Book summary: Trillion Dollar Coach

The leadership handbook of Silicon Valley’s Bill Campbell

I am in the midst of searching for my own executive coach. The question ‘what does a great executive coach actually do?’ has crossed my mind on many occasions, so I picked up this book to learn.

I have had coaches in the past, but only in sport. On both occasions, once in triathlon and once in cycling, this came at a time when my ability to self improve ran out. I knew I needed something different and went searching for someone to help continue to improve my performance.

For me, the metronome of external accountability, of someone who can say “you can go harder” or “you need to pull back” meant the world. I consistently improve faster and enjoy the process of training much more when I have a coach. The principles behind this may be simple enough, the impact on my growth is huge.

I am sensing a similar moment in my journey as a founder — I am now at the point where reading and asking others for advice that I self organise and implement is no longer enough. I am craving that same external accountability and outside perspective to guide me in this phase.

This book was the perfect explanation of what a world class coach looks like. It is absolutely jammed full of simple, and immediately applicable principles. Relatable anecdotes and human moments from titans of the technology industry.

Bill Campbell was coach to Silicon Valleys top executives for more than a decade. Bill generated extraordinary love and respect in his huge roster of coachees (including Steve Jobs, Eric Schmidt, Tim Cook, Sundar Pinchai and Sheryl Sandberg) . This book is written by three of these coachees and formed from interviews with 80 others. The book delves into dozens of lessons clustered into a few themes: the importance of building and maintaining high levels of trust, putting the team first and the power of love. Bill’s coaching was about forging leaders that came to their own conclusions, guided by Bill’s stories and applied that to create passionate, engaged and focused teams.

This is an outstanding book, rather than try to summarise the whole thing (as it’s jammed with heartfelt anecdotes that speak fondly to Bill’s character) I have drawn out a few of my favourite lessons:

It’s the people

Bill had a manifesto titled ‘It’s the people’, it’s first paragraph contains a wonderfully simple principle:

The primary job of each manager is to help people be more effective in their job to grow and develop… Manager create this through support, respect, trust.

This sentiment, like many parts of this manifesto feel obvious. It’s backed up with clear and simple examples of how that works in practice.

Bill saw two crucial routes for managers to build this support, respect and trust: team meetings and 1:1’s.

Team meetings are as much about the content and setting the tone. Bill began every team meeting, held at 1pm on Mondays, by asking about everyone’s weekend and asking people to share ‘trip reports’. Literally bringing up maps and showing others where you had been over the weekend.

This may sound strange, but it establishes an important tone — one of trust, openness and willingness to share. Each team meeting started with this positivity and trust, built from willingness to share personal information.

Marissa Mayer, of Google and then Yahoo, and another Bill disciple, had a slightly different take on things. Instead, Marissa would kick her team meetings of with a session of thanks. Each person had to take a moment to thank someone who wasn’t in the room for doing something positive in the past week. Much like trip reports this helped establish an atmosphere of positivity and trust.

Have a structure for 1:1’s, and take the time to prepare for them, as they are the best way to help people be more effective and to grow.

Bill built a simple framework for how he ran his 1:1's:

  • Performance on job requirements (what are the metrics used for performance, how is this person performing against them)
  • Relationship with peer groups (are they building integrated and cohesive relationships with others)
  • Management/leadership of their people (how effective are they at guiding/leading their team, bringing in great people and weeding out bad ones)
  • Innovation (are you constantly evaluating new and better ways to do things)

Bringing together a great group is the first step to managing a great team. When recruiting Bill had four deceptively simple requirements:

  • The person has to be smart, not necessarily academically but more from the standpoint of being able to get up to speed quickly in different areas and then make connections. Bill called this the ability to make “far analogies.”
  • The person has to work hard (the “doers”).
  • The person has to have integrity.
  • The person should have that hard-to-define characteristic: grit. The ability to get knocked down and have the passion and perseverance to get up and go at it again.

There is a wonderful metaphor used in the book: the throne behind the round table. A manager should be sitting at the table, as a peer facilitating a team to make good decisions, however, they do occasionally have to act as a tie breaker. This should be used sparingly.

Politics is when people choose their words and actions based on how they want to react rather than based on what they really think. A top manager that makes all the decisions creates the perfect environment for politics to thrive. Instead of saying what you really think you will say what you think will lead your manager to seeing and agreeing with your point of view.

Consensus is an equally poor decision making approach — it dilutes decisions to the average view of the team. Leaving everyone equally unhappy.

To make effective decisions, in Bill’s view, requires a willingness to air a problem openly, ensuring everyone has a chance to share their opinions openly, especially if they are dissenting.

Build an envelope of trust

Be relentlessly honest and candid, couple negative feedback with [authentic] caring… If the feedback is negative, deliver it privately

Courage

Bill viewed the managers role, in part, to push their team to be more courageous. Acting as an “evangelist for courage”. Your team should come away from time with you believing they can do more than they believed possible beforehand.

It’s buzzword-y but bear with me, bringing your authentic self to work is a key way to build trust. Bill was an ex-football coach, he swore, hugged everyone and told dirty jokes. He would get up in Apple board meetings, cheering and applauding. He didn’t try to conform his behaviour to how he should act.

Bill doing this gave others the space to do the same.

Team first

Bill’s advice was to always solve the hardest problem first. This is the type of problem which is likely to simmer and become increasingly difficult to address.

As a member of the team you probably can’t see this. You are too close. In this case it is the role of the coach to be a tension spotter, to surface these challenges and to make it a priority.

If these big problems don’t get prioritised the become political. Meaning process or data has failed to get to a suitable approach, so personalities take over. Political problems become toxic. The best way to avoid these is to surface and beat these big challenges as soon as they arise.

When there are problems venting negativity is important. It is all too easy, as a team sitting in the midst of a problem, to let that overwhelm you.

Bill instilled this in those he worked with — not to let this negativity sit and dwell. Acknowledge it and then move to addressing the biggest issues before they overwhelm you.

Overall, I really enjoyed this book. Bill seems like a genuinely kind, humble person brimming with genuine kindness and desire for others to succeed. Bill passed away a few years ago, there is a palpable sense of loss amongst the authors speaking about life without Bill.

So, I leave you with this, a short video of Bill talking about the attributes he saw in the best leaders.

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