Book Review: The Hard Thing About Hard Things

The Hard Thing About Hard Things: Building a business when there are no easy answers by Ben Horowitz

This is a good book about the hard things about starting your own business. It covers strategy, logistics, buyouts, management, and is useful for entrepreneurs and executives in general.

The main theme of the book, if there is one, is how hard it is to build a company. He felt like his business was in war-time basically all the time. It was like jumping from one disaster to another. He also emphasized that there were no rules for being a CEO. No on was born to be CEO. Everyone makes it up as they go along. It’s a pretty refreshing take for an executive. The following are some interesting takeaways from the book.

Hire for strengths rather than lack of weaknesses. This parallels the themes of Buckingham’s management books I’ve been reading. Still have a few more reviews to write there. I’m totally into the strengths-based management and interviewing though.

Trust is crucial. If I trust you completely, then I need no explanation of your actions. Otherwise you end up spending time explaining yourself and doubting.

Training. Start training employees immediately on the fundamentals of your business, including architecture. Consider a weeklong camp. One of the side benefits is that it dramatically improves your company culture. Management training is the next most important training, which includes how to write a performance review, how often to do one-on-one meetings and what to do in them.

Metrics. Ensure that the metrics you track focus on the real goal and not some secondary nice-to-have goal. Otherwise, you’ll end up with an unintended consequence of sacrificing the primary for the secondary. For example, if you track predictability, you may sacrifice overall sales to achieve predictability.

Ambition. Management needs to have ambition for their product, or company mission, not for their careers. Otherwise the focus is in the wrong place.

Building a culture is about how you do things. The door desks at Amazon are a clear statement to employees that Amazon is a frugal company—moreso than any values statement. Facebook’s motto is move fast and break things to ensure that innovation is prioritized. Square emphasizes beautiful design in their products, and also their office space, so you wouldn’t find door desks there.

The book is full of interesting stories, and vague principles like these to think about at your company. Interesting, but not must-read, unless you’re an executive who needs reassurance that you’re not the only one who feels like your nearly drowning.

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Book Review: The One Thing You Need to Know

The One Thing You Need to Know: About Great Managing, Great Leading, and Sustained Individual Success by Marcus Buckingham

I knew I was going to like this book by Marcus Buckingham when right at the beginning he introduced the angle this book would take, which was to find the main “controlling insight” for a few very important areas of business. He defines a controlling insight as the best explanation, which has to apply across a wide range of situations, has to serve as a multiplier (elevating performance from good to great), and has to guide action. Actually, I also knew I was going to like this because because I found an article on Harvard Business Review that covers the management topic. I highly recommend this book for those in management and leadership positions. I found a lot of action items in this so this is a longer, more detailed post.

I love a good data-driven analysis that is carefully crafted into a concise, easy-to-remember phrase to guide action. In a bit of an odd twist, he goes on to explain that the controlling insight into marriages that last is when each spouse tends to rate the other more favorably and generously:

For a lasting marriage, find the most generous explanation for each other’s behavior, and believe it.

The book then goes on to talk about management and leadership. Management is generally concerned with what individuals do, and actually producing a product and meeting goals. Leadership is about setting goals. The one thing that managers need to know is:

Discover what is unique about each person and capitalize on it.

Great managers turn talent into performance. Management is all about the individual, and helping them to succeed. The premise of the book is that talents (as opposed to knowledge and skills) are not learnable. So managers should find out what their employees talents are, and make sure their assignments align well. This will save time, increase accountability, and builds a stronger sense of team.

There are 3 things you need to know about your employees to manage them effectively:

  1. Strengths and Weaknesses. Thinking particularly of talents, not knowledge or skills.
  2. Triggers. What motivation gets them to do their best?
  3. Style of learning. Analyzing, doing, or watching.

Questions to ask employees to understand how they work best:

  1. Strengths: What was the best day at work you’ve had in the last 3 months?
  2. Weaknesses: What was your worst day at work in the last 3 months?
  3. Triggers: What was the best relationship with a manager you’ve ever had?
  4. Triggers: What was the best praise or recognition you’ve ever received?
  5. Learning: When in your career do you think you were learning the most?

A manager’s strongest talent is to coach others toward success. Managers should have 4 basic skills:

  1. Select good people. When interviewing ask open ended questions and if they do the thing you’re looking for often enough, they’ll come up with an example from recent memory.
  2. Define clear expectations: “What do you think you get paid to do?”
  3. Praise
  4. Care

Learn how each employee is different and then learn how each of these differences fit into your overall plan of action.

Marcus’s definition of leadership is that great leaders rally people to a better future. The one thing leaders must know is:

Discover What is Universal and Capitalize on it.

The better you do this, the better you will lead. Note that it tends to be the opposite of a manger, where they need to discover what is unique about each employee. According to researchers, there are 5 universal human needs: security, community, clarity, authority, and respect. The job of a leader is to provide clarity, particularly in the following 4 areas:

  1. Who is our target customer? And it should not be the shareholder. Best Buy had great examples of having each store focus on certain segments, such as “mobile professionals.”
  2. What is our core strength? The book shared examples of “knowledgeable retail staff,” and “the safest work sites.” Even if it’s not true now, it can be a clarifying vision of strength.
  3. What is our core score? A prison system decided to change it metrics from measuring escapees to measuring repeat offenders. Best Buy measures employee engagement with surveys.
  4. What actions can we take today? Direct leadership action sets the tone for other employees. Set up inter-organizational meetings to cut through politics. Strategic actions force employees to become involved in new activities. Symbolic action grabs our attention and gives us focus.

The talent of a great leader is to have optimism and ego. Otherwise you can’t lead people to a better future. If you want to improve your skills, there are 3 prevalent disciplines that will help leaders increase their clarity:

  1. Take time to reflect.
  2. Select your heroes (recognized employees) with great care. They should model behavior you want others to emulate.
  3. Practice. Experiment with word combinations to find clarity.

The final part of the book focuses on how to achieve sustained personal success. He claims that only 20% of people report working in a role where they can do their best work every day. The one thing you need to know to sustain your success is:

Discover what you don’t like doing and stop doing it.

The reason why this is written in negative form, is because you’re constantly having a mix of talents in play in your work. You might like training, but hate public speaking. Well, you’d better not get promoted from curriculum writer to public speaker, despite the fact that you’d still be doing training (your strength). So while it’s pretty easy to find ways to do your strengths, it’s a lot harder to remember to avoid your weaknesses. Every 3 months ask yourself: “What percentage of your day do you spend doing those things you really like to do?” Four tactics that will help you find strengths and avoid weaknesses: Quit the role, tweak the role, seek out the right partners, or find an aspect that brings you strength.

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Video review: Milton Friedman series

I found on YouTube that there is a playlist full of a TV series by Milton Friedman from the 1980s about economics and the free market. Late last year I started watching these while I was multitasking around the house, and finished all episodes. Some people just binge watch dramas. I binge watch economics videos…

I don’t really have an obvious summary of the videos, but a collection of key points and takeaways. There wasn’t really 1 video I would recommend that summarizes all his points. They were all pretty decent, but none of them great. For those of you who aren’t familiar with Milton Friedman, he’s a Nobel Prize winning economist, and ex-professor at the Chicago School of Business. He talks about economics and the free market in an amazingly easy to understand way.

When you get rid of corrupt laws, people become law abiding citizens.

When a business has an unsuccessful experiment, it goes bankrupt. When government has an unsuccessful experiment, it blames it on too low of a budget, and asks for more money.

Who protects the consumer? Laws that restrict free trade (quotas) are without question anti-consumer. Laws that force the consumer to not purchase a product, food, or drug, say they’re pro consumer, but they’re actually anti-consumer.

Minimum Wage is a law by which it is illegal to hire anyone whose skills are not sufficient to merit minimum wage. It requires employers to discriminate against low skilled people. The minimum wage has created a large class of people that have no possible employer.

Who protects the worker? Workers are protected by employers. Not by his own employer. The employers who protect a worker are the employers who would like to hire him, but for whom he doesn’t work. The real protection that a worker gets is the existence of more than one possible employer. That’s what gives them freedom. That’s what enables them to get the full value of his services. It’s competition which provides the effective protection to the worker.

Here’s a good sample about taking care of the poor. (Or perhaps I should say stopping handicapping the poor.)

“All men are created equal” was written at a time when many men were slave owners. It means that the are no arbitrary obstacles blocking people from realizing their potential. It’s equality of opportunity, not outcome.

A theme throughout some of these videos is how frequently government does things in the name of helping the poor. But very frequently it’s the middle 51% who “form a coalition” against the other 49%. Just look at education housing, and how the wealthy are benefited by our housing laws.

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Book Review: The Wonder of Boys

The Wonder of Boys: What Parents, Mentors and Educators can do to Shape Boys into Exceptional Men by Michael Gurian

This is an interesting book that was introduced to me by a Boy Scouts of America trainer. My wife and I both read it, and came away with better understandings about how boys are different, and what approaches we need to think about differently. What follows is not a concise summary or review of the book, but key points and takeaways.

The first section of the book makes it very clear that boys are different from girls, and not because we nurture them to be, but by nature. It cites research about increased testosterone in the brain during development that leads the right side to grow faster, leading to increased focus on spatial relationships and activity (including math). While girls’ more balanced brain improves reading, verbal, and social skills.

Boys thrive in and need competition. They must find ways to compete and see themselves as performing well. If society does not provide them with these opportunities, they will compete against society itself through drugs and gangs. Boys also show empathy differently. Since they are usually focused and task oriented, you can teach them to show delayed empathy, like after the play or game.

One of the key insights in the book is that boys need 3 families:

  1. The birth family who raises the kid.
  2. Extended families, including teachers, friends, and close role models.
  3. Community, church, and other large groups providing social norms.

Where have all the values gone? The answer is perfectly simple. We’re lonesome. We don’t have enough friends or relatives anymore.

In our study of children of divorce, we didn’t see a single child who was well-adjusted. And we didn’t see a single child to whom divorce was not the central event of their lives.

On some fathers seeming detached (perhaps more of a 90s problem?):

An evolutionary view of the father-son relationship reveals that the key problem in our age is not that once upon a time individual fathers were deeply intimate with sons and now they are not. It is better summed up, once upon a time men in general were intimate with boys through male kinship systems involving fathers, uncles, grandfathers and mentors. Now those systems are pretty much broken down, leaving dad to be the only king a son has but forced to work most of the time; often at a job that makes him feel more like a mule than a king….Both mothers and fathers must seek their own support systems, and both must let the other go.

Poem by Douglas A MacArthur:

Build me a son, O Lord,
who will be strong enough to know when he is weak,
and brave enough to face him self when he is afraid;
one who will be proud and unbending in honest defeat,
and humble and gentle in victory.
Build me a son whose wishbone will not be
where his backbone should be;
a son who will know Thee- and that
to know himself is the foundation stone of knowledge.
Lead him, I pray, not in the path of ease and comfort,
but under the stress and spur of difficulties and challenge.
Here, let him learn to stand up in the storm;
here, let him team compassion for those who fall.
Build me a son whose heart will be clear, whose goals will be high;
a son who will master himself before he seeks to master other men;
one who will learn to laugh, yet never forget how to weep;
one who will reach into the future, yet never forget the past.
And after all these things are his,
add, I pray, enough of a sense of humor,
so that he may always be serious,
yet never take himself too seriously.
Give him humility, so that he may always remember
the simplicity of true greatness,
the open mind of true wisdom,
the meekness of true strength.
Then I, his father, will dare to whisper,
“I have not lived in vain.”

The book talks a lot about guiding boys through a hero’s journey that shows the coming of age story, and what it means to be a man. He discusses Jack and the Beanstalk in these terms, where he’s sent to market, and ends up saving the family.

If boys appear to be spending too much time in a single task, the way to take them out of it is by offering a replacement with them, rather than setting a time limit.

Techniques for healthy discipline:

  1. Show the effect of his inappropriate action.
  2. Redirect aggressive energies to an inanimate object. (pillow)
  3. Use a stern tone of voice.
  4. Give a time out.
  5. Choose a diversion or distraction.
  6. Ignore his refusal. Can remind after a minute.
  7. Provide choices. Negotiate.
  8. Take away privileges
  9. Use positive expectations. “You can do it.”
  10. Make things into games whenever possible.
  11. Focus boys on the challenge of the task. Can you make it a game?
  12. Teach through mistakes.

Regarding sexuality. Teach about the difference between sex, love, and commitment. Teach them how to think about sex. Talk about abstinence and virginity, birth control, pregnancy and its impact, and abortion. Teach boys codes of relating: “If you say this to a girl she might think.”

As my personal takeaways from the book, it made me realize that the boys needed have have more time with “extended family,” which includes good friends, and role models. It made me better appreciate the role of sports and competition. It made me better prepared for upcoming, important puberty talks.

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Book Review: The Toyota Way to Lean Leadership

The Toyota Way to Lean Leadership: Achieving and Sustaining Excellence Through Leadership Development

I listened to this Audio CD not realizing that the book is not the original The Toyota Way. But it does have a 4.8 rating on Amazon—better than the original. I quite enjoyed the stories and lessons in the book, and had quite a few takeaways.

The main premise of the book is that employees should be empowered to make the changes that will improve processes and quality. Toyota takes this principle and it’s values very seriously.

Learn. Become expert. Have the task become so trivial, that you can focus on improving it.

Toyota’s production processes are compared in an analogy to water flowing over rocks. When the water is deep, the rocks, or flaws in the system, are hardly noticeable. When the water level is low, you can clearly see the rocks and how the water flows around them. Water is like the inventory buildup at each step in the production process. If you tend to already have a backlog of ready inputs to your step in the system, you need to start having a process for how to manage them, and it actually slows you down, not to mention having so much product partially complete instead of shipped. It’s a really counterintuitive approach, because I would have thought that larger amounts of inventory in the process would be desirable, so that you have no down time. But that’s solving the symptom rather than the cause. Having each “rock” pause your output, will cause you to get rid of all those rocks, and in the long run have a smooth-running system.

Look for ways in which you can avoid waste, and add value.

Another striking feature of the Toyota Way is how leaders go through such deep training to know the right way to behave in situations. Managers will show up at a new job, and be asked to “stand in a circle and observe.” Despite protesting the waste of time, they ended up having many insights from going to see, and deeply understanding.

There was a chapter about how bottoms up the approach is, where the managers simply ask questions, and allow the expert employee to come up with solutions. There was a situation where they completely redefined a complicated system for delivering parts from one step to the next, which crossed team boundaries, and eventually became a best practice throughout the rest of the company.

Perfection should be the goal.

There is great value in understanding the company most-admired for its production processes. I plan to read the original soon. I recommend the book and give it 4 stars.

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Book Review: Talk Less, Say More

Talk Less, Say More: 3 Habits to Influence Others and Make Things Happen by Connie Dieken

This is an interesting, but too concise book about how to improve your communication skills. The author was a national news anchor, and seems to be a pretty good communicator as she reads the book.

The book’s main principles are: Connect, Convey, Convince. I didn’t take any notes so I don’t have any details. It is so concise that it reads like a list of what to do and what not to do, without enough stories, research, and examples to really make it stick. Don’t try to teach me 100 things. Teach me the most important. Focus people. Not recommended.

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Book Review: American Icon (Ford)

 - 472687882_140[1]American Icon: Alan Mulally and the Fight to Save Ford Motor Company by Bryce Hoffman

I recently finished this audio CD, and was impressed by the retelling of the story of the downfall of Ford, and how Mulally turned things around.

I had not realized before reading that Ford was in so much better shape than GM and Chrysler. I just remember them all going to Washington to seek a bailout. Apparently Ford ended up getting a loan, but not really bailed out like the others.

The way the story is told, the executives at Ford seemed pretty incompetent. They would start these weekly business review meetings, and despite losing billions of dollars, vice presidents would say that everything was green in their areas, and they wouldn’t even know key facts that you’d expect them to know. He ensured that they were accountable for their areas, and rearranged some areas of the companies so that there was less overlap, waste, and so that they worked together better. He also ensured that they didn’t reduce the R&D budget since he knew that was how they’d be able to get ahead.

I don’t think Mulally’s business principles as taught in the book were particularly interesting. He talked about People, Products, and Processes, and had weekly meetings where he held people accountable for results.

Despite being light on details, I enjoyed the book, but don’t necessarily recommend it, because it’s just not very relevant, and doesn’t have very strong takeaways.

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