had to stop being a boy. And become a man. I had to put first things first. I had to consider the people I liked most before I considered myself.

That for me was one of the deepest moments in the book.
Isn’t that really the moment when we become grown up, responsible, and wholesome men?

Little later he adds:

I started being the person that I wanted to be

If you take one thing away from this book, let it be those two bits.

Fire Compassionately But Quickly

When you need to fire someone, do it and do it quickly.

Don’t let rumors spread, don’t let people be terrified.
And do it compassionately.

If you treat the people who are leaving unfairly, those who stay will never trust you again.

This part really resonated with me because I became an estranged, internal enemy of the startup I was in when it unethically fired some of my colleagues.

The Persuasion Moment That Saved the Day

Ben Horowitz was dealing with an angry customer who wanted to get rid of him and his services as quickly as possible.
Ben says:

Frank, I will do exactly as you say.
I’ve heard you loud and clear.
This is a terrible moment for you and for us. Can I use your phone, I will call the team to give instructions.
But before I do, let me ask you one thing, if my company made the commitment to fix all the issues, how much time would you give us.

The answer was 60 days, and Horowitz saved the company right there and then.

Share Every Burden

As a CEO you won’t be able to share all the burdens you have.
But do share all the ones you can.

The more people on an issue, the more likely you will solve it (and the less stress on you).
Also read:

Be Transparent About the Company’s Problems

There might be a tendency among CEOs and upper management teams to keep the issues secret.

But that’s the wrong approach, says Ben Horowitz.
For three reasons:

  1. Trust
  2. The more people on a problem, the better
  3. Bad news travel fast anyway

Finally, you want to have a culture that is open to problems.
Build a culture that awards people for getting problems in the open where they can be solved.

The maxim of “don’t bring me a problem if you don’t have a solution” is toxic. It leads people to hide all the issues they cannot solve, which are the ones most likely to wreak havoc.

My single biggest personal improvement as CEO occurred on the day when I stopped being too positive

Another big lesson learned is to stop trying to be always positive.
Also read:

Hire Executives Suited For Your Current Growth Stage

Hiring executives from big firms because you plan on being a big business is the worst idea.

Look for executives who have grown companies to the stage you want to go instead.

People, Product, Profits: In That Order

Take care of people first because they build the product, and people and product together will give you the profits.

Keep Great Employees

… Especially when things are not going well.

The other employees will perceive it as an indicator of the company’s imminent demise.
Worst of all if if they go to another company you are friendly with.

People will see it as an act of betrayal, and will wonder “what kind of CEO is this, if he can’t keep his own friends from poaching people?”.

How to Minimize Politics

Ben Horowitz found two strategies to minimize politics:

  1. Hire people with the right ambition
  2. Build processes for known issues and don’t deviate

Furthermore:

  • Watch out for what you say -and say as little as possible-

The right type of ambition is seeking success through the company’s success.
The wrong kind of ambition is seeking personal success and career development regardless of the company.
A manager only seeking to further his own status is extremely demotivating for good employees: why should they keep working to advance their selfish manager’s career?

Building processes means for example that you have a structured way of assessing salaries and salaries’ increases.
And that you pick a defined structure for job titles (and don’t think it’s a silly formalism).

For the executives’ salary involve the board of directors.

Rebel Employees: The Enemies Within

The Hard Thing About Hard Things shares some very good psychology on why some employees might become internal enemies of the organization.

These are some of the top reasons:

  1. Feels disempowered
  2. He’s fundamentally a rebel
  3. Too naive and believe that everything wrong is management’s fault

I found this part really good and I wish he had even talked about it longer because it’s something that few other leadership books mention (Robert Greene does it a bit in The 48 Laws of Power and The Laws of Human Nature, and I do a lot here as well).

Also read:

Institute Manager-Employees 1:1 Meetings

Horowitz says that manager and employees one on one meetings are very important.

Employees should set the agenda and not the other way around and managers should do 10% of the talking and 90% of the listening.
That makes people feel heard and helps spot problems early, while also spreading good ideas.

This is even more important with introvert employees, says Horowitz.

Peacetime VS Wartime CEO

Most management books describe peacetime CEO.
But when the company is going through life or death moments, you need wartime CEO.

What’s the difference?

Peacetime CEO: is reasonable, respectful, minimizes conflicts and thinks long term. He follows protocols and make contingencies and back up plans.
He is interested in the company’s’ cultures, reads and promotes activities aligned with the culture.

Wartime CEO :— has not time for conflict minimization and protecting egos. He is obsessed about the immediate dangers and opportunities.
He violets protocols, allows the situation to define the culture, and has no back up plans..

Quote

It’s the moments where you feel most like hiding or dying that you can make the biggest difference as a CEO.

The Hard Thing About Hard Things

Real Life Applications

Stop Trying to be Positive
You’re not fooling anyone when you try to spin every single bad news into a positive one. Be honest instead about the company’s issues and challenges.

Whatever the Chances, Your Task is the Same
Whether you are have 50/50 chance or 1 in a 1.000 your task is the same: make the most to make that chance a reality.

CONS

Some War Jargon
This is a bit of  pet peeve of mine, so don’t like it as a real con.
I’m not a big fan of using war jargon when discussing business.
Being a CEO is not going to war. And doing better than a competitor is not the equivalent of killing them. There is quite a bit of that in this book.

Happy to Hire a Psychopath?
The author tells the story about a candidate he loved. When a reference came in negative not only it didn’t raise a red flag, but it convinced the author the new guy was the perfect hire.
What did the reference say? That the candidate had said to a report “bring me the numbers or I’ll put a bullet through your head”.
Frankly, if the author was happy to hire such an individual, I wouldn’t fully take his autobiographical word for his management style. I would like to hear what his reports had to say.

She Pronoun
I found the use of the “she” pronoun awkward. At times it just felt unnatural, a bit like Trudeau calling mankind “peoplekind” (cringe).

One and Twos types of CEO
The author discusses the CEO succession introducing the psychological differences of type one and type two CEOs.
I didn’t find it either relevant or helpful in relation to CEO succession.

PROS

Keeps it Real
Horowitz keeps it real when he says that there is no one solution for difficult situation and difficult questions.
I like that approach of keeping it real instead of trying to play the oracle.

Ethical While Talking Straight
I liked a lot Horowit’s attitude of talking straight while still being ethical.
Good stuff (and looks like it works too).

Great Psychology 
There is some good psychology here. I particularly liked his mention to employees who can start working against the organization when they are natural rebels.
That stuff is true and deep and I haven’t seen anywhere else.

Review

“The Hard Thing About Hard Things” is a mix between a memoir book and a management book.

It’s mostly helpful to CEOs of fast growing companies.
If you aren’t or aren’t planning to be in that position, you might read something else first.

Otherwise, go for it.

Check out the best entrepreneurship books or get the book on Amazon

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