The Hard thing About Hard Things Book Cover

The Hard Thing About Hard Things

Rating: 10

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Even though I am not a CEO, this book taught me invaluable management lessons that made better perform on the job. A highly recommended read for anyone who is a manager or trying to become one.


Until you make the effort to get to know someone or something, you don't know anything. There are no shortcuts to knowledge, especially knowledge gained from personal experience. Following conventional wisdom and relying on shortcuts can be worse than knowing nothing at all.

[The] former Secretary of State Colin Powell says that leadership is the ability to get someone to follow you even if only out of curiosity.

During this time I learned the most important rule of raising money privately: Look for a market of one. You only need one investor to say yes, so it's best to ignore the other thirty who say "no."

Trust & Communication

Without trust, communication breaks. More specifically: In any human interaction, the required amount of communication is inversely proportional to the level of trust. Consider the following: 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.

Telling things as they are is a critical part of building this trust. A CEO's ability to build this trust over time is often the difference between companies that execute well and companies that are chaotic.

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. 

When a company fails to hit its financial plan so severely that it must fire the employees it went to great time and expense to hire, it weighs heavily on the chief executive.

Once you decide that you will have to lay people off, the time elapsed between making that decision and executing that decision should be as short as possible. If word leaks (which it will inevitably if you delay), then you will be faced with an additional set of issues. 

The most important step in the whole exercise is training the management team. If you send managers into this super-uncomfortable situation with no training, most of them will fail. Training starts with a golden rule: Managers must lay off their own people.

If you hired me and I busted my ass working for you, I expect you to have the courage to lay me off yourself.

The people who stay will care deeply about how you treat their colleagues. Many of the people whom you lay off will have closer relationships with the people who stay than you do, so treat them with the appropriate level of respect. Still, the company must move forward, so be careful not to apologize too much.

Be present. Be visible. Be engaging. People want to see you. They want to see whether you care. The people whom you laid off will want to know if they still have a relationship with you and the company. Talk to people. Help them carry their things to their cars. Let them know that you appreciate their efforts.

Use appropriate language. Make clear with your language that you've decided. [...] By doing this, you will avoid putting the employee in the awkward position of wondering whether he should lobby for his old job. You can't tell him what he wants to hear, but you can be honest. Admit reality. 

High-tech companies tend to track employee attrition in three categories: 

  1. People who quit 
  2. People who got fired 
  3. People who quit, but it's okay because the company didn't want them anyway.

Fascinatingly, as companies begin to struggle, the third category always seems to grow much faster than the first.

Being a good company doesn't matter when things go well, but it can be the difference between life and death when things go wrong. Things always go wrong. Being a good company is an end in itself.


People at McDonald's get trained for their positions, but people with far more complicated jobs don't. It makes no sense. Would you want to stand on the line of the untrained person at McDonald's? Would you want to use the software written by the engineer who was never told how the rest of the code worked? A lot of companies think their employees are so smart that they require no training. That's silly.

Then I read chapter 16 of Andy Grove's management classic, High Output Management, titled "Why Training Is the Boss's Job," and it changed my career. Grove wrote, "Most managers seem to feel that training employees is a job that should be left to others. I, on the other hand, strongly believe that the manager should do it himself."

Training is, quite simply, one of the highest-leverage activities a manager can perform. Consider for a moment the possibility of your 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 per cent 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.

I decided to read all the exit interviews for the entire company to better understand why people quit high-tech companies. After putting economics aside, I found that there were two primary reasons why people quit: They hated their manager; generally, the employees were appalled by the lack of guidance, career development, and feedback they were receiving. They weren't learning anything: The company wasn't investing resources in helping employees develop new skills.

Teaching can also become a badge of honour for employees who achieve an elite level of competence.

Good product managers know the market, the product, the product line, and the competition extremely well and operate from a strong basis of knowledge and confidence. A good product manager is the CEO of the product. Good product managers take full responsibility and measure themselves in terms of the success of the product.

Bad product managers have lots of excuses. Not enough funding, the engineering manager is an idiot, Microsoft has ten times as many engineers working on it, I'm overworked, I don't get enough direction.

Good product managers communicate crisply to engineering in writing as well as verbally. Good product managers don't give direction informally. Good product managers gather information informally. 1.1 Good product managers create collateral, FAQs, presentations, and white papers that can be leveraged by salespeople, marketing people, and executives. Bad product managers complain that they spend all day answering questions for the sales force and are swamped.

Good product managers think about the story they want written by the press. Bad product managers think about covering every feature and being absolutely technically accurate with the press. Good product managers ask the press questions. Bad product managers answer any press question. Good product managers assume members of the press and the analyst community are really smart. Bad product managers assume that journalists and analysts are dumb because they don't understand the subtle nuances of their particular technology.

Titles, Incompetence and the Law of Crappy People

One challenge is the Peter Principle. Coined by Dr. Laurence J. Peter and Raymond Hull in their 1969 book of that name, the Peter Principle holds 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 Law of Crappy People states: For any title level in a large organization, the talent on that level will eventually converge to the crappiest person with the title. The rationale behind the law is that the other employees in the company with lower titles will naturally benchmark themselves against the crappiest person at the next level.

Andreessen argues that people ask for many things from a company: salary, bonus, stock options, span of control, and titles. Of those, title is by far the cheapest, so it makes sense to give the highest titles possible. The hierarchy should have Presidents, Chiefs, and Senior Executive Vice Presidents. If it makes people feel better, let them feel better. Titles cost nothing. Better yet, when competing for new employees with other companies, using Andreessen's method you can always outbid the competition in at least one dimension. At Facebook, by contrast, Mark Zuckerberg purposely deploys titles that are significantly lower than the industry standard. Senior Vice Presidents at other companies must take title haircuts down to Directors or Managers at Facebook.

So which method is better, Andreessen's or Zuckerberg's? The answer is that it depends.