Players Take the Field: Silicon Valley Leaders Share How Coach Bill Campbell Helped Them Succeed
What is the difference between a manager, a coach, and a leader? Can one person be all three? And what would success look like? On April 26, 2019, YouTube CEO Susan Wojcicki moderated a panel discussion with longtime Google leaders Eric Schmidt, Jonathan Rosenberg, and Alan Eagle to reveal the leadership strategies of “Coach” Bill Campbell, as captured in their new book, Trillion Dollar Coach: The Leadership Playbook of Silicon Valley's Bill Campbell. This event was produced by the Exponential Center at the Computer History Museum (CHM).
The panelists described their memories of Bill, from their first meetings to the times he helped them at significant junctures in their careers. They shared how as an executive coach, Bill mentored people from all walks of life and from iconic companies like Google, Facebook, and Apple. Bill first honed his mentorship skills as a player and coach for the Columbia University football team and later as VP of Marketing at Apple and CEO of GO Corporation and Intuit. While Bill helped create over a trillion dollars in market value throughout his career, the total value of his leadership principles is incalculable. Bill passed away in 2016, but his lessons of teamwork, trust, and kindness live on through those he mentored.
Drawing from both research and personal memories, Eric, Jonathan, Alan, and Susan shared a few key insights from Bill’s playbook.
When Jonathan arrived at Google to accept his job offer from Eric in January 2002, he was surprised to see Bill Campbell in Eric’s place. Bill only had one question for Jonathan: “Are you coachable?” Jonathan’s flippant answer almost lost him his job offer, reinforcing that even the most successful executives can benefit from both guidance and humility.
Throughout his career, Bill succeeded at coaching what Eric calls the “aberrant genius.” Bill could convince highly intelligent, strong-willed personalities that it was important to align individual goals with those of the team to achieve success. Bill would tolerate a lot in people he coached, Eric says, but he would not coach someone who lied, who lacked integrity, or who pursued the limelight at the team’s expense.
Jonathan shares a time when he learned the limits of Bill’s tolerance the hard way. In August 2008, a Gawker article called “The 10 Most Terrible Tyrants of Tech” featured some of the industry’s most famous aberrant geniuses, including Steve Jobs and Bill Gates. Jonathan was proud to be ninth on the list, showing off the article to his staff. Bill was not impressed and put Jonathan in his “woodshed.” “I know Steve Jobs,” Bill told Jonathan, “I work with Steve Jobs. You’re not Steve Jobs. You don’t get to do this.” Even in an aberrant genius, screaming and chair-throwing were behaviors not to be tolerated, let alone worn as badges of honor.
Coach the Team, Player by Player
When they first set out to write Trillion Dollar Coach, Eric, Jonathan, and Alan saw Bill as an executive coach—someone who consults with each executive one-on-one. But as Alan explains, they came to understand that by coaching his executive leaders Bill was really developing high-performing teams.
“In the 15 years that Bill coached me,” Eric says, “it never occurred to me that he was coaching the whole team. He was coaching me. That’s how personal the relationship was.” Indeed, Bill personalized his coaching to such a degree that his mentees did not always see how their sessions fit into Bill’s larger team-building strategy. Yet upon reflection, Eric recalls that whenever he told Bill about someone on his staff who was “a bit off the reservation,” Bill would meet with that person to help realign his/her goals with those of the team. Counterintuitively, the fact that team members felt they were being coached as individuals rather than as a team helped to bring their team together.
The Right Decision, Not the Consensus Decision
One of Bill’s greatest contributions as a coach was the way he guided decision-making. Jonathan shares that Bill railed against the Jim Barksdale approach: “If we have data, let’s hear the data. But if all we have are opinions, let’s use mine.” Bill encouraged mentees to make decisions based on data and to draw on the input of not just the leaders, but of all team members. Bill made an effort to call on more junior employees who, he found, were often the most knowledgeable about data and could use it to disprove the arguments of senior leaders.
Bill believed it was vital to consider input from everyone in the room when a decision was being made, but it did not necessarily matter if everyone in the room agreed on the final decision. To Bill, it was more important to reach the right decision than the consensus decision, and it was the leader’s responsibility, based on the data and perspectives the team presented, to determine what the right decision was. Eric describes the way Bill put these ideas into practice in meetings at Google.
Support Your Players
According to Jonathan, being a great manager means getting the details right: “running a tight one-on-one, running a tight staff meeting, at times dictating decisions.” But being a great coach means supporting and trusting your people. Bill supported his teams in countless ways, some simple and some complex, to tremendous effect.
One essential technique: cheer for your team. Alan describes how Bill’s support helped a junior product manager get through a challenging presentation to the Google board.
As Eric explains, clapping is a simple and effective way to give your team some extra encouragement. Another small action with a big impact is to take just a few minutes to thank your people for their hard work. Eric describes Alphabet CFO Ruth Porat’s first earnings call, which reported great success. It turned out that the actual report work was done by a few junior staffers. Bill called those employees in and spent five minutes thanking them for their work before getting back to business with the senior executives. Just taking this short amount of time to show appreciation for your junior staff members, Eric says, can make a huge impact on them.
But sometimes team members need a little more support to overcome obstacles. For those who found themselves lacking certain resources or advantages, Bill exercised his influence to help them perform their best. Susan describes a time when Bill helped her get invited to an event that she wanted to attend.
As Susan learned, power is transferable. Bill used his power to help level the playing field for his team, serving as a model for how leaders can go the extra mile to give their people the tools they need to succeed.
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As a testament to Bill’s impact, well over a thousand people attended his funeral. Many of them considered Bill to be not only their coach and mentor, but also their best friend. In spreading humility, collaboration, and inclusiveness to so many people, Bill showed us the difference one person can make and the tremendous impact we can all have by carrying on lessons from his playbook.
Watch the Full Conversation
About the Exponential Center
The Exponential Center at the Computer History Museum captures the legacy—and advances the future—of entrepreneurship and innovation in Silicon Valley and around the world. The center explores the people, companies, and communities that are transforming the human experience through technology innovation, economic value creation, and social impact. Our mission: to inform, influence, and inspire the next generation of innovators, entrepreneurs, and leaders changing the world.