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Book: The Hard Thing About Hard Things

Author:  Ben Horowitz

Purchase:  Print | eBook | Audiobook

Citation:  Horowitz, B. (2014). The hard thing about hard things : building a business when there are no easy answers. New York: Harper Business.

Key Ideas and Big Takeaways:

In any human interaction, the required amount of communication is inversely proportional to the level of trust. If I trust you completely, then I require no explanation or communication of your actions whatsoever, because I know that whatever you are doing is in my best interests. On the other hand, if I don't trust you at all, then no amount of talking, explaining, or reasoning will have any effect on me, because I do not trust that you are telling me the truth. (pg. 66)

A healthy culture encourages people to share bad news. A company that discusses its problems freely and openly can quickly solve them. A company that covers up its problems frustrates everyone involved. Build a culture that rewards - no punishes - people for getting problems into the open where they can be solved. (pg. 67)

When you have to fire an executive (principal or other leadership member) make sure to preserve the reputation of the fired executive. The failure was very likely a team effort, and it's best to portray it that way. You don't make yourself look good by trashing someone who worked for you. I recommend scripting or rehearsing what you plan to say so that you do not misspeak. The executive will remember the conversation for a very long time, so you need to get it right. Three keys to getting the conversation right include, 1) being clear on the reasons, 2) using decisive language, and 3) have the severance package approved and ready. Finally, the executive will be keenly interested in how the news will be communicated to the company and to the outside world. It is best to let her decide. Think: "You cannot let her keep her job, but you can absolutely let her keep her respect." (pg. 78)

Training is, quite simply, one of the highest-leverage activities a manager can perform. Consider the possibility of putting on a series of four lectures for members of your department. Let's count on three hours preparation for each hour of course time - twelve hours of work in total. Say that you have ten students in your class. Next year they will work a total of about twenty thousand hours for your organization. If your training efforts result in a 1 percent improvement in your subordinates' performance, your company will gain the equivalent of two hundred hours of work as the result of the expenditure of your twelve hours. (pg. 107)

The Peter Principle says that in a hierarchy, members are promoted so long as they work competently. Sooner or later they are promoted to a position at which they are no longer competent (their level of incompetence), and there they remain being unable to earn further promotions. The Peter Principle is unavoidable, because there is not way to know what what level in the hierarchy a manager will be incompetent. (pg. 160)

Bill Campbell developed an excellent methodology for measuring executives: 1) Results Against Objectives (once you've set a high standard, it will be straightforward to measure your executive against the standard), 2) Management (Even if they aren't meeting their goals, that doesn't mean they are building a strong team. It's important to understand how they are managing, even if they aren't hitting their goals), 3) Innovation (It's possible to hit a goal but ignore the future), and 4) Working With Peers (executives must be effective at communicating, supporting, and getting what they need from the other people on your staff). (pg. 174)

One-on-one meetings provide an excellent mechanism for information and ideas to flow up the organization and should be a part of your communication design. Generally, people who think one-on-one meetings are a bad idea have been victims of poorly designed ones. The key to a good one-on-one meeting is the understanding that it is the employee's meeting rather than the manager's meeting. This is a free-form meeting for all of the pressing issues, brilliant ideas, and chronic frustrations. Remember that the manager should do 10 percent of the talking and 90 percent of the listening. In the end, the most important thing is that the best ideas, biggest problems, and the most intense life issues make their way to the people who can deal with them. One-on-ones are a time-tested way to do that. (pg. 177)

As CEO, there is never enough time to gather all information needed to make a decision. You must make hundreds of decisions big and small in the course of a typical week. You cannot simply stop all other activities to gather comprehensive data and do exhaustive analysis to make that single decision. Therefore, you make continuously and systematically gather knowledge in the company's day-to-day activities so that you will have as much information as possible when the decision point arrives. Great CEO's build exceptional strategies for gathering the required information continuously. They embed their quest for intelligence into all of their daily actions from staff meetings to parent meetings to one-on-ones. Winning strategies are built on comprehensive knowledge gathered in every interaction the CEO has with their staff and stakeholders. (pg. 238)

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