In praise of “The Hard Thing About Hard Things”

By Timothy Kasbe, COO, Gloria Jeans Company, Guest Blogger*

From the first page of The Hard Thing About Hard Things, the reader learns that Ben Horowitz is not a consultant! This guy has been in the trenches and comes out swinging, hence, has a thing or two to share with anyone contemplating a leadership role or getting involved in a startup. The hard thing is “making something out of nothing”, and the harder part is “the only way to learn to run a company, is by running a company”.  The book bestows Horowitz’s personal experience, his struggles, as well as lessons he learnt, on its readers towards making something out of nothing.

Going into a startup is romantic. The allure of being your own boss, controlling your own destiny and bringing something new to the world has an allure of romance. While I believe, anyone can be a leader, few embark on the task of leadership fully contemplating the cost of leadership: The demands on yourself, your time, your family, your friends, your reputation and your well-being. The bigger your impact on the world, the more you will be criticized. Fewer still realize that leadership is addictive and before you know it, you forget the costs you are paying to “play the leader” and sustain it over the long haul.

Horowitz gives us a gift with no holds barred of a transparent and authentic account of his journey, including parts that most leaders either do not want to acknowledge or simply fail to share, to appear strong. While there can be no recipe for success of any venture or a leader, this book offers ideas and tips on issues leaders will face as they embark on a leadership role. More importantly, this book makes you aware of the fact that as a leader, you can’t predict what blessing or crisis is going to land on your desk at any given hour. It takes off the romantic veil that is generally associated with being a leader and reveals issues, disasters, crap and unexpected surprises that await you.

Divided into nine chapters, Horowitz starts with his communist background then recounts his radical transformation, which leads him to be a venture capitalist. Throughout the book, the reader is driven to the edge of the seat because; Horowitz is a step away from failure. But, his quick decision-making, hard work, and tenacity are no guarantees, as he is the first to acknowledge that “luck played a major role” in seeing him exit or cash out successfully. Luck, is an important point that most “successful” leaders fail to acknowledge when speaking about their successful venture exits. Such honest disclosure is mixed with tips on management that most management books fail to give us, like how to fire a friend, have tough discussions about promotions, handing out titles, finding best talent fit, techniques for calming your nerves, programming your culture and even a bliss of a questionnaire for your sales guy in the appendix at the end. It is important to acknowledge that Horowitz understands the difference between leadership and management; and importance and application of both.

You have 60 days of money left, you try to fundraise in the middle of the burst dotcom bubble of 2000, to hear a mutual fund manager say, “Why are you here? Do you have any idea what is going on in the world?” Horowitz had a wise friend in Marc Andreessen by his side dishing out advice, “You only ever experience two emotions: euphoria and terror. And I find that lack of sleep enhances them both.” Horowitz had “a multitude of counselors” who joined him in celebrating his successes, and were there for him during times of desperation. Leadership is no “solo” game.

Horowitz’s use of a quote from his grandfather’s tombstone “Life is struggle” (Karl Marx) is apt for his subject. He explains “the struggle” poetically in ways that leaders who have been in the trenches can relate to:

The Struggle is when you wonder why you started the company in the first place.

The Struggle is when people ask why you didn’t quit and you don’t know the answer.

The Struggle is when food loses its taste.

The Struggle is when you are having a conversation with someone and you can’t hear a word that they are saying because all you can hear is the Struggle.

The Struggle is when you go on vacation to feel better but you feel worse.

The Struggle is not failure, but it causes failure. Especially if you are weak. Always if you are weak.

The Struggle is where greatness comes from.

If you have been in the trenches of leadership, you can relate to any of these statements, if not all of them.

Some thoughts in Horowitz’s book are repeats of what has been stated by leaders in the past. Ken Blanchard said many years ago, “Profit is the applause you get for looking after your employees and customers”. Horowitz echoes this by saying “We take care of the people, the products, and the profits – in that order.” But acknowledges that “Taking care of the people” is the most difficult of the three by far and if you don’t do it, the other two won’t matter. He outlines what it means by taking care of people by providing practical steps. In some ways, this is more applicable to large enterprise leaders as opposed to the startups. Jack Welch and Keith Ferazzi have both echoed, “lack of candor is the cancer killing American corporations”. Horowitz says, “A healthy company 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.

In conclusion, I can’t hide my love and admiration for this book because of its authenticity and openness. The clarity with which Horowitz draws differences between peacetime versus wartime CEOs is a gift to all the up and coming leaders as they start their journey, and reassurance for those already in the leadership “struggles”. “Peacetime CEO spends time defining the culture. Wartime CEO lets the war define the culture.” Horowitz is simply lavish in sharing hard learned lessons with his readers. What kind of a CEO are you? Read the book to find out and keep it in your reference library or on your bedside table for easy access. Although, Horowitz takes his cues from technology startup leadership, some of the most respected and seasoned leaders in the world have tweeted that “it is the most thoughtprovoking book they have read in years.”  Hence, I recommend The Hard Thing About Hard Things to all leaders and anyone contemplating leadership.

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