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Trillion Dollar Coach: leadership lessons from Silicon Valley’s legendary coach Bill Campbell

People, trust, teams, and love – these are some of the core foundations for successful leaders and coaches. These principles have been practised in companies like Google, Apple, and Intuit, as shown in this new book.

Trillion Dollar Coach: leadership lessons from Silicon Valley’s legendary coach Bill Campbell

Tuesday May 07, 2019 , 9 min Read

Inspiring and practical lessons on business success are offered in Trillion Dollar Coach: The Leadership Handbook of Silicon Valley's Bill Campbell. The book has been authored by Google’s Eric Schmidt (former CEO and Chairman), Jonathan Rosenberg (SVP, Alphabet), and Alan Eagle (Director).

Bill Campbell started off as a football player and coach, and was a graduate from Columbia University with a degree in Economics (1962) and a master’s in Education (1964). After stints at JWT and Kodak, he moved to Silicon Valley to join Apple, where he became the VP of sales and marketing. He later became the CEO of Claris and Intuit, subsequently moving on to coaching roles at Google and Apple. He has coached the CEOs of eBay, Twitter, NextDoor, MetricStream and Chegg, as well as investors and university presidents, and even local school football teams. Bill passed away in 2016 at the age of 75.

To honour their business coach and inspire future generations, the authors have codified some of Bill’s wisdom in this guidebook. The material draws on interviews with over 80 people who worked with him.

Coaching is now in vogue, but while there are many “self-help” books, there aren’t enough “help others” books, Adam Grant writes in the foreword. Adam is the author of Originals: How non-conformists change the world (see my book review here).

“Bill was the greatest executive coach the world has ever seen,” the authors begin. But rather than coaching only leaders, he coached entire teams as a group coach. In the high-tech sector where innovation and speed are paramount, it is high-performing teams that lead to success, the authors explain.

Here are my key takeaways from the 220-page book, summarised in Table 1 (below) as well. See also my reviews of related books Multipliers, The Culture Code, Quirky, InGenius, BlitzScaling, and The Moonshot Effect.

Some of the coaching principles may look easy, but are hard to practice, the authors explain ("well duh, Captain Obvious!"). They are also best understood in the context of specific incidents, which are grasped by reading the whole book.

I. Leadership and people

“Your title makes you a manager. Your people make you a leader,” the authors explain. It is a misconception that smart people don’t like to be managed or coached – everyone wants to learn something new and needs help in some decisions. Operational excellence comes from a strong team culture where processes, accountability and performance matter.

Leaders cannot demand respect, it has to accrue to them. Their humility, sensitivity, and selflessness should show that they care about the company and its people. Charisma and passion are important, but so are crisis management and participatory decision making.

People flourish in an organisation when they have support, respect and trust. In successful companies, managers are also good coaches.

Yahoo used to begin weekly meetings with having the staff express thank-yous to one another. Google’s weekly staff meetings begin with fun and informal communication about weekend trips, which helps build connections and empathy. Such small talk has impacts that go far beyond small.

Including cross-functional representation at key meetings improves alignment. Coaches can anticipate and prepare for tensions during important meetings through individual meetings beforehand. One-on-one meetings should have not more than five key topics, captured in just a word each. Topics can include balancing the inherent tension between innovation and execution.

“Lead based on first principles,” the authors explain. TellMe used this approach to clarify the fundamental value of its product and business model while evaluating a licensing decision with AT&T, and for its eventual sale decision to Microsoft.

“Innovation is where the crazy people have stature,” the authors observe. Many companies have quirky and even eccentric star performers, who have ego and fragility in addition to talent and brilliance.

Their non-conformist nature should be embraced, but if they have a corrosive or toxic effect it should be minimised. Even when employees have to be fired, they should be treated with respect for their contributions to the company.

The CEO should manage the board, and bring out the highlights as well as “lowlights.” Directors should have operational expertise as well as a sense of deep caring about the company (see my review of the related book Startup Boards).

II. Build an envelope of trust

Trust was regarded as Bill Campbell’s “superpower,” which he was great at establishing and honouring. Trust is defined variously as a combination of integrity, ability, discretion, loyalty, and willingness to share vulnerability.

It helps build rapport, comfort and protection in teams (“psychological safety”). Trust helps minimise relationship conflict in situations of task conflict. It also helps deal with arguments professionally, and overcome the fear of risk-taking.

To be coachable, people have to be self-aware, humble, honest, lifelong learners, and willing to work hard. “A successful coaching relationship requires a high degree of vulnerability,” the authors caution.

Leaders and coaches have to be active listeners; listening makes people feel valued, respected, understood, supported, and visible, and improves the sense of belonging in a company. Praise should be given in public, and negative comments can be preceded with “by the way” or be given in private. Feedback should be prompt and candid but also caring and constructive (“tough love”).

A good coach also pushes you beyond your current limits, breathes confidence into you, and gives you courage. This is beyond “blind cheerleading,” and should be based on credibility and signs of progress.

For example, such tips helped Centrata’s founder Shishir Mehrotra override the investor decision to fire some co-founders and re-hire them. He believed they cared more for the company than mercenary professionals.

Diversity is important as well. People are most effective when they can bring their full identity to work, the authors explain. This applies to people’s gender, race, and even accents and the way they dress.

III. Team first

All employees, and even CEOs, should put the company’s broader mission and purpose first, and view themselves as team members working for the company. For example, Eric Schmidt was not happy at being asked by the board to step down as Chairman when Google went public. But he did so, on Bill’s advice, who later reinstated him.

Team coaches help resolve the rational and emotional tensions during decisions that challenge pride, ambition and ego. They focus on team dynamics and organisational success, not just the career of one manager. Even the toughest problems can be tackled by the right teams.

Team players have four key characteristics: smartness, hard work, integrity and grit. They should be able to learn fast, make connections across fields (“far analogies”), have empathy, and be able to put the team first.

Picking team members should be based on their experience and diversity as well as future potential. Google has developed a peer feedback survey, which is shared in the book. It includes questions about collaboration, contribution, innovation, quality, vision and even feedback.

Bill Campbell was known for his strong sense of observation during meetings, watching body language, side conversations and even what was not said during the discussions. He was known as the “shadow” behind the teams, moving people along with quick words in 1:1 conversations to fill the communication gaps in larger discussions.

Though “touchy-feely” topics like empathy may not be seen as important in male-dominated tech teams, they help improve connections between teams and even help identify those who can be weeded out.

IV. The power of love

Bill Campbell was known for his warm displays of love to his colleagues and coachees. Even his profuse use of profanities, bear-hugs, winks and kisses blown were seen as compassionate and endearing. Others may prefer handshakes and conversational niceties, the authors joke.

This combination of “sharp mind and warm heart” are unusual in many corporate circles, where cold people are seen as competent and warm people as incompetent. “Love is a word you don’t hear a lot in business settings,” the authors observe. “Love is part of what makes a great team great,” they emphasise.

Great coaches and leaders can break down the walls between professional and human personae, and embrace the whole person with love, according to the authors. Some of Bill’s favourite comments (also printed on his memorial service programme) were “You’re as dumb as a post” and “That’s the sound of your head coming out of your ass.”

Bill also took time out to get to know the families of his coachees, and help them during tough times, e.g. a scholarship for an injured football player, or a conversation with the father of Nirav Tolia, CEO of NextDoor.

Giving applause during innovative product pitches generates approval as well as momentum. The five loud claps, or the Bill Campbell Clap, have been incorporated into the culture of Google.

Bill’s generosity also carried over outside corporate teams to the broader community. He funded (and even endowed) trips to baseball and football games for people and friends in his networks. He sponsored fishing trips and even his high school reunion. Bill also owned a sports bar (Old Pro in Palo Alto), where he hosted his own TGIF get-togethers.

Of course, this is a luxurious form of community building, the authors acknowledge, but showed how much Bill valued making connections between people in social as well as professional settings. “A place is much stronger when people are connected,” the authors observe.

Bill had a special admiration for founders, due to their vision, guts, passion and skills. He always looked out for special ways to accommodate them during times of transition, as he did for Steve Jobs during Apple’s rebirth. (See also my review of the related book, Founder’s Mentality, and author interview.)

Even the greatest of CEOs and high performers have their moments of loneliness and feeling of separation from others; they are human, and need appreciation, affirmation and emotional support.

“You cannot be a good manager without being a good coach,” the authors sum up. “An essential component of high-performing teams is a leader, who is both a savvy manager and a caring coach,” they sign off.

Remarkably, Bill Campbell did not take cash or stock for his coaching services, and saw his contribution as a way of giving back after his business career. The book ends with one of his fitting and inspiring quotes: “If you’ve been blessed, be a blessing."

Also read: The Top 10 Books of 2018 for Entrepreneurs