This week is a return to our series on the best books in management. Our second book in the three-book pantheon is Ben Horowitz’s The Hard Thing About Hard Things. Written in 2014, this is the most-current book in collection. It is also the book that has the most heart. Horowitz wrote something honest, insightful, and wholly correct.
There is a clear but coincidental pattern here. Our first book in the top three was Andy Grove’s High Output Management. Horowitz just-so-happens to consider it his favorite. Thus, his book rhymes deeply with Grove’s.
Also, both books come from the tech world. Is that because tech has the greatest managers? I doubt it. The cycle times are what help. Most managers in most fields will occupy just a couple phases of an business’s life during their tenure. They come in during the early maturation phase and lead the company through a growth spurt. Or they swoop in at a low point and cleanup a downturn. It could take eight to ten years to do so.
Meanwhile, the startup founder/CEO lives through the whole thing in very short order. Horowitz founded his company in 1999, took it to scale, went public, made a massive gain, then saw massive losses, made a pivot, snatched success from the jaws of defeat, and sold the company for a billion and change. All in the span of eight years. He is a leader who has seen and done everything in a very short period of time. It seems to only happen in tech.
Also, to my knowledge, there is no other field that offers so many of these stories *and* involves leaders who can speak articulately about it after the fact. This gets to the another pattern in my selection of the greatest books on the topic: experience. Andy Grove was the successful CEO and Chairman of the Board for Intel. Horowitz was the successful CEO of Loudcloud (later known as Opsware) and now serves as the successful partner in the venture capital firm Andreessen Horowitz. These leaders have lived this work.
There are many other great books on management, of course. The best come from Peter Drucker. I celebrate his entire oeuvre. Yet, it can’t carry the same resonance. My copy of The Effective Executive is quite dog-eared and well-used. He was right about so many things. However, he never sat in the chair. Thus his ideas have an unavoidable sterility, an academic detachment, that can feel preachy at times (so says the guy who will struggle to contribute 1/10th of Drucker’s body of work). It just cannot be as “real”.
So let’s get real with some truth here about management and leadership.
I’ll start with the story that Horowitz conveys in the first third of the book. It involves a conversation between a couple legends in the professional football world. Bill Parcells, as the head coach for the New York Giants, paid a visit to the team owner of the Oakland Raiders, Al Davis. For those that don’t know, Davis was a deeply influential member of the sports league and widely respected. Everyone went to him for advice.
At the time, Parcells was facing some challenges and the team wasn’t living up to expectations. Many of his players were injured and, with the losing that had followed, Parcells felt unsure of many things. The following is offered third-hand from our author:
Parcells: “Al, I am just not sure how we can win without so many of our best players. What should I do?”
Davis: “Bill, nobody cares, just coach your team.”
So sayeth the wise sage everyone goes to see. Not so profound, is it? But it comes at a perfect time in the arc of our author’s story. He, too, deals with serious challenges with his company and he recalls this advice and concludes with the following:
That [Davis’s advice] might be the best CEO advice ever. Because, you see, nobody cares. When things go wrong in your company, nobody cares. The media don’t care, your investors don’t care, your board doesn’t care, your employees don’t care, and even your mama doesn’t care. Nobody cares.
Again, it doesn’t seem so profound. Unless you’ve been in Horowitz’s shoes. And Parcells’ shoes. I don’t mean you need to be a CEO or a Head Coach in the NFL. I mean this figuratively.
Have you ever faced a severe challenge with no great options?
How about the crushing pressure to at least look like you have everything under control?
Ever struggled with what to do next? Well, the good news is that nobody cares.
A Beautiful Sense of Freedom
As a slight caveat, this doesn’t refer to actual life-or-death situations. Just the ones we decide to perceive as life-and-death. Coincidentally, in the business world, Steve Jobs appears to have been the best at creating those faux-serious life-or-death situations for everyone around him. For better or worse. But looking back at every outburst and proclamation, there should have been a court jester singing the steady refrain:
No one cares! No one cares! No one ever really cares!
When we feel the strain of our efforts, this inconvenient truth sounds very harsh. It makes us feel unimportant. Thus, we naturally deny the idea and heap more pressure on ourselves instead. After all, we are important therefore everyone is anxiously counting on us. Our work matters to us so the world simply must be gripped with the same anxiety we feel. We imagine hundreds of people on the edge of their seats. We see ourselves starring in a three-camera sitcom with all three lenses are pointed at us. Waiting. In silence.
Cue the jester: No one cares!
Consider your own experience when you’re watching someone struggle with their endeavor. It could be their struggle to lose weight or deal with a bad relationship or stay afloat in their business. Do you feel the same tension that they feel? Does their inner conflict make you lose sleep at night? Probably not.
This is what “no one cares” really means. It means that no one else can feel the pain you feel and, therefore, they don’t. They don’t grip over your problem the same way you do. They don’t grip at all.
They feel sympathy, of course. And if the fate of the company is on the line, they’ll feel tension. Just not for you. It will be for themselves.
And what if you make a bad decision that leads to the worst possible outcome for others? What if you let others down and they suffer? What if Bill Parcells’ football team never wins another game? What if someone loses their job?
Well, it happens and no amount of worry and internal struggle will fix that.
Worry Is A Prayer For Something You Don’t Want
Horowitz faced this angst many times in the tumultuous life of his company. His story is fascinating. His attitude, coming through it, is very much appreciated. When dealing with these hard things, he basically says don’t worry about all the ways things can go wrong, focus on finding the one way it can go right. In his own words:
Spend zero time on what you could have done, and devote all of your time on what you might do. Because in the end, nobody cares; just run your company.
The fact that no one cares doesn’t mean that you are devalued. It doesn’t mean that your work is pointless. It also doesn’t mean that you’re crazy for caring. The idea that no one cares doesn’t mean no one cares. It means you can free yourself. It means that you can remove that purported distraction. Find the best of the worst options, do what you can with it, and take the next least-bad option and do what you can again. Just run your company. Just run your life.
Not blindly. Not numbly. Refocus the energy that goes into your angst and put it into your action. Drive on. Worry is a prayer for what you don’t want.
Image of pressure gauge from FoodCraftLab via Flickr