People Skills for Managers: Bill Campbell’s Advice

This article is an excerpt from the Shortform book guide to "Trillion Dollar Coach" by Bill Campbell. Shortform has the world's best summaries and analyses of books you should be reading.

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What are some people skills for managers? What does Bill Campbell say about the key skills managers need in Trillion Dollar Coach?

Bill Campbell, the coach in Trillion Dollar Coach, highlighted the importance of people skills for managers. It’s important to connect to your staff and nurture them in order to get the best results.

Read on for the people skills for managers identified in the book Trillion Dollar Coach.

People Skills for Managers

Campbell instructed hundreds of CEOs and executives that leadership is not about you. It’s about service to the company and more importantly, service to the team you’re leading. He felt strongly that being a skilled manager was important, but it wasn’t enough. Savvy management is critical, but it’s ineffective if you don’t combine it with caring people skills.  

This section outlines people skills for managers and principles that can help you become a better leader.  

You’re Not a Leader Unless Your Employees Say So

The principle: Don’t demand respect from your employees; earn their respect. No one likes to work for a dictator, but people actually like being managed if they respect their manager, if they think their manager can teach them something, and if their manager helps the team make decisions. People skills for managers are essential.

Bill Campbell developed a manifesto called “It’s the People.” It states that a company’s success is founded on its employees. A manager’s job is to create an environment in which employees can grow, develop, and flourish. They can do so by giving their employees the information and training they need, and by respecting and trusting them to do their jobs well. If a manager does this, she will automatically build credibility. 

Campbell used to tell the executives he coached that they should go to bed each night not thinking about profit margins or budgets, but rather thinking about their employees and how they could make them more successful. 

Supporting research: Harvard Business School professor Linda Hill authored a 2007 study that showed that a manager’s authority has to emerge. The more talented an employee is, the less likely he or she is to simply follow orders from a manager—unless that manager has taken steps to establish their credibility. 

Executives often overlook their company’s management culture when searching for ways to improve company performance. But dozens of studies—including an internal study at Google—have proven that teams who rate their managers highly have lower turnover and higher performance. 

Example: Bill Campbell worked closely with Steve Jobs at Apple. For all his genius and charisma, Jobs was a disorganized and often temperamental manager, and his beleaguered employees suffered from low morale. In 1985, Apple’s board of directors removed him from the company and replaced him with CEO John Sculley. Twelve years later, Jobs returned to Apple, and Campbell saw that he was a changed man—or rather, a changed manager. Jobs was much more thorough and detailed in every aspect of operational leadership—sales, finances, product development, and so on. He paid close attention to what his teams were doing, and his employees came to admire him. And of course, Apple’s greatest successes came during Jobs’s second tenure at Apple.

Control the Talented Genius

The principle: Innovation requires out-of-the-box thinking, but the “geniuses” who excel at that require careful management. The high-tech world is famous for cultivating divas—high-performing innovators who are terrible team players. Campbell had a soft spot for these smart but difficult people, whom he called “aberrant geniuses.” Steve Jobs was a great example—certainly a genius, but not easy to get along with. Campbell wanted Jobs-like characters on his teams, but he knew he had to smooth out their rough edges. 

Campbell’s approach was to overlook the fact that these high achievers’ behavior didn’t fit neatly into the workplace culture. He said that aberrant geniuses should be tolerated as long as their actions don’t cross ethical lines, and as long as their value outweighs their cost to the team. Managers should give a genius autonomy to do what she does best—think outside the box—but make sure she upholds a team-first attitude. The challenge is to get the most value from the genius while not jeopardizing the health of the team.  

People Skills for Managers Help Nurture Innovators

The principle: Creating innovative products or services should be the company’s primary goal. Campbell believed since this was the core of the company mission, engineers should take the lead in decision-making. Not every creator is an aberrant genius; some are just hardworking engineers or designers who make daily efforts at innovation, and they need latitude to do so. The people who work in sales, marketing, and finance can supply useful information about what customer problems need to be fixed and what opportunities they see, but they should never tell the product teams what exactly to build. Workers who are developing new products should always be given a certain amount of company clout and freedom to create. 

Pay Employees Well

The principle: Campbell encouraged the leaders he coached to make sure their employees were well compensated. It wasn’t for the sake of generosity. Campbell believed that compensation has emotional value that is far greater than its economic value. Paying people well is a way of recognizing an employee’s worth and showing them respect. Fair compensation inspires them to remain loyal to the company.  

People Skills for Managers Including Making Sure Endings Aren’t Ugly

The principle: Make layoffs and firings dignified. If you have to let people go, do it gently. For the sake of the person who is leaving and also for the team that remains, endings should always take place in the kindest possible way. The firing or layoff should never come as a total surprise to the departing employee or the remaining team. The manager doing the firing or layoff should be kind and generous, celebrate the departing employee’s achievements, and treat them well. 

Supporting research: In the 2014 book The Hard Thing About Hard Things, author Ben Horowitz notes that firings and layoffs must be handled carefully to preserve the morale of the remaining team as well as the departing employee. Studies show that laid-off employees are greatly affected by how thoroughly their termination is explained to them, and who delivers the bad news.  

(Shortform note: For more of Horowitz’s advice on getting through your company’s inevitable hard times, read our summary of The Hard Thing About Hard Things.)

Manage Your Board of Directors

The principle: The CEO is in charge of the board of directors, not the other way around. Campbell served on a number of boards over the years, and he also coached dozens of CEOs. Over time, he developed a series of guidelines on how CEOs could work successfully with their boards.

During a board meeting, the CEO should always follow his or her own agenda. That agenda should start with a frank discussion about how the company is doing—bad news as well as good news. Backup reports and numbers should have been sent to the directors ahead of time, so they don’t get bogged down in them during the meeting. 

Every board member should care deeply about the company and have good expertise to contribute. Members should always be available and willing to get their hands dirty to help the CEO do his or her job. Board members who don’t do their homework before meetings or contribute in any useful way should be fired. 

Example: When Dick Costolo took over as CEO of Twitter, its board consisted of Twitter’s founders and venture capitalists. There was no one with direct management experience. Campbell counseled Costolo to bring in more people who could actually help him run the day-to-day operations. He didn’t want a board that merely provided oversight; he wanted a collaborative working relationship between Twitter’s board and the CEO.

People Skills for Managers: Bill Campbell’s Advice

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  • How Bill Campbell went from football coach to tech coach
  • The 4 pillars of Campbell's leadership philosophy
  • How the King Arthur Round Table model for making decisions empowers employees

Rina Shah

An avid reader for as long as she can remember, Rina’s love for books began with The Boxcar Children. Her penchant for always having a book nearby has never faded, though her reading tastes have since evolved. Rina reads around 100 books every year, with a fairly even split between fiction and non-fiction. Her favorite genres are memoirs, public health, and locked room mysteries. As an attorney, Rina can’t help analyzing and deconstructing arguments in any book she reads.

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