The Trillion Dollar Coach: From Football to Tech

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.

Like this article? Sign up for a free trial here.

Who was the Trillion Dollar Coach? How did Bill Campbell pivot from football to Silicon Valley?

Trillion Dollar Coach is a book that shares the key lessons from Bill Campbell’s time as a coach in Silicon Valley. Eric Schmidt, CEO of Google, wrote the book and was one of the people coached by Campbell.

Read on for more about who the Trillion Dollar Coach and his philosophy.

The Trillion Dollar Coach

The human values that motivate us in our personal lives—love, family, friends, money, power, meaning, purpose—are the same values that motivate us at work. That’s the core message of business guru and ex-football coach Bill Campbell, whose principles for how to successfully lead people and manage a company are outlined in Trillion Dollar Coach, authored by Google’s ex-CEO Eric Schmidt, Senior Vice-President of Products Jonathan Rosenberg, and Director of Executive Communications Alan Eagle. 

Campbell as Coach

For 15 years, Campbell walked Google’s hallways, chatted with employees, and attended staff meetings led by the CEO. Nearly every week, he also met one-on-one with Schmidt and Rosenberg, two members of a big club of tech titans who turned to Campbell for advice. Before their tenure at Google began, he coached Google co-founders Larry Page and Sergey Brin. He worked with Steve Jobs to pull Apple out of bankruptcy. He mentored Brad Smith, former CEO of Intuit, and John Donahoe, former CEO of eBay. He coached U.S. Vice President Al Gore, NFL Hall of Famer Ronnie Lott, and Stanford University President John Hennessy. 

According to Schmidt, the book’s title is an understatement—if you add up the market capitalization of all the companies he coached, Campbell’s value was worth much more than one trillion dollars. Yet he never accepted compensation for his services. 

Campbell’s Early Career

Campbell began his career as a football coach, first at Boston College and then at his alma mater, Columbia University. Realizing that he was too compassionate to succeed in coaching, he left the world of athletics. Within five years, he became a senior executive at Kodak, then a Fortune-500 company. A career move led him to Apple Computer, where he made waves as vice-president of sales and marketing. He held CEO positions at several Silicon Valley tech companies before branching into executive coaching and becoming a legendary CEO-whisperer. 

Campbell’s Philosophy in Trillion Dollar Coach

Campbell’s coaching can be distilled into a simple equation: Humanity and compassion in the workplace equals happy employees, and happy employees are more productive. Campbell built his business principles around two main themes: 1) create and maintain strong teams; and 2) bring love and compassion into the workplace. 

One of Campbell’s most often-repeated lines was “positive human values generate positive business outcomes.” Team members who feel genuinely listened to, respected, and cared for will work harder, innovate more, and feel happier and more fulfilled in their jobs.

Campbell coached executives on how to nurture their employees so they could grow and develop into the best version of themselves. He believed a leader’s or manager’s primary role was to help his or her employees succeed. In Campbell’s view, running a successful business was not much different than winning at sports. His approach centered on teamwork—he sought to maximize the performance of teams, not individuals. He insisted the only way to thrive in the cutthroat tech business was to build high-performing teams, then install a team leader who was both a caring coach and a strong operations manager. 

Campbell died of cancer in 2016, but his management principles live on at Google, where leaders continue to teach Campbell’s lessons to new managers and executives. In Trillion Dollar Coach, the authors outline both the content of Campbell’s coaching and also his nonconformist methods—like hugging everyone in the room and peppering his language with four-letter words. 

Operational Leadership

The main principles are grouped into four themes. The first is operational leadership, offering advice on how to be a better manager, including:  

  • Don’t demand respect from your employees; earn their respect. 
  • Establish camaraderie in the workplace. 
  • Use staff meetings for discussing big-picture operational issues and one-on-one meetings to focus on individual performance. 
  • Don’t make team decisions by consensus; let the team analyze every possibility until the best idea emerges. 
  • Encourage the big thinkers and “aberrant geniuses” to do their best work, but chastise them if they let their supersized egos get in the way of good teamwork. 
  • If firings or layoffs need to occur, make sure it happens with dignity and respect. Do not “ambush” people with the bad news. 
  • The CEO should manage the board of directors—not the other way around. 

Example: Apple’s Steve Jobs, who was close friends with Campbell, serves as a great example of why operational leadership matters—and why you’re not truly a leader until your employees think you are. 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 noted that Jobs was a changed man—or rather, a changed leader. 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.

Building Workplace Trust  

The second theme focuses on building trust in the workplace. 

  • Create psychological safety in the workplace. In order for innovation to occur, leaders must make it “safe” for team members to take risks. Managers need to have their employees’ backs. 
  • Truly listen to employees. It’s one of the best ways to build trust and show you care. 
  • Give tough, candid feedback when necessary, but deliver it gently. Make sure the person you’re critiquing knows you have their best interests in mind.
  • Don’t tell people what to do; guide them toward making good decisions by asking probing questions or relating personal stories. 
  • Make your team more courageous by providing positive reinforcement and pushing for bolder action. 
  • Encourage diversity by allowing employees to be fully themselves, not forcing them to conform to the dominant culture. 

Example: Campbell coached David Drummond, Alphabet’s head of corporate development and legal affairs, who is Black. Drummond said that being Black in Silicon Valley made him feel uncomfortably self-conscious—he was noticeably different from most everybody else. But Campbell encouraged Drummond to be proud of his identity, to make it his source of motivation and strength rather than diminish it in an attempt to conform. He told Drummond that people would respect him for being who he was, not for trying to be someone else. 

Campbell understood that encouraging people to be authentically themselves—rather than forcing them to conform to dominant norms—would create a sense of psychological safety in the workplace. When employees feel like they are accepted and supported, they automatically want to do their best work. 

Building Stronger Teams 

The third theme of the Trillion Dollar Coach expresses the importance of building and maintaining strong teams. 

  • Hire employees who have a team-first attitude and strong people skills, not just great technical skills. 
  • When confronting a business problem, make sure you have the right team in place to solve it. 
  • Pair people up to work on problems together. This will help to strengthen the entire team. 
  • Be relentlessly positive. A big part of a leader’s or manager’s job is to cheerlead.
  • When times get tough, dig in harder—that’s when your team needs you most. 

Example: Campbell paid close attention to how existing managers and employees talked and acted. Did they say “I” a lot or did they say “we”? Did they get excited about other people’s successes? Were they willing to make concessions for the overall benefit of the team? Campbell championed the idea that it was a leader’s job to be an enthusiastic cheerleader, and he was famous for clapping loudly when someone finished a staff meeting presentation about a new project. One of the Google executives named this behavior “BCC” for “the Bill Campbell clap.” New team members still practice it during orientation. 

Leading With Love 

The fourth theme focuses on bringing compassion and humanity into the workplace.  

  • Humanize your company by getting to know your employees as people. Learn about their families, hobbies, and interests. 
  • Do favors for others whenever you can. Be generous with your time, money, and connections. 
  • Respect and revere the company’s founders. 
  • Practice your people skills daily with friendly interactions that help to build relationships. 
  • Make connections between people both inside and outside of the workplace—foster community at work and beyond. 
  • Support your colleagues and employees even when they decide to leave the company. 

Example: Campbell was convinced that leaders should always pay close attention to an employee’s family situation. He understood that an employee’s work life was not completely separate from their family life—that one influenced the other. A good leader should be concerned about both. For example, when Ruth Porat was hired as Google’s CFO, she had to commute to Silicon Valley from New York. Campbell constantly asked her how her husband was handling the arrangement. He wanted to make sure that not just his CFO was happy, but also her husband. 

The Trillion Dollar Coach: From Football to Tech

———End of Preview———

Like what you just read? Read the rest of the world's best book summary and analysis of Bill Campbell's "Trillion Dollar Coach" at Shortform.

Here's what you'll find in our full Trillion Dollar Coach summary:

  • 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.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *