What I learned from Bill

10 years of meetings with “Coach Campbell” taught me a lot about life

I didn’t meet Bill Campbell until 2004. By then he was already the Coach of Silicon Valley, already famously guiding Steve Jobs and the Google founders as they built the two largest companies in the world. He had already founded the Powder Puffs, an eighth grade girls’ flag football team for a local private Catholic school — not to mention recruited and outfitted an opposing team so his team would have somebody to play! He was already on the boards of Apple, Intuit and Columbia University. He had already saved the local “Old Pro” sports bar from bankruptcy, and changed its slogan to “Good coaches win, great coaches cover” for good measure. His philanthropy had already built schools and gyms and football fields and libraries. A best-selling book had already been written about his most famous failure, only cementing his legend. In fact, by 2004 Bill had piled up enough accomplishments for ten “accomplished” people.

Yet somehow, in 2004, I didn’t know who Bill Campbell was.

That’s the year I first entered the small office he kept in Palo Alto’s humbler downtown area of California Avenue. It was above a hair and tanning salon off a side street. Later I would learn the shop’s owner thought of Bill as a second father. So did the man running the coffee shop down the street, and the deli proprietor who made him the same turkey sandwich hundreds of times per year. The stucco storefront on the sleepy street was hardly the steel and glass cathedral where the typical Silicon Valley elite held court. By that point in my career I had kneeled at many of those altars, and it was rarely a pleasant first time experience. In Silicon Valley at the turn of the century, dollars and stature and power went hand in hand with ego and not-so-subtle reminders of pecking order. I constantly felt like an insignificant speck in this place, despite being a young but established CEO with almost ten years under my belt.

Needless to say, I wasn’t expecting to meet an icon of Silicon Valley in what was essentially a strip mall.

Anybody who has visited Bill’s office — as thousands did from all walks of Valley life since he “retired” in the 1990’s — knows you ring a small bell at the top of a rear staircase, and are greeted by his long-time assistant Debbie. It’s just the two of them. Debbie was to Bill what Tanto was to the Lone Ranger, smiling politely as she did the dirty work of keeping the world from tearing Bill into a million pieces. Bill was “yes.” Debbie was “no.” I rang the bell. Debbie buzzed me in. It was a sound that would come to soothe me every time I heard it.

My first meeting with Bill started with a bear hug, and then he proceeded to politely rip my business to shreds. After thirty minutes, he smiled and told me there was no way he could “take on” another CEO given his schedule. By that he meant I wasn’t mentoring material, which is why I had gone there in the first place. Then it was another bear hug, and he was gone. I was sure I would never be back. Yet somehow when I walked out of that room I felt like a million bucks, like I could do anything. Bill had transferred some invisible energy to me. To my delight, Debbie called to schedule a second meeting. It was a repeat of the first. By the third meeting it was evident Bill had no admiration for my business or my leadership ability. I’m pretty sure he didn’t know what we did. After all his questions, I wasn’t even sure I knew what we did anymore.

Then, a few weeks later my Treo rang and I heard a gruff, barely decipherable voice barking at me on the other end. “I’m too f***ing busy right now, but come in January. Debbie will schedule it.” It was October, but I gladly accepted, thinking that at least I would get a fourth meeting. Each meeting had left me with the same feeling of exhilaration for some reason, despite an increasing awareness of how messed up my business was. The next day Debbie called. Not just to schedule a meeting in January, but to schedule one-on-one sessions twice a month for the entire following year! The man — whose picture should be the first thing you see when you load the Wikipedia article for “mentor” — had taken me under his wing!

Over the next ten years, I usually met with Bill once or twice a month, plus board meetings and occasional random drop ins. Even when he was dealing with his own personal tragedies, and after he became quite ill, he made time for me and my problems.

Our one-on-ones almost always followed the same cadence: I show up at the exact appointed time. I wait, while hearing Bill hold court with his incessant guttural swearing either on the phone or in the conference room. Often the beaming but bewildered recipient of Bill’s closing argument would stagger out of the room, and I would recognize a well-known CEO, or a hard charging young VC, or a famous Bay Area athlete. Other times it was a clergyman, a Stanford professor, a non-profit director, somebody who used to work for Bill, or so-and-so’s kid. Noah could have populated a human version of the ark with all the shapes, sizes, colors and identities of people I saw walk out of Bill’s conference room. They were all looking for advice and guidance. All receiving the same kind of love and compassion and ass-kicking.

When Bill saw me, he would size me up like the undersized defensive lineman he was. He would put one foot slightly forward, dangle his arms wide by his sides, and stare me down. Then a twinkle in his eye, a smile from the side of his mouth, and he would pounce with his famous bear hug. This was always followed immediately by a quick insult about my “bowling” shoes or a wisecrack about “yet another of the world’s f***ing ugliest shirts.” The next 60 to 90 minutes were a whirlwind, but an exhilarating one. To start, a minimum of fifteen minutes on sports and our kids. Then at least fifteen minutes about my company’s team, and my own mental state. Then the meeting devolved into storytelling, with Bill spinning one tale after another. Often I struggled to keep up with the characters, not to mention the relevance to my current predicament. Eventually Bill got to a specific topic he wanted to talk about. Normally it was something he had been stewing about, or thought we should be doing better. Sometimes it had to do with philanthropy, or making sure I was spending enough time with my wife and kids, or “putting a bullet in the head” of one of our products, or his thoughts about a certain “lightweight” in the Valley who would “float up if you threw him out the window.”

If the job of a mentor or coach is to solve your problems, then I should get my money back. Bill never did that. Instead, Bill helped me identify problems for myself. Problems I often didn’t see until hours or days after I had met with him. But without exception, after the dozens of — I guess several hundred? — meetings we had, I always felt like a million bucks. When I left his office, I would drive back on the highway with the windows down so I could feel the breeze on my face. I felt alive, capable and ready to look at my business and my life from a fresh perspective. I wanted to go faster. I felt like a star, not like a speck.

Over the years, I’ve met dozens of CEO’s or senior leaders mentored by Bill. There were hundreds more I never met. I’m fairly sure my sessions with him weren’t much different from his other mentees. Perhaps we had a few unique wrinkles. Intuit bought my company, and I joined the leadership team. So I saw him as Board Chairman; and as a god-like role model to executives and receptionists alike. I started a new company, and employed his daughter, Maggie. So I saw him as a proud, devoted father trying (and failing) not to check up on his little girl.

Then, after his death, hundreds of stories and remembrances started pouring in. They made it clear that Bill touched thousands of people the same way he touched me. Bill made them all feel like a star not a speck. Of course, I had known this already. I met Bill’s acolytes literally by the dozen almost any time I was with him in public. But I still had underestimated the sheer volume. How is it even mathematically possible that one man could touch so many people so deeply?

I will tell you my theory: Bill connected with virtually every single person he ever met in this world. Sometimes it was a two minute exchange in a lobby, or an elevator ride. But he embraced everyone he met the way he embraced me twelve years ago. He looked them all in the eye, and gave them all a feeling of significance and respect. He spoke their name. And it wasn’t a show. It was the source of his energy. Bill Campbell was a supernova because of the people who orbited around him. He looked each of us in the eye, and what we saw in the reflection was a better version of ourselves. The star in each of us, shining right in front of our own noses!

How did I get so lucky as to be pulled so tightly into Bill’s orbit? I’ve been asking myself that a lot this past week. Maybe because my company was coincidentally named the same as his precious hometown? Maybe because in a foolish, idealistic but relentless kid from Wichita, he recognized a little bit of his own Homestead grit? Maybe because Bill pulled everybody into his orbit and I just hung on tighter?

Whatever the reason, being embraced by him is by far the most profound thing that has ever happened to me professionally. Often he started his regular one-on-one reprimands with “You know I love you boy, but…” I would roll my eyes, but then drink my medicine. And I can still hear the exact manner in which he would bark in my ear “fix the f***ing product!” or “it’s time to pound the mattresses” or “pace, pace, pick up the f***ing pace!” At first I thought he meant something similar to the platitudes in business books, which talk of “two week sprints” and “mean time to failure” and “failing fast.” But as I watched him deal with a crushing divorce, and the death of his brother, and the death of his best friend, and then his own multi round battles with cancer, I realized he wasn’t talking about business. He was talking about life. His most common refrain was: “I’m worried about one thing, boy. We’ve got to pick up the pace.” In sports terms, he meant that the clock is running out, that we need as many possessions as possible. And that’s exactly what Bill would want us all to do right now. Not slow down, or fawn over his memory, or — as will inevitably happen — stumble over each other trying to claim our posthumous piece of him. For the rest of my life, Bill will always be in my ear, yelling: “Pick up the pace, boy. Pick up the f***ing pace!” And for the rest of my life that’s exactly what I’m going to try to do. And on the good days, when Bill’s presence is strongest, I’m planning to still roll down the windows on the highway.

Justin Kitch
April 2016
Palo Alto, California

Bill Campbell died on April 18, 2016 at the age of 75.