Trillion Dollar Coach: The Leadership Playbook of Silicon Valley’s Bill Campbell

Trillion Dollar Coach: The Leadership Handbook of Silicon Valley’s Bill Campbell
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Published: 4/16/2019
The team behind How Google Works returns with management lessons from legendary coach and business executive, Bill Campbell, whose mentoring of some of our most successful modern entrepreneurs has helped create well over a trillion dollars in market value.

Trillion Dollar Coach By. Eric Schmidt, Johnathan Rosenberg, & Alan Eagle

Key Insights

Bill Campbell is a football and business legend.

This working-class Pennsylvania man took the lessons he learned as a college football coach to the world of business. His untraditional business ideas about leadership and team-building made him one of the most influential business coaches of his time.

With influences on Apple and Google, Campbell made a name for himself in the business world in the last few decades of his life.

“This is the power of coaching in general: the ability to offer a different perspective, one unaffected by being “in the game.”- Eric Schmidt

In “Trillion Dollar Coach” by Eric Schmidt, Jonathan Rosenberg, and Alan Eagle you will learn about Campbell’s life and ideas through interviews of the people that knew him.

Key Points

  • Bill Campbell Started As A Football Coach

Campbell was born in Homestead, Pennsylvania in 1940. Campbell’s dad was a gym teacher, as well as a millworker at night.

Campbell was always a very passionate and hardworking person. When he was a teen, he wrote an op-ed in his school newspaper to remind his fellow classmates that good grades were important.

And although grades were important to Campbell, his main passion and priority was football.

In 1958, Campbell started attending Columbia University where he studied economics and joined the football team, the Lions. At this time in his life, Campbell was only 165 lbs. and was 5’10”. He was the smallest member of his team.

But, although he was small he had willpower. His team rightly nicknamed him, “Ballsy.”

“Coaching is no longer a specialty; you cannot be a good manager without being a good coach.”- Eric Schmidt

When Campbell was captain, the Lions won the 1961 Ivy League title, which is a title they haven’t received since.

When Campbell graduated, he was offered a job as an assistant football coach at Boston College. He accepted in 1964 and moved to New England.

Over the next ten years, Campbell gained recognition as a top-notch football coach and received many offers from universities around the country.

One of the offers was from Penn State, which at the time was the home of the best football coach in the states, Joe Paterno. Campbell, however, turned it down in favor of taking an offer from Columbia, where he graduated.

In 1974, Campbell returned to Columbia University. The football team was in terrible shape and there was not enough funding. This affected the team’s performance. During Campbell’s time as coach, the team won 12 games and lost 41.

In 1979, Campbell resigned from Columbia University.

  • Campbell Moves To California

When Campbell was 39 years old he said ‘goodbye’ to football and entered the business world.

His first job was at J. Walter Thompson, which was an ad agency. Campbell was successful because of his positive demeanor and determination. Kodak, one of the clients at the time, loved Campbell and decided to steal him from the agency and put him as head of consumer products in Europe.

In 1983, Campbell was contacted by John Sculley, who was an old friend of his from university. Sculley had recently made the decision to leave the business, Pepsi, and become the CEO of a start-up called Apple. Sculley wanted Campbell onboard and Campbell accepted with faith.

Campbell believed California would be a great fit for him as he had climbed the traditional corporate ladder as high as he could with his prerequisites.

Nine months after the move Campbell became vice president of sales for Apple. He oversaw the launch of Apple’s new computer called the Macintosh.

In 1984, Apple bought advertising during the Superbowl. The ad was developed by Campbell and his team and it touched on themes from George Orwell’s “1984.”

Steve Jobs loved the ad that Campbell’s team created, but Apple hated it because they thought it would be too controversial. Finally, Bill made the final call and he decided to run it. The ad became one of the most famous ads in Superbowl history.

  • Campbell’s Coaching and Mentoring Journey

In 1990, Campbell finished at Apple. In his last few years at Apple, Campbell had worked on a software called Claris. Apple decided not to make it public, so Campbell decided it was time for him to start his own business journey.

In the next ten years, Campbell spent his time at the tablet start-up called GO, as well as the software manufacturer Claris. After he was done with that, he decided to start business mentoring and coaching.

Ironically, Campbell’s first client was Apple. Steve Jobs remembered Campbell’s loyalty when he was almost forced out of Apple in 1985. Campbell was one of the only team members to fight for Jobs.

“You can’t talk about coaching—or leading a company—without talking about winning. That’s what the good coaches do. That’s what great leaders do.”- Eric Schmidt

So, when Jobs became CEO again in 1997, he made Campbell one of Apple’s company directors, which he held until 2014.

Jobs and Campbell had a special relationship. Whenever Jobs needed advice, he called Campbell. When Apple was facing bankruptcy Jobs and Campbell worked together to make it the successful trillion-dollar company that it is today.

In 2001, when word about Campbell was spreading, Eric Schmidt, the CEO of a start-up called Google decided to give him a call to see what all the talk was about.

Schmidt and Campbell became instant friends. This led to Campbell meeting with Schmidt and other google leaders about once a week for the next 15 years.

Like, Apple, because of Campbell, Google was worth billions.

  • Leadership According To Campbell

In 2001, Larry Page, the co-founder of Google radically decided to get rid of manager positions in the company.

Page’s crazy idea seemed to be working, but Campbell did not think that it would sustain the future of the company. When Campbell voiced this, Page fought back until Campbell suggested asking the google engineers what they thought.

“Bill didn’t work the problem first, he worked the team. We didn’t talk about the problem analytically. We talked about the people on the team and if they could get it done.”- Eric Schmidt

The engineers voiced that they all wanted managers in order to resolve the decisions that were gridlocked. Because each of the engineers had equal say, they had trouble resolving disagreements on decisions.

According to studies, flat hierarchies are marvelous for creativity, but not great for actually implementing the creative solutions produced by the team of thinkers and creators.

However, autocratic management isn’t the best option as it can drive employees and their creativity away.

Campbell suggested that there be a manager in place to remind the team of the company’s core values and mission. That way, they can make a decision based on that.

This is something that Campbell picked up from working at Tellme Networks in the ‘90s when he had to remind the founder of what they were working toward when they were offered a deal that would force them to leave the market and give another company dominance. When the founder was reminded of the company’s mission, he rejected the deal and continued on with their core values in mind.

  • Effective Leaders Have Emotions

Campbell was known for being casual, informal, and warm-hearted. He gave bear hugs, blew kisses, and talked with profanity. Campbell was a character in the business world.

He was also known for helping people out at the drop of a hat. When Jobs was diagnosed with cancer, Campbell went to see him every day at the hospital.

In a 2014 study by leadership experts Sigal Barsade and Olivia O’Neill, the research found that companies that had warm and compassionate leaders had higher rates of employee satisfaction.

Campbell was innovative when it came to adding compassion to the workplace. When he held a position at Apple, he would make board members rise from their seats and clap if they enjoyed a presentation.

Bruce Chizen, who worked with Campbell at Claris, remembers him talking to everyone around him in a friendly manner. Chizen worked hard to copy Campbell’s compassion and discovered it made all the difference in the work environment.

  • The Importance of Listening To Everyone

In the 1980s, during Campbell’s time with Apple, most of the positions were held by men. There was one woman in a position of power: Deb Biondolillo, the head of human resources.

“There are people who are team players and really care about the company. When they speak up, it matters a lot to me because I know they are coming from the right place.”- Eric Schmidt

During staff meetings, Campbell noticed Deb would sit toward the back of the room. Campbell called her out on it and made her move to the table at the front. Campbell thought it was important for all types of people to be at the table and to be heard. Campbell also thought more women should be put in positions of power.

Campbell’s positive opinion about women was backed by a study that showed the three attributes that intelligent teams had were higher IQs, emotional intelligence, and women.

“Winning depends on having the best team, and the best teams include more women.” ― Eric Schmidt

Campbell liked to encourage the use of mentoring programs to help more women feel comfortable in the business world.

  • Trust Is Pertinent In the Boardroom

Trust is the act of complying to take a risk because you trust the other person. And in the boardroom, Campbell believed it was vital.

When Campbell worked with Intuit, the board was split between the decision to focus on long-term growth versus focusing on short-term failures that would stunt long-term growth. The head of sales decided to go with Campbell’s side, eliminating the failures, because there was trust between them.

Campbell’s method of gaining the trust of his peers was very simple; He listened to them. Campbell used free-form listening which means he would give his full attention to listening rather than waiting for his turn to speak.

Trust also turns what could be a terrible disagreement in a boardroom to a creative positive problem-solving experience.

The Main Take-Away

Bill Campbell started his career as a college football coach, then delved into the world of business, leaving his unique business models and lessons behind. His coaching-mentality helped companies go from bankruptcy to trillions with compassion and active-listening.

About the Author

Eric Emerson Schmidt is an American software engineer, businessman, and executive chairman of Alphabet Inc (formerly named Google). According to Forbes, he is the 138th richest person in the world with a net worth of 9.1 billion dollars.

From 1997 to 2001, he worked as CEO of Novell. From 2001 to 2011, he served as CEO of Google. He attended Princeton University, where he met his future wife. In 1979, he graduated from the University of California, Berkeley with an MS degree in designing and implementing a network (Berknet) linking the campus computer center with the CS and EECS departments. He earned a Ph.D. degree there in 1982 in EECS, with a dissertation about the problems of managing distributed software development and tools for solving these problems.

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