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

Damon Allison
Dec 19, 2019 · 7 min read
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Google’s Eric Schmidt, Jonathan Rosenberg and Alan Eagle describe the life, values, and principles of Bill Campbell — the “coach” to silicon valley elites including Steve Jobs, Larry Page, Eric Schmidt, and many others.

When you hear about Silicon Valley’s great success stories — Intel, Apple, Google, Amazon, Facebook, you inevitably hear the names of founders and key executives — Steve Jobs, Larry Page, Sergey Brin, Jeff Bezos, Marisa Mayer, or Sheryl Sandberg.

Unless you dig deep, you won’t hear the name Bill Campbell. Yet if you peel back the covers of those companies, those people, you’ll find Bill Campbell. Bill Campbell was a football coach turned tech executive turned executive coach for the who’s who of Silicon Valley’s elite leaders and companies.

Most people are lucky to be involved with one, maybe two successful companies during their career. How was he able to influence so many leaders at so many companies? How could he possibly convince Steve Jobs to let him sit on Apple’s board while at the same time coaching Google’s entire executive team?

Trillion Dollar Coach examines the life, mindset, principles, values and stories of Bill Campbell. While it highlights some of Bill’s life (Bill died in 2016), the book’s focus was his approach to building teams, cultures, and leaders. Bill was an outgoing, dynamic, energetic, successful builder of people, teams, and companies.

His passion for life, love of people, ability to build teams and influence as an executive coach are evergreen lessons that anyone — from janitors to CEOs — can learn from. Regardless of what you do, relationship building is the foundation for success. Even if you aren’t a “people person”, you can become a better version of yourself by learning from Bill Campbell — one of the most successful “people persons” in Silicon Valley.

And if you are a manager, leader, or executive (a “people person”), the lessons learned from Bill’s leadership style will remind you how important the combination of relationships, mindset, teamwork, and passion are to success.

Bill Campbell — The Career

Bill was an undersized, hard working passionate captain of his college football team. We went on to coach at Columbia, but failed as he didn’t have the killer instinct / cut throat personality needed to make tough player, coach, or personnel decisions.

Bill left sports to take a role with Apple, eventually becoming the CEO of Apple’s Claris spin-off. He oversaw the Mac launch, aired the 1984 super bowl commercial in spite of the board “hating it”, and generally succeeded in his marketing / advertising role. He went on to be the CEO of Intuit until 2000.

After Intuit, he gradually started executive coaching. John Doerr (Kleiner Perkins) invited Bill to become a coach for their portfolio companies. John advised Eric Schmidt to have Bill coach him. Eric reluctantly agreed, but quickly realized that he needed a coach.

He also started on Apple’s board. He advised startups and founders from small businesses to Amazon. He even evaluated Amazon at a time when they were considering replacing Bezos as CEO. (He voted to keep Bezos, citing employee loyalty. Good call.)

The authors (Google executives) interviewed over 80 people for the book. From Larry Page, Sergey Brin, Sundar Pichai, Eddy Cue, and many others. Many of which were coached by Bill during his “executive coaching” years.

It’s here, during his coaching years, that he really became successful. Not monetarily — but a more meaningful measure of success — by the number of people and companies he helped grow.

Bill Campbell — The Mindset

As you read the book, you realize quick that Bill was first and foremost a “people person”. Passionate, loving, honest, hard working, uplifting, loyal, fair, direct, disciplined, decisive, humble, fun, energetic, happy, gritty, positive, loyal, and effective were constant themes throughout the book. If you are a manager or leader, read that last sentence slow. Entire books have been written on each value. Taking them together, and being serious / diligent / honest with yourself to uphold them, will make you successful.

In today’s tech first, win at all cost, move faster world, we can’t lose track of the fact that your success ultimately depends on making others successful. Making others successful the mark of a great coach. From that perspective, Bill was ahead of his time. He realized in the 80s that the mindset that sports teams take on the field, or the armed forces take into battle, apply equally well in the business world.

Bill had the definition of a growth mindset. Believing in others more than they believe in themselves, the desire to make others great, no personal ego, and the drive and will to win.

And above all, he loved people. Bringing compassion to work is a key factor to success. He built teams and brought the football team mindset with him to the business world.

Bill Campbell — The Principles

You’re starting to get the sense of the type of person Bill Campbell was. The book laid out principles Bill brought with him. Ultimately, Bill believed in people and teams. His goal was to make others successful, to make people happy, and to win.

  • It’s about people. People are the foundation of any company’s success.
  • The top priority of any manager is the well being and success of their people.
  • To build relationships, start 1:1 or meetings with personal, non-business topics.
  • Be prepared for 1:1s. Focus on performance, results, goals.
  • Managers exist to a) run a decision making process where all people are heard, and b) break ties / make decisions when necessary.
  • Lead based on first principles. People agree to principles in advance, they can’t be argued.
  • Tolerate “brilliant jerks”, as long as their value outweighs the toll on the management, colleagues, teams. (I actually disagree with this one — I don’t tolerate brilliant jerks)
  • Product matters. The purpose of a company is to bring a product vision to life. All other functions are in service to the product.

Bill Campbell — On Trust

Trust is the most important currency in a relationship. Trust in individual relationships and within teams builds “psychological safety”. Psychological safety encourages risk taking and makes people feel comfortable in being themselves. People and teams who feel safe are high performing.

How do you build trust?

  • It starts with who you coach. Only coach the coachable. Those who are honest, humble, willing to persevere and work hard, and are always learning.
  • Listen intently, ask questions. Focus your full attention on the conversation.
  • Be direct. Couple negative feedback with caring. Deliver negative feedback privately.
  • Don’t tell people what to do. Tell stories and guide them to the right decision.
  • Push the team to be courageous. Believe in people more than they believe in themselves. Push them to be more courageous.
  • Be yourself. Bring your whole self / identity to your work.

Bill Campbell — On Teams

Bill’s guiding principle was that the team is paramount, and the most important thing he looked for and expected in people was a “team-first” attitude. Your employees must place the needs of the team above the needs of themselves.

  • Work the team, then the problem. When faced with a problem, get the team right in place first. They’ll solve the problem.
  • Pick the right players. Value potential more than experience.
  • Pair people on projects or decisions (varies the team chemistry).
  • Value diversity. Winning teams have more women.
  • Solve the biggest problem first, the “elephant in the room”
  • Air the negative issues, but don’t dwell on them. Move on as fast as possible.
  • When things go bad, leaders need even more loyalty, commitment, and decisiveness from their leaders.
  • Leading teams becomes a lot more joyful, and the people more effective, when you care about the people.

Bill Campbell — On Love

To be a great leader, you must love people. Leaders who truly care and understand people’s lives outside of work have better relationships.

  • Understand people’s lives outside of work. Their families, their lives. When things get rough, show up.
  • Cheer for people and their success.
  • Build communities. Teams are stronger when people are connected.
  • Be generous with your time, connections, and resourcdes for helping people.
  • Love founders. They have passion and vision for the company.

Bill Campbell — On Success

How do you measure success? Money? Bill measured success by how many people he helped. I’ll just quote the book’s final page:

“When asked about his habit of eschewing compensation, Bill would say that he had a different way of measuring his impact, his own kind of yardstick. I look at all the people who’ve worked for me or who I’ve helped in some way, he would say, and I count up how many are great leaders now. That’s how I measure success.”

Building leaders is how Bill measured success.

Book Review

The book read like a half eulogy / half managment book. I thought it did a good job of mixing just enough of Bill’s personal life to provide background and context without losing focus on the leadership traits that made him successful. It felt glowing and long winded at times — but it wasn’t boring. The stories were great, the examples were meaningful, and it ultimately tied back to the broader essence of what made Bill successful.

There are a lot of take aways, especially for managers. How to hire, lead, act, conduct meetings, give feedback, and coach. Also, all the values you should have — hustle, honestly, love, passion, drive, etc.

Still, the entire book can really be simplified to a single commandment:

Love your neighbor as yourself

As the Bible says, we are here to “love your neighbor as yourself”. If there is one thing that you could take away from this book — this is it. This is what Bill did. You should too. If you do, you’ll build great relationships, productive teams, and be an outstanding leader.

Damon Allison

Written by

Hi there, I’m Damon. I’m a software engineer from Minneapolis, MN. I’m into writing code, an occasional blog post, running marathons, and caffeine.

Damon Allison

Written by

Hi there, I’m Damon. I’m a software engineer from Minneapolis, MN. I’m into writing code, an occasional blog post, running marathons, and caffeine.

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