Trillion-Dollar Coach Bill Campbell: The Secret to Success
Bill Campbell was one of the most influential figures of Silicon Valley. He helped build Google, Apple, and Intuit and mentored high-profile entrepreneurs such as Steve Jobs, Larry Page, and Eric Schmidt. His uncanny ability to develop deep, trusting relationships and guide executives in creating higher-performing companies gave him a reputation as the best business coach of all time. The name “Trillion Dollar Coach” came from the combined value of the companies he coached. Others called him the “CEO Whisperer.”
What was it about Bill Campbell—a football coach turned mentor—that was so unique? This blog will dive deep into the life and methods of the trillion-dollar coach so that future entrepreneurs can continue learning from the legacy he left behind.
Bill Campbell’s claim to fame came in mid-life, after a failed career as a football coach. He attended Columbia University and became a rather unlikely football star, measuring up to only five ten, 165 pounds. Still, Bill’s intelligence and skill on the field quickly earned him the respect of his team. He eventually served as the head football coach, but wasn’t nearly as successful as he had hoped. His inability to bring his team to victory during six losing seasons wasn’t for lack of effort. At one point, Bill worked so hard at Columbia that he had to recover in the hospital from exhaustion.
Why wasn’t his dedication, intelligence, and skill enough? It turned out that the very quality that made Bill excel in business was a major drawback when it came to football: compassion. Adam Grant, an organizational psychologist and author, explained in the book Trillion Dollar Coach: The Leadership Playbook of Silicon Valley’s Bill Campbell, “He cared too much about his players. He was reluctant to bench walk-ons who gave it their all and refused to ask his stars to put sports above school. He was there to make his players successful in life, not on the field. He was more interested in their well-being than in winning.” Convinced that this weakness (in the world of football) would be a strength in the business world, Bill’s old football teammates convinced him to change career paths.
Silicon Valley Success
After a few years in business, Bill made the decision to move to California. At this point he was in his early forties and had spent his whole career in football. “My career had been blunted by a lot of years as a dumb-ass football coach,” Bill said in Trillion Dollar Coach. “I felt that because of my background, I would always be below my peer group and trying to catch up. Going out into the wild, woolly west, where it was more a meritocracy, I would have a chance to move quickly and sit on the management team.”
Bill’s instincts were spot on. Less than a year after Bill joined Apple, he was the vice president of sales and marketing, and he later became the CEO of Intuit. Eventually, Bill’s success in business inspired him to take a behind-the-scenes approach and begin coaching executives.
Jonathan Rosenberg and Eric Schmidt of Google worked closely with Bill for fifteen years. In Trillion Dollar Coach, they said,
Bill had been our coach, meeting with us individually every week or two to talk through the various challenges we had faced as we helped grow the company. He had guided us as individuals and teammates, working mostly behind the scenes as Google went from a quirky startup to one of the most valuable companies and brands in the world. Without Bill’s help, there’s a chance that none of that would have happened. We called him Coach, but we also called him friend, and in this we were like pretty much everyone around us.
The impact that Bill had is hard to sum up in a single blog post. He made such a mark on his clients—he loved them and connected with them so deeply—that many of them considered him their best friend.
Leading from the Heart
Compassion—the quality that hampered Bill’s abilities as a football coach—was key to his success as a business coach. Bill hugged just about everyone and when he was out of hugging range, he blew kisses. Right in the middle of a board meeting, Bill would give a wink and blow a kiss. But everyone understood the motivation behind his affection: to show that he cared. This approach to business was certainly not something Bill was taught. It reflected the kind of fiercely loyal, loving, compassionate person he was.
“He just found something to love in almost everybody,” said Campbell’s friend Randy Komisar in a Columbia Spectator article. “Bill loved people…He loved people who were developing and growing and meeting challenges he could help—and he just loved seeing people prosper and succeed around him.”
His effusive nature was an extreme rarity in the business world, where showing affection and expressing personal emotions is often frowned upon. But Bill was unabashedly himself and paid no notice to the typical separation between personal and professional life. Bill would talk to anybody, and when he connected with someone—whether it was on the street or in the middle of an executive meeting—he got personal. “When Bill walked into the office at Benchmark, it was like a party arriving, said Benchmark General Partner Bill Gurley in Trillion Dollar Coach. “He’d walk around greeting people by name, hugging them.” Then he would ask people about their families, their vacations, their friends. Beginning meetings by asking people about their lives and sharing details about his own gave the people around him a sense of perspective. It gave executives, who had seemingly endless task lists and immense responsibility, a reminder that what matters is more than how a company is performing—it’s how people live their lives and treat each other.
Bill taught countless executives the strength that comes from personally relating to their teammates. The people who worked with him understood that recognizing the humanness in their employees made their personal and professional connections stronger.
Alan Eagle, a Google communications director, said that the biggest lesson he learned from Bill Campbell is that it’s okay to love people. He told CNBC Make It that Bill “just established a deep level of connection—and again that word love—with people in the workplace…[That] really made me think about how I care about my team, about how you care about people…and it has really changed my approach in business…it’s okay to love people.”
The Importance of Trust
Trust is central to any relationship—professional or personal—and to Bill, trust was everything. What that meant was that Bill would keep his word, be loyal, show integrity, and truly show up for the people in his life. When one of Eric Schmidt’s team members was ill with a serious medical condition, he confided only in Bill, who kept his secret. When Eric later found out that Bill had withheld information, he put aside his initial annoyance because of his respect for Bill for honoring the teammate’s privacy.
“Everything starts by building an envelope of trust,” said Rosenberg for CNBC’s Make It. “And he found a way to do that warmly, with love and through loyalty.” He called Bill “an evangelist for courage, pushing us to do better, because we trusted him, we trusted his judgement, and we trusted his integrity.”
Bill had the ability that every effective CEO needs to get everyone on the same page. Even when team members disagreed with his choices, they trusted him enough to be on board. The only way to carry this out effectively is with trust and good communication.
Putting People First
Every day, executives overlook their employees when they think about improving performance. Bill encouraged his mentees to ask themselves how decisions would affect their people and how they could maximize their staff’s highest level of achievement.
Bill helped Eric Schmidt develop a communications approach that included Eric beginning each meeting by asking team members what they did over the weekend. The objectives were to help Eric’s team members get to know each other and to get everyone engaged in the meeting from the start. Getting people to be personal and share was a tactic that produced results.
“At first I thought it was really weird,” said former Twitter CEO Dick Costolo in Trillion Dollar Coach. “But when I started doing it and seeing it in practice, wow, it really makes a difference. The whole dynamic of the meeting changes, you get more empathy, a better mood.”
Bill believed that the team was paramount. His first instinct was to work with the team’s dynamics as opposed to the specific problem they were trying to solve. His commitment to putting his people first and actively listening was critical to his and their success. He once said that he used to lie awake at night, wondering what the eight thousand people who worked for him were thinking and feeling. Komisar said that his emotional intelligence was off the charts. “His ability to read people, to understand situations, know what motivated people…There just aren’t that many people who are born with those kinds of gifts.”
Leaving a Legacy
There is no question that Bill’s life touches the lives of thousands of people. His fierce loyalty, dedication, and unabashed love will continue to impact future generations of entrepreneurs.
“Bill was ahead of his time,” said Adam Grant in Trillion Dollar Coach. The lessons of his experience are timely in a collaborative world, where the fates of our careers and our companies hinge on the quality of our relationships. But I believe they’re also timeless: Bill’s approach to coaching would work in any era.”
Bill died at age 75 from cancer. Among the large crowd that gathered at his memorial service was Pat Gallagher, his neighbor and friend. Pat addressed the crowd, which gathered on a football field in Atherton, California:
Most of us have a circle of friends and acquaintances in our lives that come and go through the years. And then we have a much smaller subset of our close friends and our family. And then an even smaller number, maybe enough to count on one or two fingers, our best friends. Best friends are the ones who you can talk to about anything and you don’t have to worry. You know they will always be there. Bill Campbell was my best friend. I know that there are only about two thousand other people who also considered Bill to be their best friends, too. But, I was okay with that because somehow Bill found the time for each one of us. He had the same twenty-four-hour days that the rest of us have, but somehow he found the time to always be there for everyone on that list. It didn’t matter to Bill where you were on the list of friends. He would always be there for you no matter what.
Bill worked tirelessly to bring out the best in everyone he met. He was a mentor, a coach, and most of all, a friend. His ability to see the humanity in his people was the reason for his success—maybe not as a football coach—but as one of the most influential players in Silicon Valley.