This insight article examines New York Times Bestseller, USA Today Bestseller, and #1 Wall Street Journal Bestseller, the Trillion Dollar Coach. The Trillion Dollar Coach tells the story of Bill Campbell and his journey through the sports industry, the corporate world, and into high-impact executive coaching. Bill’s journey of success and triumph can teach many lessons to the executive coaches of today. Below we outline the journey of Bill Campbell and three characteristics of impact he displayed throughout his biography the Trillion Dollar Coach.
Bill’s journey to executive coaching
Early signs of greatness
Bill is described in this biography as someone who avoids the limelight and seeks to help others. Throughout his entire career, he was others-focused and lived a life of care for those around him. In high school, Bill was already showing signs of leadership through his dual role as a football star and an academic whiz. Bill left his hometown in Pennsylvania and headed to Columbia University in Manhattan, continuing his success as a football player. He soon became an assistant coach to Boston College, until his return to his alma mater as head coach in 1974.
Failures and learnings
Unfortunately, Bill’s return to Columbia was wrought with difficulties, likely stemming from a lack of faculty funding. However, Bill comments on his valuable take-away from this season…
“There is something that I would say is called dispassionate toughness that you need [as a football coach], and I don’t think I have it. What you need to do is not worry about feelings. You’ve got to push everybody and everything harder and be almost insensitive about feelings. You replace a kid with another kid; you take an older guy and replace him with a younger guy. That is the nature of the game. Survival of the fittest. The best players play. In my case, I worried about that. I tried to make sure the kids understood what we were doing. I just think I wasn’t hard-edged enough.”
While this strategy may not have been ideal for the football field, it shows great promise to the makings of a business leader.
An entrance to the corporate world
After his football career came to a close, Bill entered the corporate world through positions with Kodak and Kraft. One day, an old buddy from Columbia connected Bill to John Sculley, ultimately leading to his position as Vice President of Sales at Apple. Bill had great success with Apple and was ultimately offered a position as CEO of Apple’s spin-off, Claris. This was the launching point of Bill’s longstanding career as a CEO of various companies including the GO Corporation and Intuit.
An act of loyalty
Just like Bill’s loyalty led him back to his alma mater, Bill spoke up for Steve Jobs when he was forced out of Apple in 1985. Steve remembered this loyalty and introduced Bill as a member of the Board of Directors. Through this position, although he wasn’t aware of it, Bill was in many ways coaching the executives he came in contact with.
Introducing the executive coach
After stepping down from his position as CEO of Intuit in 2000, Bill was invited to Kleiner Perkins, a venture capital firm, as an executive coach. This invitation spurred on the collision of Bill’s passion for coaching, caring for others, and his skill in the corporate world. He began coaching for Google’s founders and leaders, greatly impacting the future of Google. Bill soon started coaching other business leaders from companies such as Apple, Intuit, eBay, Twitter, Flipboard, Numenta, Facebook, and Nextdoor. He even coached Vice President Al Gore, the President of Columbia University, and many other impactful leaders in Silicon Valley and beyond.
What executive coaches can learn from Bill
Executive coaches can learn a wealth of practical knowledge and coaching wisdom from the life and perspective of Bill Campbell. Throughout Bill’s biography, three main elements of Bill’s character continually support both his development as a coach and the development of everyone around him: genuine care, loyalty, and valuing risk-taking.
How to best use this summary
After each example of Bill’s care, loyalty, or risk evaluation, we introduce a question for you, the executive coach, to ask yourself and ponder over. We encourage you to use these questions as an opportunity to enhance your coaching strategies and increase your impact on the lives of those around you.
Genuine care creates greatness
Throughout Bill’s life, he displayed great care and genuine interest in the lives and well-being of everyone he came in contact with. He showed his genuine care in many ways to those around him. In fact, Bill believes that his care for each of his football players is what held him back from being an excellent football coach. However, this immense care transferred to the corporate industry with drastic success. From his vibrantly genuine greetings, marked by his bear hugs and laughter, to his generosity towards others, Bill constantly made a positive impact on those around him. Often in his coaching, he wouldn’t even take payment. He coached out of genuine care for others, seeing his measure of success as how many people he helped excel in their careers. In the words of Nirav Tolia, Co-Founder and CEO of Nextdoor, “Bill was one hundred percent substance.”
Bill displayed his genuine care for his coachees and all of those around him in various ways. How can you act on the care you have for others?
One of the ways Bill showed his genuine concern for those around him was his genuine questioning. Before getting to business in group meetings or individual coaching sessions, Bill always talked about family first. He asked genuine questions, beyond “how are the kids?” He would ask about the outcomes of kids’ soccer games and schooling. Bill even displayed a genuine interest in the vacations and experiences that those around him had outside of the office. This helped those around him feel more comfortable bringing up their ideas during meetings and feel more comfortable being candid during coaching sessions.
How well do you keep up with the lives of your coachees? How can you use that information to spark genuine questions and conversations?
Management with caring kindness
Throughout his corporate career and the coaching he provided to the leaders of Silicon Valley, Bill always advocated for caring kindness. One of his essential questions was “How do you bring people around and help them flourish in your environment?” He advocated for caring management that projected humility and selflessness, care for the company, and care for the people. Once, one of Bill’s coaching clients was considered to be an intense manager and was given the title of a “Tech Tyrant” by a popular magazine. While Bill’s client was proud of this, Bill responded with disappointment. In response, he told this “Tech Tyrant,” “What if I were to send this to your mother?” Instead of a management style of tyranny, Bill often told his coachees to “think that everyone who works for you is like your kids...help them course correct, make them better.” Bill showed his genuine care for everyone around him, regardless of their position in a company by advocating for this type of caring and kindness that comes from management and business leaders.
How often do you emphasize the importance of kindness to your coachees?
Bill’s caring nature for those around him was dependable and trustworthy. He kept his word, was loyal to others, and was a trustworthy confidant. Once, Bill made a promise to take care of his football players. Unfortunately, this player became injured and was no longer able to play. Regardless, Bill still upheld his commitment to look out for this player, keeping him on the team, and working to uphold his athletic scholarship. When those around him fell ill, either temporarily or chronically, Bill was always there to check-in and help in any way he could. When Bill made a promise, he pulled through no matter what. He was a dependable source of support and caring for all of those around him.
Would your coachees consider you a reliable source of support and guidance?
Valuing diversity and equality
Bill recognized that everyone was different, had their own stories, and had their own perspectives. In meetings, he wanted to hear everyone’s opinions. Even in his day-to-day interactions, he treated everyone with the same kindness. In the words of Mickey Drexler, former CEO of J.Crew, Bill “acted the same way with the store associates as he did with the people on the Apple board.” Bill also valued cultural, racial, and gender equality. He had “zero tolerance for any gender bias.” He supported the role of women in the corporate workplace and even coached girls flag football.
In what ways do you support your coachees’ diversity and equality efforts? Is your pool of coachees diverse?
Bill’s care for others extended beyond the individual and to the community as a whole. He was known for hosting Superbowl getaways and various other trips. Furthermore, before his passing, he ensured that these Superbowl getaways continued by allocating funds for up to a decade of Superbowl getaways. Bill didn’t sponsor these getaways because he loved the Superbowl. Instead, he loved the community that was built around the trip and the ability that it gave him to care for his friends, employees, coworkers, and family.
In what ways do you intentionally develop community? What have been your results from these efforts?
One of the many ways Bill displayed his genuine care for others was his intentionality with the conversations and commitments he had. He was intentional about paying attention to the emotional cues that individuals would give during meetings and coaching sessions. He prepared for coaching sessions, asked questions, and listened well. One of his coachees Salar Kamangar, former CEO of YouTube, shared that “Bill was uplifting. No matter what we discussed, I felt heard, understood, and supported.” Another example of his intentionality is how he would ignore business phone calls when coaching girls’ flag football. He would even go as far as intentionally connecting business leaders to each other if he thought they would both benefit from the connection. Bill intentionally helped, cared about, and uplifted those around him at all times.
Are you intentionally invested in every conversation you have or does your mind wander? How can you learn from Bill’s practice of intentionality?
Loyalty to excellence
Bill was known for sticking to his guns. He was blunt and loyal to the causes he ascribed to. Bill was always loyal to achieving excellence. When Steve Jobs was forced out of Apple in 1985 he was noted as saying “We’ve got to keep Steve in the company. He’s way too talented to just let him leave!” Bill wasn’t swayed by office politics, instead, he was loyal to both his friend and the excellence he advocated for. Bill also advocated for excellence when building teams. He is quoted as saying “You can’t get anything done without a team.” His loyalty to excellence helped him build teams with the right people cheering them on and was said to have “kicked them in their collective butt when they were underperforming.” Bill found excellence in people who were smart, worked hard, had integrity, and had grit. No matter what company he worked with or who he coached, he instilled a “culture of winning” in his loyalty to excellence.
How do you encourage your coachees to pursue excellence? How do you pursue excellence in your own coaching?
Loyalty to the cause
When business challenges rose that caused emotional damage, difficult change, or conflict, Bill always was loyal to the cause of the company and his own self. On several occasions, Bill encouraged disheartened executives to remain loyal to their companies and consider the amount of work they had already put in. Bill’s advice kept executives from throwing in the towel too early and missing out on the benefits of resiliency and a growing business. He is quoted as saying “Your pride is getting in the way of what’s best for the company and for you.”
How do you encourage your coachees to stay loyal to the cause of their company? What is the “cause” of your coaching?
Leaders value risk
Risk is often discussed in a negative way. However, in Bill’s perspective, risk is something to be evaluated and acknowledged as an opportunity for growth.
What is your perspective of risk? Does it need to be reevaluated?
Bill never shied away from taking up reasonable risks. He made his mark at Apple by debuting the brand’s famous Superbowl after receiving some pushback on the commercial. He always sought to make “decisions with integrity” and be a decisive leader. He wasn’t afraid to go against the crowd if he thought there was a better way to lead. In the words of Shona Brown, Bill was an “evangelist for courage.”
How do you take reasonable risks in your coaching? How do you encourage others to take reasonable risks for their career advancement?
Unlike the standard business meeting, Bill wanted to hear everyone’s own opinion, including everyone in the conversation. In examining these opinions, he strove for the best idea, not group consensus. Because of this, the meetings he led never succumbed to some of the challenges that “group think” can create. He also encouraged hiring for change and what he called “aberrant geniuses” that could be difficult to manage but were “differentiators.”
Bill wasn’t afraid of challenging the norm and looking for ways to change for the good. At Kodak, Bill changed the standard innovation discussion by adding engineers to the conversation. Bill has been described as showing “inordinate confidence and setting aspirations high.” He had a “willingness to take risks and the willingness to stand up” for what was best for the company, even if that meant change.
What is your reaction to change? How can it be improved? How can you encourage your coachees to embrace change?
Bill Campbell is truly a Trillion Dollar Coach. The impact he has had on the leaders of Silicon Valley is immeasurable. As we review the journey of Bill and the characteristics that led him to success, we encourage you to read the Trillion Dollar Coach for even more examples of how he genuinely cared about those around him, was loyal to his cause, and was never afraid of a reasonable risk.
“Bill grasped that there are things we all care about as people—love, family, money, attention, power, meaning, purpose—that are factors in any business situation... Bill would get to know people as people, and by doing so he could motivate them to perform as businesspeople. He understood that positive human values generate positive business outcomes.” - Trillion Dollar Coach
“If your actions inspire others to dream more, learn more, do more, and become more, you are a leader.” - John Quincy Adams
Allison, D. (2019, December 18). Book Review: Trillion Dollar Coach: The Leadership of Silicon Valley's Bill Campbell. Retrieved from https://medium.com/@damonallison/book-review-trillion-dollar-coach-the-leadership-of-silicon-valleys-bill-campbell-c333c3b79cb4
Schmidt, E., Rosenberg, J., & Eagle, A. (2019). Trillion dollar coach: The leadership playbook of Silicon Valleys Bill Campbell. London: John Murray.
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