BLOG: Trillion-dollar coach
by John D. Kelly IV, MD
The life and legend of William V. Campbell, Silicon Valley’s storied life coach to software legends, such as Steve Jobs, Eric Schmidt and Jeff Bezos, was captured in the recent bestseller Trillion Dollar Coach: The Leadership Handbook of Silicon Valley’s Bill Campbell.
The book is more of a leadership manual and outlines the principles that Campbell used to launch Apple, Google and Intuit to mythic greatness. The lessons outlined in this easy read apply well to the leadership roles every orthopedic surgeon is called to enact.
Campbell was raised in a home of modest means in Homestead, Pennsylvania, a tough steel-mill town known more for fights than real estate value. At 5 feet, 10 inches tall and 170 pounds, Campbell’s toughness and passion for football propelled him to captain a Columbia University football squad to an Ivy League title. For his play, the undersized guard earned All-Ivy honors — a testament to his grit.
A natural career in coaching followed, with Campbell serving as an assistant coach at Boston College before being named head football coach at his alma mater, Columbia University, where I was fortunate to play for him for 4 years.
Despite great intelligence, an exemplary work ethic and passion, success in coaching eluded Campbell with an excessive loyalty to players cited as a reason for failure.
A friend facilitated a job opportunity for Campbell in software management and his meteoric rise to legendary leadership status was launched. Campbell rapidly ascended to CEO of software heavyweight Claris International Inc. where his leadership acumen led him to assume the reigns of fabled software company Intuit Inc.
After amassing millions and revitalizing corporations, Campbell returned to his real passion, coaching. However, this time, it would be corporate leaders who would benefit from his wisdom. Many hold that Campbell’s coaching was the singular most important force in both Apple and Google’s success; thus the name Trillion-dollar Coach is well fitting.
His coaching principles can be best summarized as follows:
1) It’s the people
Campbell recognized that people are any organization’s greatest resource. His leadership was about doing whatever he could to help his workers develop and grow. It was never about him. He always respected the dignity of every worker, even when workers were dismissed. Campbell had a special skill in managing the “aberrant genius,” so that productivity, rather than negativity, was nurtured. He gave his employees space and shunned micromanagement while affirming good work whenever possible.
2) Build an envelope of trust
Trust is the foundation of a healthy work culture and builds psychological safety.
Leaders who are honest, humble and good listeners convey trust, and trust in a corporate or team mission is what frees creativity and productivity. Workers become their best selves in a trusting and safe environment where leadership is authentic. Campbell was impeccably honest and knew if a manager asked for input, he or she would be met with a straight answer. He conveyed relentlessly that he would do the right thing in any event; there was no duplicity. It was all about what was best for the mission of the company.
3) Team first
Campbell’s genius was evident in his ability to recognize that good teams were the solution for most problems. Rather than brazenly dictate solutions, “coach” was careful to assemble a talented and capable team for each issue which confronted the company. It was merely a matter of getting the right players involved rather than directly attempting to solve the problem. Campbell also recognized the value of diversity and actively sought out women for board positions.
Furthermore, coach always preached that teams must tackle the biggest problems first. Campbell addressed the most difficult issues head on, before they could fest and degrade a company’s culture. Difficulties were the time to lead, not bale out. The commitment conveyed to the team was a key element of the leader’s success.
4) The power of love
Campbell cared about his staff as family and respected the needs of the whole person in his interactions. He treated the janitor the same way as his vice president and was known to almost never miss the funeral of a fallen friend. He was lavish with giving to the poor and was known to say, “I have been blessed, so I will be a blessing.” When his friend and pupil Steve Jobs was stricken with cancer, Campbell visited him nearly every day — despite the demands of a busy executive. His care and compassion for others bred organizational compassion where workers became more empathic to the pain of others. Such company unity fostered incredible productivity as workers recognized that the leader and coworkers “have their backs.”
The secret behind Campbell’s success was simply character honed from the steel mill and faith-based culture of western Pennsylvania and tempered on the football fields. Selfless concern for the team cloaked in a loving, gritty and integrated being was the essence of Silicon Valley’s coach.
Campbell’s principles apply to all occasions where leadership is warranted.
For the surgeon, I am sure my old coach would suggest the following:
- Invest in the wellbeing of your associates and staff;
- Walk the talk of integrity and honesty, otherwise trust will be lost;
- When faced with a practice or research issue, focus on assembling the right team for the problem, rather than look for a quick-fix solution;
- Tackle the “elephant in the room” first; and
- Finally, love your patients. You will create a bond which may last a lifetime and translate to better outcomes and higher satisfaction for both the patient and surgeon.
When Campbell succumbed to cancer in 2016, the NASDAQ stock exchange paused for a moment to offer him homage.
Most of his devotees will not cite his success as what they remember most about Silicon Valley’s CEO, it was his kindness.
“Kind words can be short and easy to speak, but their echoes are truly endless.” — Mother Teresa.
Schmidt E, et al. Trillion Dollar Coach: The Leadership Handbook of Silicon Valley’s Bill Campbell. Hachette UK, 2019.