Book Review: The Hard Things About Hard Things
There are a plethora of business and management books out there. Many are written using lessons learned from successful companies dominating an industry as their primary examples. However, Horowitz discusses the ugly side of running a company and the things not usually listed in the job description. Though the book is geared towards the tech industry, the concepts are still very much applicable to any industry.
My Summary: After leaving Netscape, Horowitz became the founding CEO of Loudcloud. Most of his time spent as CEO were turbulent with many obstacles, challenges, difficult decisions, and setbacks. He refers to this as the Struggle, which must be embraced. Loudcloud struggled, and Horowitz decided to sell it but keep Opsware, a software section within the company. His decision to do so was unpopular but a bold move to “keep the ship afloat”. As the CEO of Opsware, he experienced far more moments challenging the company’s survival than moments of certainty and security. Ultimately, after eight years, he was able to sell the company for $1.65 billion dollars ($14.25 per share compared to a low of 35 cents per share). During his time as CEO, he learned many valuable lessons which he shares in the rest of the book.
My Take Home Points: Horowitz dives into many topics including laying off employees, hiring/firing executives, scaling, culture, training, and stress. The finer points of the book are more than this quick review can discuss, but there are some key points and overarching themes worth mentioning.
First and foremost, be honest and direct. Leading others is a lonely job as the boss has to make the tough and unpopular decisions. Being direct and honest do not make hard decisions easier or the boss more popular, but it will reduce misunderstanding, miscommunication, and fallout. The job is to have a successful organization, not to be liked by everyone.
Second, being in charge does not mean being perfect. Just like any other job, being a boss is learned, mostly through failures and mistakes. It’s important to not be weighed down by mistakes, to not take them personally, and to not let the aftermath negatively impact the mission moving forward. A general will likely lose some battles but can still win the war.
Third, focus on training. Ultimately, everything falls on the organization’s leader, and he/she must take ownership of it. Training employees ensures the proper Though initial training and on boarding new employees can be greatly time consuming and unproductive from a revenue standpoint, it pays huge dividends in the future. It’s critical to ensure everyone is well-trained in their jobs and the organization’s operations.
Next, the organization’s culture is critical. Horowitz states to “take care of the people, the products, and the profits” … in that order. Taking care of the people in the organization goes beyond just treating them well with respect. It includes training them, clearly outlying performance expectations, being honest/direct, and setting them up for success. Doing so will ensure a higher quality product (or service), company loyalty, honest communication, and employee satisfaction (improved talent retention and decreased turnover). “Happier” employees producing a “better” product/service ultimately leads to increased profits.
Lastly and most importantly, leading a company and other people is a never-ending struggle. The sooner it can be embraced, the better. Avoiding the Struggle does not make it go away. Avoidance makes it more challenging for both the leader and the followers.
My Recommendation: Though this book is geared towards leaders of large tech-like companies, many of the concepts are applicable to any leader in any organization at any level. Horowitz’s writing style is fresh with direct points and flashes of humor. I would recommend this book to those leading large organizations and companies but not to everyone as the most applicable concepts are commonly discussed in other books, blogs, podcasts, and available resources.