The Hard Thing About Hard Things

I’ve just finished reading The Hard Thing About Hard Things, by Ben Horowitz.
It’s an amazing read, with compelling, actionable insights in every chapter. Even though the experiences in the book were drawn predominantly from Horowitz’s experience at Loudcloud, it’s not a technology book, for me the key bits were about people:

  • How to hire the best
  • How to retain the best
  • How to take the tough decisions when one of your team is not working out.

I wanted to write about one specific thing that I particularly loved, but a bit like choosing a “Best of Gareth Bale’s goals”, there are just too many.
Page 176-178 in my version (yes, I’m old school and have a paper version – shoot me) talks about “One-on-One’s”. I have been the victim of one on ones for years in firms where I have worked, big and small. I hated them. Why? Because they were generally used to tell me stuff, instead of asking what I thought. Horowitz makes it clear that the one on one is the employee’s opportunity to speak, and that managers / CEO’s / Founders should be letting the employee do 90% of the talking.
What if the employee doesn’t enjoy talking, or feels uncomfortable about something that they want to say? Then the job of the CEO is to draw the employee out. Of course, you will not manage that if the culture in the company is too political, or if there is no sense of common purpose, but a great one on one process from the very beginning of your start up, when you have one or two employees, will help develop that culture and desire to make the company successful.
Some of the questions Horowitz uses in the book, I love in particular are:

  • If we could improve in any way, how would we do it?
  • What is the number one problem with our company and what?
  • Who is really kicking ass in the company? (I think that means doing well, but I’m really not sure!)
  • What are we not doing that we should be doing?
  • Are you happy working here?

Not rocket science, but if you can get your team talking to you honestly and directly about these things, then you will get a great insight into what is working as your start up grows from 5 people to 20, to 100 and beyond.  Talk to your team like you talk to customers, they can give you valuable insights into what is working and what isn’t.
The Hard Thing About Hard Things should be required reading on every single accelerator programme and management course.  I hope that every single entrepreneur reads it and takes away a few lessons, whether about hiring, firing or motivating their teams.  It is simply brilliant.


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