Lessons From The Trillion Dollar Coach: Bill Campbell

Larry Page, Sergey Brin, Mark Zuckerberg, Sheryl Sandberg, Tim Cook, John Doerrr, Ruth Porat, Scott Cook, Brad Smith, Ben Horowitz, Marc Andreessen, Jonathan Rosenberg and Eric Schmidt joined the large crowd gathered on the football field at the Sacred Heart School in Atherton, California to honor the memory of Bill Campbell, who had just died of cancer. In “Trillion Dollar Coach”, Eric Schmidt, Jonathan Rosenberg and Alan Eagle narrate Bill’s life story, highlighting the principles that made him such a valuable friend and coach to so many individuals and organizations.

Bill worked alongside Larry Page, Sergey Brin, Eric Schmidt and others turn Google from a Stanford startup to one of the biggest and most profitable companies in the world. For years, he spoke to them almost every week, becoming a “best friend” to many of them in the process. Yet, until the age of thirty nine, he had been a head coach for Columbia’s football program with no experience in business.

After a coaching career spanning seventeen years, he decided to move on and join the ad agency J. Walter Thompson in Chicago. After a couple of years at the agency, he joined Apple and was promoted to VP of Sales and Marketing within nine months. He was on the team that produced Apple’s famous “1984” ad, which may be where his association with Steve Jobs began. More than a decade later, when Steve returned to Apple, Bill coached him as he led Apple from near bankruptcy to being one of the most valuable companies in the world, and also through Jobs’ own death from cancer.

But what made him so great? Here are some of my favorites (read the book for the rest – it’s totally worth it, and written with brevity):

Operational Excellence

It starts with operational excellence. Running a successful company is all about management excellence: having good process, having accountability, hiring great people, giving them feedback, and paying them well. Leadership evolves from management excellence, not vice versa.

It’s The People

While he was at Intuit, Bill wrote a manifesto titled “It’s The People” which is worth reproducing in full here:

“People are the foundation of any company’s success. The primary job of each manager is to help people be more effective in their job and to grow and develop. We have great people who want to do well, are capable of doing great things, and come to work fired up to do them. Great people flourish in an environment that liberates and amplifies that energy. Managers create this environment through support, respect and trust.

Support means giving people the tools, information, training and coaching they need to succeed. It means continuous effort to develop people’s skills. Great managers help people excel and grow.

Respect means understanding people’s unique career goals and being sensitive to their life choices. It means helping people achieve these career goals in a way that’s consistent with the needs of the company.

Trust means freeing people to do their jobs and to make decisions. It means knowing people want to do well and believing that they will.”

Lead Based On First Principles

Opinions can vary, but in any situation, it’s possible to identify certain truths or principles that everyone can agree to. When faced with a tough decision, it’s the job of a leader to remind everyone of these first principles and let them guide the group to the best decision.

Manage The Aberrant Genius

With a lot of advice from Bill, Google learned how to manage those star performers who can also be a pain to work with. The solution is to support them as they continue to perform, and minimize time spent fighting them. Instead, invest all energy in coaching them past any misbehavior. Never put up with people who cross ethical lines though: lying, integrity lapses, harassment, mistreatment or others relevant to you.

Eccentricity can be tolerated if it’s in service of the good of the company.

Money Is Not About Money

Compensation is not just about economic value; it’s also about emotional value, recognition, respect and status. Everyone has these needs, even if they are financially secure. Good compensation shows love and respect.

Innovation Is Where The Crazy People Have Stature

“The purpose of a company is to take the vision you have of the product and bring it to life”, Bill said at a conference. He believed in the utmost importance of empowered engineers and product teams. “If you have the right product for the right market at the right time, go as fast as you can”.

Only empowered engineers and product teams can do this. Therefore, product managers shouldn’t tell engineers what features they want; they should highlight what problems the users have, and who the users are. Let them figure out the features.

Bill On Boards

Bill’s perspective on boards is based on the idea that it’s the CEO who manages the board and its meetings, not vice versa. The CEO should own and follow her agenda, starting with operational updates (finance, sales, product, hiring) followed by highlights and lowlights. If possible, the operational updates should be shared with board members ahead of time so they come prepared.

Discussing lowlights can be challenging, but allows teams to be completely frank about bottlenecks and failures. It conveys that it is not only okay to share bad news, it’s expected too.

Finally, the board should consist of “people with good business expertise who care deeply about the company and are genuinely interested in helping and supporting the CEO”.

Practice Free-Form Listening

Trust is a multi-faceted concept. It means keeping your word. It means loyalty. It means honesty and integrity. But ultimately, it impacts whether team members feel psychologically safe enough to be and express themselves. In order to do that, you have to understand people at a deeper level.

Al Gore says Bill taught him the importance of paying careful attention to the person you are talking to. Full, undivided attention. When you listen to people, they feel valued, and that creates trust.

Be An Evangelist For Courage

Bill considered it a manager’s job to instill courage in the team, providing energy and encouragement, believing in them more than they believe in themselves.

Shishir Mehrotra founded Centrata in 2001 and soon afterwards, got a call from one of his investors who had shortlisted employees to be fired, based on their resumes, to cut expenses. Shishir didn’t think it was a smart move but did it under pressure, before calling Bill, who was furious at his lack of courage and asked him to follow his instincts. Shishir rehired everyone and the team functioned well for several years.

Work The Team, Then The Problem

When problems arose, as they do, Bill’s response began with focus on the people on the team and their ability to solve the problem.
He looked for four characteristics in people:

  • smartness (getting up to speed in different areas and making connections)
  • hard work
  • integrity
  • grit (having the passion and perseverance to get up after taking a knock)

In interviews, he asked people not just what they did, but how they did it. He paid attention to what their precise role was in the project, and heard whether they say use the pronoun “I” or “we” more often. Bill looked for people who, according to Sundar Pichai, “understand that their success depends on working well together”.

He noted when people gave up, and how often they felt excitement for other people’s successes.

He was, however, attracted to “difficult” people with some eccentricity and prickliness, considering it his job to develop them and help them smoothen some of the rough edges. But being “difficult” did not mean lacking in empathy or compassion.

Pair People

Bill valued peer relationships, interpersonal relationships within the team that are often overlooked. Whenever possible, one should take a couple of people who don’t usually work together and give them a project to work on.

In fact, Bill valued peer relationships so much that he designed a peer feedback survey that was used for years at Google. These surveys highlighted how each person performed in the eyes of their peers, who are the most important evaluators according to him.

Get To The Table

“Winning depends on having the best team, and the best teams include more women”. This is a challenge among engineers, especially in some parts of the world, but companies and managers need to be more proactive in sourcing good women candidates for all positions and being mindful of the value gender diversity creates.

Don’t Let The Bitch Sessions Last

“Air all the negative issues, but don’t dwell on them. Move on as fast as possible.”

Winning Right

“Strive to win, but always win right, with commitment, teamwork and integrity.”

Leaders Lead

“When things are going bad, teams are looking for even more loyalty, commitment, and decisiveness from their leaders.”

Fill The Gaps Between People

“Listen, observe and fill the communication and understanding gaps between people.”

Always Build Communities

“Build communities inside and outside of work. A place is much stronger when people are connected.”

Help People

“Be generous with your time, connections and other resources.”

The Lovely Reset

Bill would start his weekly meetings with Sundar Pichai by asking about his family and weekend, and talking about his own. He respected everyone, as an equal. This may not seem novel but unlike most of us who casually enquire about each other’s families, Bill somehow found ways to actually get to know the families, showing genuine interest in their lives.

When the situation was dire, in the case of serious illness, Bill actually prioritized people over his work at Google and other companies. When Steve Jobs got cancer, Bill visited him almost daily, wherever Steve ended up being. He would just drop everything and go.

Most of us care about our co-workers but we leave our feelings at the door because that is what we’re taught. But bring them in! But keep the compassion genuine though; one shouldn’t fake it because insincerity can often be sensed and cause discomfort.

Throughout his career, Bill created a culture revolving around “compassionate” love: affection, care and tenderness for others. He genuinely cared about people and their lives outside of work, and set an example.

Loving Founders

On the topic of having love for people you work with, Bill particularly loved founders who have the skill and courage to start companies. They fight for survival every day and know the odds but are crazy enough believe they would succeed. Bill loved them for having the vision and love for it that operating people often lack.

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