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On Being a Wartime CEO

Posted on 06/15/2016

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Ben Horowitz wrote an excellent blog post about being a wartime CEOthe-hard-thing-about-hard-things. There are a few places I disagree with him (listed below).

However, the reason I’m writing this is because his post is targeted at the CEO who needs to be a wartime CEO or their company will die. Damn good reason to be a wartime CEO.

But for Windward we’re the other case. We can run under a peacetime CEO and continue to grow at about 30% per year. Or we can run under a wartime CEO and shoot for 100% growth a year, until we hit an inflection point and it grows at an even greater rate.

Choosing to be a wartime CEO when you have the option is in many ways harder. Because you can always relax back to a peacetime CEO and things continue fine. You only have yourself to keep you focused on being a wartime CEO.

Windward’s Wartime CEO Perspective

Here is Ben’s list followed by my comments:

  • Peacetime CEO knows that proper protocol leads to winning. Wartime CEO violates protocol in order to win.
    This is a big difference. Protocol (or process) is not a straitjacket. But the key is to adjust the protocol to meet the problems faced. Sometimes ignoring it, but when possible (most of the time), adjusting it.
  • Peacetime CEO focuses on the big picture and empowers her people to make detailed decisions. Wartime CEO cares about a speck of dust on a gnat’s ass if it interferes with the prime directive.
    Damn straight. Without this attention everywhere wartime growth is a dream, not a reality. (At Microsoft in the early 90’s I saw billg get into very detailed issues. The end result was incredible success.)
  • Peacetime CEO builds scalable, high volume recruiting machines. Wartime CEO does that, but also builds HR organizations that can execute layoffs.
    Fortunately not an issue in our case. But it is key to constantly ensure that everyone we hire is an A player.
  • Peacetime CEO spends time defining the culture. Wartime CEO lets the war define the culture.
    I want to say this is 50/50. But the truth is our culture to date is defined by our wartime approach to success. I think what’s key here is you work to define the culture to increase your success.
  • Peacetime CEO always has a contingency plan. Wartime CEO knows that sometimes you gotta roll a hard six.
    This is the biggest difference. As we’re presently successful, we can place large bets without betting the future of the company.
  • Peacetime CEO knows what to do with a big advantage. Wartime CEO is paranoid.
    Key to this is get everyone thinking about what can happen – and talking about it. The end result is you generally have discussed what does bite you in the ass.
  • Peacetime CEO strives not to use profanity. Wartime CEO sometimes uses profanity purposefully.
    We are at fucking war.
  • Peacetime CEO thinks of the competition as other ships in a big ocean that may never engage. Wartime CEO thinks the competition is sneaking into her house and trying to kidnap her children.
    We want to dominate the market. So yes, we engage – constantly.
  • Peacetime CEO aims to expand the market. Wartime CEO aims to win the market.
  • Peacetime CEO strives to tolerate deviations from the plan when coupled with effort and creativity.  Wartime CEO is completely intolerant.
    Yes but… the plan should not come on down from on high from the CEO. The people there collectively know more than the CEO. So we work together to figure out the plan, we adapt as we implement and learn, and we ride that. But yes, that plan is not advisory, it is what we are going to do. And when a decision needs to be made over disagreement, that is the job of the CEO.
  • Peacetime CEO does not raise her voice. Wartime CEO rarely speaks in a normal tone.
    I find yelling wears out quickly. Speaking clearly in a normal tone tends to accomplish more. With that said, I tend to speak loudly because I’m hard of hearing (too many concerts when I was young) and so my normal tends to be a bit loud.
  • Peacetime CEO works to minimize conflict. Wartime CEO heightens the contradictions.
    I think what Ben is driving at here is face and resolve contradictions, don’t try to paper them over. In that case, yes I agree.
  • Peacetime CEO strives for broad based buy in. Wartime CEO neither indulges consensus-building nor tolerates disagreements.
    I strongly disagree with this in all cases. We hire very smart people. They know as much as me, more so on many subjects. In addition people will put everything in to accomplish goals they believe in. They’ll put in the hours on goals imposed on them.
    We do not need to reach consensus. And once we’ve reached a decision, then everyone needs to be all in on accomplishing it.
    But trying for consensus (we usually reach it) and discussing through disagreements – that leads to better decisions and with more buy-in, better effort from all involved.
  • Peacetime CEO sets big, hairy audacious goals. Wartime CEO is too busy fighting the enemy to read management books written by consultants who have never managed a fruit stand.
    I love the “fruit stand” line. But I think this is wrong. A company striving to survive needs a specific goal. It’s the goal key to survival but it is a goal. We have a BHAG too.
    What I think Ben is saying here, and I agree, is that the goal needs to be key to surviving (his case) or key to where we want to go (our case). Generic general bullshit BHAGs are a waste of everyone’s time and energy.
  • Peacetime CEO trains her employees to ensure satisfaction and career development. Wartime CEO trains her employees so they don’t get their ass shot off in the battle.
    This is another big difference. We can take a longer view. So yes we work to make sure everyone can execute well today. But we have the time and money to develop people so they can execute well 1, 2, 3 years out. Because what we’ll need then from everyone is more than we have today.
  • Peacetime CEO has rules like “we’re going to exit all businesses where we’re not number 1 or 2.”  Wartime CEO often has no businesses that are number 1 or 2 and therefore does not have the luxury of following that rule.
    But we’ll get to #1.

Here at Windward, we’re at war. We’ve got a phenomenal product: the one reporting and docgen product that a lot of users love. But it requires a full-on wartime approach to get that information out to people.

Our goal, is in five years, when people are choosing what reporting or docgen product to use or switch to, we are selected more than 50% of the time. Worldwide.

This goal requires a wartime footing.


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Author: David Thielen

Dave, Windward's founder and CEO, is passionate about building superb software teams from scratch and dramatically improving the productivity of existing software teams. He's really proud that he once created a game so compelling (Enemy Nations) that a now-professional World of Warcraft player lost his job for playing it incessantly on company time. You can read more from Dave on his personal blog, and at Huffington Post.

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