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

By Eric Schmidt, Jonathan Rosenberg, Alan Eagle

Harper Business; April 16, 2019; 240 pages; hardcover: $20

In a nutshell: Management and coaching extraordinaire Bill Campbell, an old-school football coach who evolved into a Silicon Valley executive and consultant for major technology companies, is the topic of this motivating book. The book was co-written by three high-ranking Google employees after Campbell passed away in 2016.

Who’s it for? A reference guide for those in managerial positions seeking the right combination of motivation and team building.

Author’s quote: “An essential component of high-performing teams is a leader who is both a savvy manager and a caring coach.”

Called Silicon Valley’s best-kept secret, Bill Campbell (known affectionately throughout the book as Coach Bill) was a coach to several high-profile entrepreneurs including Apple co-founder Steve Jobs, Amazon’s Jeff Bezos, and Google co-founders Larry Page and Sergey Brin. The book begins as a biography of sorts, recounting Campbell’s early years in western Pennsylvania. The region is known for two things: steel and football. Campbell excels at the latter to play and eventually becomes the head coach at Columbia University.

Football is a bit confining for Campbell’s evolving aspirations, so he moves on as a salesman at Kodak. About the time Kodak passed on the first iteration of digital photography (which led to its downfall), Campbell saw the writing on the wall and migrated west to California after being recruited by Apple. Once in Silicon Valley – the Mecca of fast-start companies run by egotistical CEOs – Campbell’s coaching experience made him a valuable commodity. Over time Campbell became a key player at Apple and developed a strong working relationship with Jobs.

Not long into the book, the writing moves away from a biographical profile to focus on Campbell’s techniques for coaching individuals and effective teams. The chapters break down the different aspects of his philosophies. While many think of coaching as someone who simply instructs, Campbell immersed himself fully into the day-to-day operations of the companies he worked with. He did this by attending most meetings, getting to the root of pressing issues, and knowing personally most team members. This level of involvement garnered him trust and allowed Campbell to be frank with his critique and praise.

Trust became a key component of Campbell’s principles. To him, trust was more than keeping one’s word. It also included being honest, using discretion and, most importantly, being loyal. Campbell was one Apple executive who fought to keep Steve Jobs when he was let go from the company in 1985. It’s important to note that although he had the gruff exterior to get people’s attention, Campbell’s common sense and personable touch was recalled most by his cohorts.

A review of this type does not do justice to the book’s endless stories and practices from Campbell’s insights recounted by the employees and executives he impacted. An early chapter explains how many new managers struggled with their title without thinking about what being a manager means. Campbell was known to expound: A manager’s authority “emerges only when the manager establishes credibility with subordinates, peers, and superiors.” And, “If you’re a great manager, your people will make you a leader, not you.”

In the male-dominated Silicon Valley culture, Campbell encouraged the women he coached to seek larger roles and higher profile positions, especially in jobs outside of public relations and human resources. Campbell was known for saying, “Winning depends on having the best team and the best teams have more women.”

Taken either as a poignant salute written by those who were positively influenced by Campbell’s coaching, or used as a reference guide for leading an organization, “Trillion Dollar Coach” is an informative and entertaining book. The only regret for readers may be the remorse of never having crossed Bill Campbell’s path.

Chris Wendel is a business advisor with Northern Initiatives, a Community Development Financial institution based (CDFI) based in Marquette, Mich. Northern Initiatives provides money and know-how to businesses throughout Michigan. Wendel lives and works in Traverse City and can be reached at cwendel@northerninitiatives.org.

 

 

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