The Hard Thing About Hard Things
One of my goals in 2019 was to read (or re-read) a business book each month. I have gotten in the habit of buying a lot of business books and not reading them, so I wanted to make a goal this year to get through my stack of books in this season of life. For January, I read the book The Hard Thing About Hard Things by Ben Horowitz. Ben is half of the duo behind Andreessen Horowitz, the famed venture capital fund. Prior to Andreessen Horowitz Ben had experience running a tech startup, and much of this book are the lessons learned in running a tech startup from almost going bankrupt to finally selling his company to HP.
One of the topics he talks about in this book is peacetime CEOs and wartime CEOs. Basically, when things are running well you can manage the company a certain way and have a culture that you develop and nurture. But when things are not going well, you adopt a wartime strategy that throws the culture and practices out the window in order to manage the tough times. An example he outlines in the book is peacetime CEOs spend time defining the culture and wartime CEOs let the war define the culture. Also, peacetime CEOs think of competition as other big ships in the ocean that never engage, and wartime CEOs think the competition is sneaking into your house and trying to kidnap your children. Ben goes into more detail on this, but I think this type of thinking is fundamentally wrong. While different phases in a company’s life dictate different management strategies, the overall ethos of that management should not change. The values and culture you develop and define for yourselves should be the same all of the time. Culture should not be dictated by the war. Values should not be changed when things are hard.
At Lance CPA Group, one of our values is Courageous Authenticity. It’s a value that defines our company and our culture. However, if times get hard and we tossed that value aside, then was it ever really a value of ours? The values and culture you develop in your company need to be able to stand on their own in both the good and the bad times. It’s those tough times that bring those values into sharp focus and truly let you know if they are the values you actually believe in as a company.
I would be interested to hear from employees of Ben Horowitz’s tech startup to see what their thoughts were about the dissonance in values and culture that they might have experienced, and how that impacted how they worked or how they saw their company. I think Ben had a lot of good ideas from learned experience in The Hard Thing About Hard Things, but I think he may have missed the mark here in the peacetime/wartime CEO section of his book.