Ben Horowitz has some experience being a founder and a CEO of a tech company. He shares it in a brutally honest and very smart book that anybody in a management position should read. It contains real life experience and great insight. Additionally, it is fun and well written. What more could we want?

Some of the book is simply sound management advice. For instance, you will find a methodology to run one-on-ones, a solid checklist for human resources and another one for a sales manager. Nevertheless, the key point of the author is the difference between peacetime CEO and wartime CEO. He claims that most management literature is well mannered peacetime politically correct thinking. It does not make it wrong advice. Though, when the sea is rough, some of that thinking does not stand.

Thus, in the book, you may expect good thoughts about the art of being a wartime CEO as well as interesting thinking on topics where there is no clear-cut answer. For instance, you will find solid recipe for laying off people, firing an executive, demoting a loyal friend, poaching (or not) from friend companies, the subtleties of integrating senior large company executives in young startups and many more.

You can also expect smart descriptions of how good and bad organizations differ (e.g., in the dialogue with Steve). To the author, it matters when things go wrong (and they always go wrong) and because being a good company is an end in itself. Why bother creating a bad company? Along the same line of thought, the description of the good and bad product manager is a highlight (read the three pages in the book).

You will find good insight about open debates on hard topics. After all, it’s the title of the book: I like the part about the Marc Andreessen vs. Mark Zuckerberg approach to job titles. Marc easily gives away big titles to employees as it costs nothing and makes them happy. It can be a hiring advantage. Mark prefers low profile titles to keep everyone humble and clarify who is in charge. The right approach depends on your culture and who you are. And not everyone is Facebook… I also like the section about the challenge of CEO succession. It is a good illustration of the book title: “the hard thing about hard things”. Read the book for insight about the Ones and the Twos. It is very smart thinking that I had never read explained this clearly.

Finally, you can expect politically incorrect topics to be covered. The author writes openly about his own use of harsh language and describes the kind of smart employees you should be wary of (i.e. heretics, flakes, and jerks). Though, in each case, he will provide example of specific situations where you may want to tolerate them. Hard things are indeed hard! He also advocates to take advantage of shock mechanism in defining a culture. Remember about the horse head in the Godfather movie? Read the book for more about this… These politically incorrect sections may be the most interesging.

Here are some thoughts I keep, about management, management in hard times, CEOship and being liked by everyone. What do you retain from the book?

These notes are part of a larger selection of good professional reads and notes. You may find a solid list in the selection page and access to other syntheses and notes through browsing the Curatus library.

A few pieces of advice for managers in general

“Nothing motivates a great employee more than a mission that’s so important that it supersedes everyone’s personal ambition.”

“Hire for strength rather than lack of weakness.”

“Don’t believe sales who tell you we lost a contract due to price. It rarely is the full story.”

“Avoid lying to yourself. We all do it more often than we think.”

“To get things right, you must recognize that anything you measure automatically creates a set of employee behaviors.”

Train your teams, it is the best investment you can make. The author lines up a few good quotes including: “People at McDonald’s get trained for their position but people with far more complicated jobs don’t. It makes no sense.”, “A lot of companies think their employees are so smart that they require no training. That’s silly.”, and “Being too busy to train is the moral equivalent of being too hungry to eat.”

People quit either because they hate their manager (lack of guidance, carrer development and feedback) or because they are not learning anything. Thus, investing in functional training (the job to be done) and management training is a good idea. You may even think about giving the training yourself and compelling managers who want to hire new employees to develop a “To be Hired” training. Should they be allowed to hire someone if they cannot describe what the person would do?

Think about swapping the roles of two team members if they go at war the one against the other. Forcing themselves to be in the other’s shoes may help more than you think.

What to do when times get rough?

Treat people leaving fairly. Otherwise, the people who stay will not trust you much.

Look for the single people who can delay the entire project. There are always a few people who can delay the critical path.

Set the tone and make it clear that sloppiness will not be tolerated.

Ask: “what am I not doing?”

Throw a challenge. People love to be thrown a challenge. You may feel you are overworking your teams while, actually, they enjoy very much the challenge you threw.

Develop the ability to make the best move when there are no good moves. It is easier said than done, but the good news is there is always a move.

Look for markets of one. Sometimes, you need to find only one customer or one investor to keep you afloat. In these cases, it does not matter if everyone else calls you a fool.

Share every burden that you can.

Get the maximum number of brains one the problems.

Encourage sharing bad news. A company that covers up its problems frustrates everyone involved.

Prefer many lead bullets rather than a silver bullet. It is safer.

Run the company. Coach your team and do what you must. Nobody cares about excuses.

Play long enough and you might get lucky.

A few pieces of advice for CEOs

Articulate the vision, make sure people share it and show you can achieve it. A vision that is not articulated will not motivate anyone, if people don’t say “we” when they talk about the company it will not work, and if people don’t trust you can deliver, they will not follow.

Go the hard way. “Every really good, really experienced CEO I know shares one important characteristics. They tend to opt for the hard answer to organizational issues.”

Make lonely decisions when it is your decision to make. Usually, nobody has as much information about the situation as you do. Thus, you should make sure everybody brings you all information they have, and then decide. Consensus decisions almost always sway the process away from strength and toward lack of weakness. “Some employees make products, some make sales; the CEO makes decisions.”

Hire people with the right kind of ambition. Ambition for the company’s success with the executive’s own ambition only coming as a by-product of the company’s victory.

Evaluate everyone and everything constantly and provide feedback. Having an opinion on absolutely everything is precisely what a CEO should do.

Don’t evaluate an executive ahead of time. You never really know if people will be up to the challenge or not.

Don’t train your direct reports. You do not have time for that. Training should happen elsewhere and before. General managers should train their teams though, only the CEO should not have to do it.

Manage seasoned professionals differently. It requires you to refine your techniques and possibly to be unnatural. They know the leadership and management tricks as well as you do, so you may spare them some of the techniques. But you may not be as natural with them as you may be with more junior colleagues… for exactly the same reasons. (The author has a nice analogy with pro boxing)

Develop your CEO skillset and your CEO network. Both are important. If you are a professional CEO, you probably had the time to develop them. If you are a founder CEO, you may have to accelerate your learning path. The author splits the network part in 5 different sections: knowing people at large companies (they are clients and partners), executives (you will need to recruit), engineers (for execution), press & analysts, and investors & acquirers.

Don’t quit. In particular, don’t punk out. It is easy and may be tempting though.

Manage your own psychology. It may be the hardest skill to master.

Get a good mentor. It helps.

Recognize that peacetime and wartime CEO are two different roles. They require different skill sets and mindsets. Very few people, if anyone, can do both. (Read the book for great two pages about this)

A parting thought

“No matter who you are, you need two kinds of friends in your life. The fist kind is one you can call when something good happens, and you need someone who will be excited for you. The second kind of friends is somebody you can, call when things go horribly wrong. […] Bill Campbell is both of those friends.” (Author was reflecting about why absolutely everybody loves Bill Campbell)

Texte pour la sélection Curatus

Ce livre est de loin le titre le plus cité des invités du Podcast Generation Do It Yourself de Matthieu Stefani. Soyons précis : il est mentionné dans dix épisodes : Philippe Corrot, Benjamin Gaignault, Roxanne Varza, Karim Jouini, Marc Ménasé, Firmin Zocchetto, Antoine Freysz, Loïc Soubeyrand, Hugo Mercier et Joachim Dupont.

L’auteur partage en particulier son expérience de fondateur et de dirigeant d’entreprise. L’ouvrage est donc un mix d’expériences personnelles et de réflexions. Sa valeur tient d’abord dans le nombre de sujets abordés avec honnêteté intellectuelle et pertinence : recruter, coacher, licencier, former… tous les sujets ou presque sont abordés.

Mais son originalité tient surtout dans le traitement des sujets qui fâchent. L’auteur remarque que la plupart des ouvrages de management sont écrits pour des dirigeants d’entreprise où tout va dans l’ensemble relativement bien. Or son expérience est plus chaotique. Il propose donc de s’intéresser aux cas épineux.

Recruter est une chose. Mais comment faire lorsque la recrue vient de l’entreprise d’une amie ? Licencier quelqu’un est une chose. Mais comment le faire bien lorsque ce quelqu’un est un camarade loyal qui vous accompagne depuis des années ? Quand vendre son entreprise et pourquoi ? A quel moment écouter des coachs et des avis ? Et à quels moments décider seul car on en sait plus que son entourage ?

Dans cet ouvrage d’une rare densité, d’une rare intelligence et d’une rare franchise, un professionnel expérimenté ouvrira une partie des secrets parfois noirs de ce qu’il a appris dans la difficulté. Si vous souhaitez vous hisser sur les épaules des géants pour accélérer votre courbe d’expérience, Ben Horowitz vous propose de gagner des années d’expérience professionnelle en quelques heures et pour quelques euros.

C’est une offre trop rare et trop précieuse pour ne pas l’accepter. Pour une fois, faites confiance à la foule. Paradoxalement, lire The Hard Thing about Hard Things est probablement plus facile que de l’ignorer.