Ben Horowitz: collaboration in times of company crisis

Ben Horowitz’s The Hard Thing About Hard Things is a refreshing antidote to sunshine-and-rainbows business books that promise a blueprint for stratospheric success. Horowitz, the cofounder and general partner of Andreessen Horowitz, doesn’t offer any magic bullets for aspiring insta-millionaires; the book’s subtitle is Building a Business When There Are No Easy Answers.

Horowitz touches on scenarios that the average aspirational business book avoids like the plague: layoffs, firing friends, poaching employees from friends’ companies and so on. Hey, the truth hurts sometimes. If you’re interested in leading your company, leaving your company to strike out on your own, or just understanding your crazy executives a little better, The Hard Thing About Hard Things will come in handy.

All our talk about collaborative culture isn’t limited to peers and direct reports; collaboration ideally starts at the top (for example, executive support leads to 23% higher long-term adoption of Central Desktop).

As the captain of the ship, how can you stay true to your collaborative ideals even when there’s an iceberg ahead?

Don’t fake positivity

Don’t underestimate your employees by assuming they aren’t able to accept reality or handle bad news. If you’re floundering, you’re not doing anyone any favors by communicating the opposite message. “A company that discusses its problems freely and openly can quickly solve them,” writes Horowitz.

Develop a process for regular feedback – and stick to it even during tumultuous times

Even the greatest collaborators prize independence, but Horowitz stresses the importance of putting together a process for regular feedback, and then sticking to that process as your business goes through its ups and downs. “In a vacuum of feedback, there is almost no chance that your company will perform optimally,” he says.

A truly collaborative company understands that feedback is a two-way conversation, not a top-down process. Horowitz, too, sings the praises of the sometimes-maligned one-on-one meeting, advising bosses to surrender control of those meeting agendas to their direct reports. (I’d add two important sidenotes: don’t be afraid to cancel these meetings when neither party has much to discuss – and don’t confuse “not much to discuss” with “not doing much.”)

Hold people accountable? It depends.

You’ve lost a big client, suffered a major loss to a competitor, or failed to hit sales numbers. Who’s to blame? Identifying the cause is important, but Horowitz notes that “you don’t want to punish people for taking good risks.”

Cut the politics

Office politics are part of the dark underbelly of collaboration; sometimes when people work together, they don’t have the purest of motives. Horowitz’s cautionary note for CEOs applies to managers at all levels: just because you personally are above it doesn’t mean you’re not part of the problem. Horowitz previously addressed this issue at length on his blog (the book draws heavily on his blog, while adding a lot of insights into his own career and development).

Consider forcing collaboration through realignment

“The further people are in the organizational chart, the less they will communicate,” Horowitz says in his section on scaling your company (another topic he’s addressed on his blog). While there are, ahem, solutions that will help your team break out of traditional org chart silos, drastic times may call for more drastic measures. “If you want people to communicate, the best way to accomplish that is to make them report to the same manager,” Horowitz advises.

Don’t alienate customers by chasing prospects

Collaboration isn’t just something that happens between your internal departments; you should also be building collaborative relationships with your clients or customers. Don’t put more energy into acquiring than keeping and building. At the dramatic sorts of business crossroads Horowitz details – business on the precipice of folding, reinventing, selling for a fortune, etc. – it can be easy to lose sight of that.

Don’t be insane

“Ideally, the CEO will be urgent yet not insane.” That’s just good ol’ everyday advice… but especially for times of trouble.

Post by Adam McKibbin

Adam McKibbin is the content marketing manager for iMeet Central. His writing has been featured in Adweek, the Chicago Tribune and The Nation, and he’s produced content for some of the leading tech brands on the Fortune 500.