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Trillion Dollar Coach - critical summary review

Trillion Dollar Coach Critical summary review
Management & Leadership and Biographies & Memoirs

This microbook is a summary/original review based on the book: Trillion Dollar Coach: The Leadership Playbook of Silicon Valley's Bill Campbell

Available for: Read online, read in our mobile apps for iPhone/Android and send in PDF/EPUB/MOBI to Amazon Kindle.

ISBN: 0062839268

Publisher: Harper Business

Also available in audiobook, download now:


Critical summary review

To paraphrase organizational psychologist Adam Grant, Silicon Valley’s best-kept secret was never a piece of hardware or a bit of software. Nor was it a product, for that matter. It was always a man, one named William Vincent Campbell Jr. or Bill Campbell, for short. “And he wasn’t a hacker,” explains Grant. “He was a football coach turned sales guy. Yet somehow, Bill had become so influential that he went on a weekly Sunday walk with Steve Jobs, and the Google founders said they wouldn’t have made it without him.” 

Written by Google executives Eric Schmidt and Jonathan Rosenberg with the help of colleague Alan Eagle, “Trillion Dollar Coach” tells Campbell’s story and shares his unique coaching principles and insights. So, get ready to learn more about a man simultaneously considered the most influential and the least known Silicon Valley business guru and prepare to delve deep into his leadership playbook to explore a few of his inimitable ideas and matchless methods!

Bill Campbell, a college football star

Born in the steel town of Homestead, Pennsylvania in 1940, Bill Campbell was the son of a physical education teacher who moonlighted at the local mill. Pugnacious, hard-working and smart, Campbell was simultaneously a good student and a great football player. He was also a role model: while a freshman, in an April 1955 op-ed written for his school newspaper, he reminded his fellow students that there was nothing more important for one’s future than good grades. “Loafing in school may prevent one’s chances of success,” he wrote.

After graduating in 1958, he left his hometown to attend Columbia University in Manhattan and quickly rose through the ranks to become an unlikely looking football hero. Though only 5 feet 10 inches (178 cm) tall and weighing no more than 165 pounds (75 kg), he became his team’s captain and played almost every minute of every game as a linebacker on defense and lineman on offense. Immensely influential, in his senior year, Campbell led the Columbia Lions to the Ivy League conference title, the only one in their entire history as of 2020.

Campbell graduated from Columbia in 1962 with a degree in economics and two years later, received a master’s degree in education. That same year he got a job as an assistant football coach at Boston College, where he spent the next decade of his life. In 1974, his alma mater Columbia asked him to return and become the head coach of the university’s team. Even though he had an offer to coach at Penn State under Joe Paterno – and even though Columbia’s football program was rather woeful at the time – Campbell was just too loyal a man not to go back to Manhattan.

Unfortunately, despite his “abundant coaching talent,” he won only 12 games with the Lions during his entire five-year tenure. Disappointed with his results, he resigned at the end of the 1979 season. He was 39 years old at the time. It was then, with his football career all but done, that Campbell decided to take his first job in the business world. It was a decision that would change many lives, possibly even the face of Silicon Valley.

Bill Campbell, a serial CEO

Campbell failed as a coach at Columbia not for lack of personal talent or good players, but for lack of “dispassionate toughness.” Simply put, he was too compassionate to succeed in that line of work. “I just think I wasn’t hard-edged enough,” he said in a 2005 interview for Columbia College Today. “What you need to do [in football] is not worry about feelings. You’ve got to push everybody and everything harder and be almost insensitive about feelings. I don’t think I have it.” As Campbell would fortunately soon find out, empathy and kindness work much better in the business world than on the football field.

Soon after resigning as a coach from Columbia, Campbell took a job with the ad agency J. Walter Thompson. One of his first clients was photography giant Kodak, whose representatives were so impressed with Campbell that they soon hired him away from the agency and made him head of consumer products for Europe. However, he didn’t stay in this position too long either because in 1983 a friend of a friend invited him to leave Kodak and move to Silicon Valley to become vice-president of sales and marketing of a budding new company called Apple. Campbell accepted the invitation, not the least because the man who had called him was a certain John Sculley, former president of PepsiCo and then newly promoted CEO of Apple.

In 1987, when Apple decided to spin off a separate software company called Claris, they offered Campbell the position of CEO. When the board decided against making Claris public and reabsorbed the company in 1990, Campbell left Apple to become the CEO of a startup named GO Corporation. GO shut down in 1994, and Campbell next became CEO of Intuit, an American business and financial software company. After marshalling the company through several years of growth and success, he stepped down from the position in 2000 to return to coaching full time. This time, however, the terrain wasn’t the football field, but something much more elusive and profound: the human mind.

Bill Campbell, a Silicon Valley legend

As is well known, Apple forced Steve Jobs out of the company in 1985, just two years after Campbell became part of it. Even so, in that short time, Campbell recognized something immensely great in Jobs and was one of the few leaders who fought vigorously against the move. “We’ve got to keep Steve in the company,” he told Dave Kinser, a colleague at the time. “He’s way too talented to just let him leave!” Jobs never forgot this. So, when he returned to Apple and became its CEO in 1997, he immediately named Campbell one of the company’s new directors, a position he served on the Apple board until 2014. 

Jobs and Campbell became close friends and spent many Sunday afternoons discussing all sorts of topics. In just a few months, Campbell became “a sounding board for Steve on a wide variety of subjects, a coach, mentor, and friend.” Upon noticing this, John Doerr invited Campbell to join him at Kleiner Perkins, Silicon Valley’s most famous venture firm, and become a coach for its portfolio companies. In 2001, one of these companies was a local startup named Google, headed by Eric Schmidt, one of the authors of the book.

When Doerr advised Schmidt that he needed Bill Campbell as his coach, Schmidt was too proud not to be offended. It took a few weeks of convincing to turn Schmidt’s mind around. But then, less than a year later, Schmidt would write the following three sentences in his 2002 self-review: “Bill Campbell has been very helpful in coaching all of us. In hindsight, his role was needed from the beginning. I should have encouraged this structure sooner, ideally the moment I started at Google.” Many other Silicon Valley greats share the same feeling to this day.  

When Campbell succumbed to cancer in April 2016, his memorial service was attended by dozens of technology leaders, including Larry Page, Sergey Brin, Mark Zuckerberg, Sheryl Sandberg, Tim Cook, Jeff Bezos, John Doerr, and the authors of this book, Eric Schmidt and Jonathan Rosenberg. “Bill Campbell was a trillion-dollar coach,” they write. “The greatest executive coach the world has ever seen. And not an executive coach in the traditional mold, working solely to maximize the performance of individuals; Bill coached teams.” Let’s see how, by exploring just a few of his coaching ideas and principles.

The foundation: people and meetings 

In August 2008, the website Gawker listed Jonathan Rosenberg among “The 10 Most Terrible Tyrants of Tech.” Rosenberg was not merely happy, but ebullient: he was on a top-10 list featuring the biggest stars of the industry, placed right there between Jobs and Gates, Ballmer and Benioff! “Jonathan, this is not something to be proud of,” said Campbell to the grinning Rosenberg during their one-on-one meeting a few days later. “What if I were to send this to your mother? What would she think?” At the end of the meeting, Campbell shared with Rosenberg, for the first time ever, his now-famous “It’s the People” manifesto. “People are the foundation of any company’s success,” the manifesto read. “The primary job of each manager is to help people be more effective in their job and to grow and develop. Managers achieve this through support, respect, and trust.” 

Wherever Campbell coached – and, to his detriment, even during his football days – the well-being of his people was always his primary objective. He firmly believed that though a title makes a manager, only the people can make a leader. And he coached numerous Silicon Valley executives to value their people’s happiness and growth above everything else. To this end, he advised his “coachees” to have as many individual meetings with their employees as possible, since he considered 1:1 get-togethers “the best way to help people be more effective and to grow.” More importantly, he also believed that managers should prepare well for these 1:1s and structure them properly, focusing on performance, relationships with peer groups, management philosophies, best practices and innovation.

As for team meetings, Campbell suggested beginning them with “trip reports or other types of more personal, non-business topics” so as to build rapport and better relationships among team members. A firm advocate for best ideas and an even firmer opponent of consensus, Campbell believed that “one of a manager’s main jobs is to facilitate decisions” so he built a particular framework for doing this. Rather than promoting democracy and voting, Campbell favored “an ensemble approach,” a King Arthur round-table model of decision-making, not unlike that used in improv comedy. In short, he encouraged in-group “yes and…” conversations until the best iteration of a given idea was accepted by everybody in a more natural manner. If such a thing didn’t happen, then – in Campbell’s view – it was the manager’s job to force a final decision by breaking ties and committing wholeheartedly to the outcome.

A few more rules from Campbell’s coaching playbook

Throughout “Trillion Dollar Coach,” Rosenberg, Schmidt and Eagle derive more than 30 management rules and principles from their experience being coached by Campbell and from more than 80 interviews with people in similar relations to this Silicon Valley legend. So far, we’ve only been able to go over the most vital four, the ones dealing with people and meetings. Before we wrap up, allow us to briefly highlight a few more, covering everything from trust to teams to love:

  • Build an envelope of trust. In any relationship – friendship or romance, familial or professional – trust is the most important currency. A multifaceted concept, trust encompasses everything from loyalty to integrity, from discretion to keeping your word. Establishing trust, studies have shown, is the key component in building “psychological safety” in teams. And teams that feel psychologically safe consistently perform better than all other teams, regardless of individual talent. So, how did Campbell establish team-wide trust? “First,” explain Schmidt and Rosenberg, “he only coached the coachable. Then, if you passed that test, he listened intently, practiced complete candor, believed that his coachees could achieve remarkable things, and was intensely loyal.”
  • Put the team first, and the problems second. “With Bill,” remarked Sheryl Sandberg once, “it was never executive coaching or career coaching. It was never just about me. It was always about the team.” If faced with a problem or an opportunity, Campbell advised, a manager must first make sure the right team is in place, and only then direct them to the issue. He also believed that great teams can only be built from the right kinds of players. His perfect players shared the following six characteristics: “the ability to learn fast, a willingness to work hard, integrity, grit, empathy, and a team-first attitude.”
  • The power of love. It’s okay to love – that’s one of the most important things Schmidt and Rosenberg ever learned from Campbell. Love is virtually absent from the business world, but Campbell’s was ever-present, even when expressed through obscenities and lewdness. Especially then, in fact. He genuinely loved the people he worked with and tirelessly showed up whenever things got rough. He was generous with his time and connections and strived to build communities inside and outside of work. To this end, he regularly asked people about their dreams and families and never forgot their names. Most importantly, he was sincerely happy for other people’s successes and frequently renounced his contributions. Though he created fortunes for hundreds of people, he declined offers of compensation, even going so far to donate all of his Google stocks to charity. “If you’ve been blessed, be a blessing,” he frequently said. “And Bill,” say Schmidt and Rosenberg, “was indeed a blessing.” 

Final notes

It’s an understatement to say that neither Eric Schmidt nor Jonathan Rosenberg are famous as generous compliment givers. Yet, “Trillion Dollar Coach” reads as if a panegyric! Along with painting an almost saint-like portrait of their mentor Bill Campbell, the book also delivers on the promise of reconstructing his imaginary leadership playbook, so it’s not difficult to recommend it to anyone who works with other people, regardless of the environment or the size of their company.

12min tip

A great place for repeating Bill Campbell’s motto yet again: if you’ve been blessed, be a blessing. To as many people as you can.

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Who wrote the book?

Jonathan Rosenberg is an American businessman, technologist and economist. He was a senior vice president of products at Google and is currently an advisor to the Alphabet management team and board, part... (Read more)

Eric Schmidt is an American businessman and software engineer. He was CEO of Google from 2001 to 2011, and executive chairman of the company from 2011 to 2015. Afterward, he became an executive chairman and t... (Read more)

Alan Eagle has been a director of executive communications at Google since joining the company in 2007. Formerly a speechwriter, he is currently the overseer of a set of Google’s sales progr... (Read more)