Tuesday Morning Focal Point

The Hard Thing About Hard Things – a book review

April 29, 2020

This book has been on my want to read list for a while and I figured the current economic climate set the stage for now being the right time to do so.

Ability to easily see different perspectives

The author, Ben Horowitz, had a unique upbringing having communist grandparents while living in New York. In addition, throughout his college years he ran in several different social circles. These two factors contributed to Horowitz’s ability to better separate facts from fiction. In college he was exposed to many different viewpoints of the same current event because he had all these different soci-economic vantage points around him. He took this ability to switch the lens on a certain fact to his entrepreneurship as young business man. This ability to see an issue or fact from different perspectives equipped him to work through hard things.

The book starts with a lot of story telling of his experience of building a software company in the early 2000s and riding the roller coaster of mergers, sales, and hostile takeovers, of being cash and staff strong to being completely financed and massive layoffs, and of taking a company public and watching the stock crash and run the risk of being traded as a penny stock. These initial stories establish his credibility as having survived hard things.

Tell me about the hard things

The second part of the book addresses specific hard things that CEOs and executives might encounter throughout their careers. He talks of raising funds, mass layoffs, hiring staff that are leaving from the CEO’s friend’s company, CEO burnout, what are job descriptions, hiring older staff, how a CEO should be evaluated and assessed, swearing at the office and management debt. (Management debt was a new term for me and is explained well in the book).

I appreciated that Horowitz addressed CEO burnout. He expressed how the CEO must maintain confidence and control for the employees, shareholders, and company. However, the paradox is that leaves no one for him/her to work through challenges with. I do think that the author missed an incredible opportunity within this chapter to discuss mental health and the importance of caring for mental wellness and building resilience.

The end of the book covers Horowitz experience now being a venture capitalist. He discusses the unique challenges of a Founding CEO, who is often the technical CEO, but not the functional CEO. As this CEO’s company grows from being an idea to a large corporation, he might not have the skills to support the scaling.  There are many successful founding CEOs right now, Zuckerberg, Bezos, Dell, and Dorsey to name a few. Horowitz’s VC firm supports these founding CEOs so they evolve to also being successful functional CEOs. Not addressed in the book, but by way of shameless plug, this is a fabulous reason why a CEO would turn to an executive coach, to support her to gain the skills to grow beyond the founding CEO and in to long range CEO.

Peacetime vs. wartime

I will end with my favourite takeaway from this book – and its this; the concept of a peacetime general and a wartime general. Horowitz beautifully parallels the CEO to an army general. He underlines that the CEO in times of common calm and “regular operations” behaves and speaks very differently than a war time CEO. In the wartime (hard times) the CEO must shift his lens and function and perform in a way very different than in the peacetime. Processes, systems, product and service offerings, and organizational structures are among the things that need to be reconsidered during times of war. Often this reconsideration or pivot needs to happen swiftly and promptly during war.

Overall, there were several great learning concepts in The Hard Thing About Things. Many of the stories and examples are from the tech and software industry in the US’s economy. Despite this, there are common themes that be extrapolated to other industries.

When facing hard things –  “People. Product. Profits – in that order”

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Book review by Shanalisa Keller, Business Coach and Consultant. Shanalisa works with entrepreneurs and small business executives. She supports them to overcome challenges and step in to their great leadership capacity.