Who was Bill Campbell, coach of Silicon Valley? How did he end up coaching major players from many big tech companies?
After playing and coaching football, Bill Campbell started working at Kodak and then moved to Apple in its early years. Taking lessons learned there and in football helped Bill Campbell as a coach.
Keep reading to learn more about Bill Campbell, coach of many Silicon Valley executives.
The Legendary Bill Campbell, Coach of Silicon Valley
Bill Campbell was one of the most influential players in Silicon Valley from 1983 until his death in 2016. Campbell was known as “Coach” partly because he coached Columbia University’s and Boston College’s football teams in the 1970s but mostly for his role as a business mentor. He helped to build some of Silicon Valley’s greatest companies, including Google, Apple, and Intuit. As a coach, Bill Campbell worked with numerous titans of the tech world, including Steve Jobs (Apple), Sundar Pichai (Google), Brad Smith (Intuit), Dick Costolo (Twitter), Sheryl Sandberg (Facebook), John Donahoe (eBay), and Marissa Mayer (Yahoo).
In Trillion Dollar Coach, authors and Google executives Eric Schmidt, Jonathan Rosenberg, and Alan Eagle have compiled Campbell’s principles for business and life. They’re intertwined with anecdotes and stories from some of the biggest companies in Silicon Valley history.
Campbell’s Early Life and Career
Born in a western Pennsylvania steel town in 1940, Campbell was the son of a physical education teacher. He became a high-school football star despite the fact that he was only 5-foot-10 and weighed 165 pounds. He also excelled in his classes, and he went on to play football at Columbia University in New York as a linebacker on defense and a guard on offense. In his senior year, Columbia won the Ivy League title with Campbell as team captain. He graduated with a degree in economics, then stayed on to earn his master’s in education.
In 1964, Campbell accepted a job as assistant football coach at Boston College, where he had a successful 10-year run. Then his alma mater, Columbia, invited him to become head coach. He accepted the job, but the next five years were difficult. His team was a dismal failure. There were many contributing factors—lack of support from the administration, poor practice facilities, problems in recruiting good players—but Campbell blamed his coaching difficulties on the fact that he was overly sensitive to his players’ feelings. He didn’t have the hard edge that was needed to kick out the poor players and let only the stronger ones play.
At age 39, Campbell’s football career was over, so he took a job with the ad agency J. Walter Thompson and worked on the Kodak account. Kodak was so impressed by Campbell that they hired him away from the ad agency, making him head of consumer products for Europe. But Campbell’s tenure at Kodak was cut short because one of his football buddies introduced him to John Sculley, who had recently become CEO of Apple. Sculley invited him to come work at the exciting new computer company in Silicon Valley (this was in 1983, when very few people owned a personal computer). In less than a year, Campbell was promoted to vice-president of sales and marketing.
Campbell’s Defining Moment at Apple
In 1984, Apple was about to launch the Macintosh computer, a product that would replace the Apple II, one of the original personal computers. The company bought commercial time during the Super Bowl to announce the launch, and Campbell was in charge of creating the television ad. The commercial was a clever riff of the apocalyptic George Orwell novel 1984. In it, a young woman rebels against a Big-Brother-like dictator who preaches to the people from a giant TV screen—she liberates the masses by throwing a mallet through the screen. The tagline promised that the new Apple Macintosh would ensure that 1984 wouldn’t turn out like Orwell’s novel. (It’s important to remember that at that time, personal computers were a revolutionary new product, something that had never been available to the average consumer. Most people thought of computers as giant, room-sized data crunchers that only large corporations would own.)
Apple cofounder Steve Jobs loved the ad, but Apple’s board of directors hated it. They wanted to kill it and sell their prepaid Super Bowl airtime to another advertiser. Campbell insisted they run with the ad, and it turned out to be one of the most famous commercials of all time. At 44 years old, Campbell had revolutionized the way computers were marketed and kicked off the trend of blockbuster commercials being as popular as the Super Bowl itself.
Campbell’s Life After Apple
In 1987, Apple spun off a separate software company, Claris. Campbell was named the CEO, but a few years later, Claris was pulled back into the parent company. Campbell left and became the CEO of another startup, GO Corporation, which failed within a few years. In 1994, he was hired as CEO of Intuit, a position he held until 2000.
Campbell’s next career move was his most defining. Kleiner Perkins, a prestigious Silicon Valley venture capital firm managed by tech genius John Doerr, invited him to work as a mentor and coach for the startup companies it funded. Campbell’s job was to help the new CEOs navigate their way through the startup process.
Kleiner Perkins was funding Google, a small company run by a couple of Stanford University grads. In 2001, Google had just hired its first “real” CEO, Eric Schmidt, who had previously worked at software companies Sun Microsystems and Novell. John Doerr informed Schmidt that he needed to meet with Campbell for a coaching session.
Schmidt was insulted—he didn’t think he needed help from anybody, let alone an ex-football coach. But within a few months of working with Campbell, Schmidt was a convert. Campbell wound up coaching not just him but also Google’s entire senior team.
Bill Campbell: Coach for 15 Years
For the next 15 years until his death, Campbell met almost weekly with Google’s principal players while simultaneously coaching executives at dozens of other Silicon Valley companies—even some that were competing with Google. As a coach, Bill Campbell was at the top of his field and highly sought after.
His coaching sessions did not involve complex profit-and-loss equations. Instead, he relied on home-spun wisdom founded on basic human decency. His overarching message: The top priority of any team leader is the well-being and success of his or her people.
Campbell repeatedly declined compensation for his coaching work, saying that he had a different way of measuring his impact. Payment was unimportant; his glory came from seeing others flourish. At one point, he did accept some Google stock, which he then donated to charity. One of his famous lines was, “I don’t take cash, I don’t take stock, and I don’t take shit.” He was practicing service leadership before the term existed.
Campbell was famous for his colorful four-letter words (which he called “sweet profanity”), his propensity for bear-hugging and blowing kisses to everybody in the room, and his generosity. Bill Campbell as a coach wasn’t just for executives and famous people. In addition to coaching executives, he coached middle- and high-school kids in football and always seemed to have time to give advice or friendly encouragement to neighbors and friends.
When Campbell died of cancer at age 75, every Silicon Valley A-lister attended his memorial service, from Apple CEO Tim Cook to Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos. Sitting beside them were hundreds of Campbell’s fans and friends, including the now-grown children he had coached in youth sports, his Columbia football squad teammates, and the caddy at his Cabo San Lucas golf club. What united the disparate group was admiration for Campbell’s strong character and big heart.
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- How Bill Campbell went from football coach to tech coach
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- How the King Arthur Round Table model for making decisions empowers employees