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Leadership Lessons from Bill Campbell, the Trillion Dollar Coach

Leadership Lessons from Bill Campbell, the Trillion Dollar Coach
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Trillion Dollar Coach: The Leadership Playbook of Silicon Valley’s Bill Campbell was an absolutely gripping read about a legendary coach and business executive, whose mentoring of the likes of Steve Jobs, Larry Page, Eric Schmidt, and Jeff Bezos, amongst other tech luminaries, played a major role in the success of their companies.

While Bill was a private person — he passed away in 2016 — who instead preferred to shine the spotlight on the entrepreneurs and executives he worked with, three of his mentees, Eric Schmidt, Jonathan Rosenberg and Alan Eagle, decided that his invaluable teachings needed to be shared far and wide, in order to have the biggest impact that they possibly could; so they captured his wisdom in this easily digestible 191-page book (a welcome reprieve after having previously ground through a series of 400–600 page books).

Somewhat surprisingly, Bill took no cash, no stock…and no shit, and until I picked this book up, I didn’t realize people like Bill existed.

The book was packed with value bombs and what follows are some excerpts from the book, and my own notes, which I thought I’d publish to, again, amplify the reach of Bill’s teachings.

The Smart Creative

There is a new breed of the employee the smart creative who is critical to achieving this speed and innovation. The smart creative is someone who combines technical depth with business savvy and creative flair. These people have always existed, but with the advent of the internet smartphones cloud computing and all their attendant Innovations, they can have a much greater impact than ever before. For companies to be successful they must continually develop great products and to do that they must attract smart creatives and build an environment where these employees can succeed at scale.


There is another equally critical factor for success; companies forming teams that act as communities. Conversely, a lack of community is a leading factor in job burnout.

Team First

Teams of people who subordinate individual performance to that of the group will generally perform better than teams that don’t.

Tension in the Machine

Patrick Pichette, former Google CFO, says that when you these factors in play and a team of ambitious, opinionated, competitive, and smart people, there is tremendous ‘tension in the machine’. This tension is a good thing. If you don’t have it you will become irrelevant. But the tension makes it harder to cultivate community and community is necessary to cultivate success. To balance this tension you need a coach.

Every Team Needs a Coach

Every sports team needs a coach and the best coaches make good teams great. The same goes in business. Coaching is the best way to mould Effective People into powerful teams.

The Essence of Leadership

“Your title makes you a manager. Your people make you a leader.”

Tension between Creativity and Efficiency

A 1991 study finds that when a company is in the implementation stage of an innovation they need managers to coordinate resources and resolve conflicts. However, a 2005 study finds that creativity flourishes in environments such as Broadway shows that are more network-oriented than hierarchical. So there’s always a tension between creativity and operational efficiency.

Run Your Company Well

People who are successful run their companies well. They have good processes, they make sure their people are accountable, they know how to hire the right people, how to evaluate them and give them feedback, and they pay them well.

Follow Me…Please?

The more talented the subordinate, the less likely she is to simply follow orders.

Empower Great People to Succeed

Great people flourish in an environment that liberates and amplifies their energy. Managers must support, respect, and trust.

  • Support means giving people the information training and coaching they need to succeed.
  • Respect means understanding people’s unique career goals and being sensitive to their life choices.
  • Trust means believing in people to do their jobs and to make decisions.

Management’s Top Priority

The top priority of any manager is the well-being and success of their people.

Fun @ Work

There’s a direct correlation between fun work environments and high performance, with a conversation about family and fun, what academics call ‘socio-emotional communication’, being an easy way to achieve the former.

Meetings to Prepare for Meetings

More than 50% of study participants do not think that their meetings are an effective use of their time.

Build Rapport

To build rapport and better relationships among team members, start team meetings with weekend or ‘trip reports’ or other types of more personal non-business topics.

One on Ones

5 words on a whiteboard: have a structure for one on ones and take the time to prepare for them as they are the best way to help people become more effective and to grow.

Decision Making

Use the Rule of Two to make decisions. Get the two people most closely involved in a decision to gather more information and work together on the best solution. Usually, they come back a week or two later having decided together on the best course of action.

One of the managers main jobs is to facilitate decisions.

A place where the top manager makes all decisions leads to just the opposite because people will spend their time trying to convince the manager that their idea is the best. In that scenario, it’s not about the best idea carrying the day, it’s about who does the best job of lobbying the top dog; in other words, politics.

Use first principles to make decisions. Define the first principles for the situation, the immutable truths that are the foundation for the company or product, and help guide the decision from those principles.

Bill Campbell hated politics and consensus.

Idea Generation

When you can get people past being passive aggressive, then heated but honest arguments can happen. If your team is working well and thinking company first rather than me first then after the fireworks subside the best idea will likely emerge. A 2016 study shows that when it is called a debate rather than a disagreement, participants are more likely to share information. They perceive that other participants are more receptive to dissenting opinions.

Break Ties

A managers job is to break ties and make the people better.

On Geniuses

Geniuses have to be able to work with other people. If they can’t, you need to let them go. Geniuses who continually put themselves above the team can’t be tolerated.

On Compensation

Compensation isn’t just about the economic value of the money, it’s about the emotional value. It’s a signaling device for recognition, respect, and status, and it ties people strongly to the goals of the company.

Compensate well.


The degree of independence of creative thinking, of being not so conformist, is a strength.


When you fire someone you feel terrible for about a day and then you say to yourself that you should have done it sooner.

What is a Coach, and who is coachable?

A coach is someone who tells you what you don’t want to hear, who has you see what you don’t want to see, so you can be who you have always known you could be.

Being coachable requires honesty and humility because a successful coaching relationship requires a high degree of vulnerability, much more than is typical in a business relationship. Humility because leadership is about service to something that is bigger than you, your company oryour team.

You can have a considerable ego and still be part of an even bigger cause.

Only coach the coachable.

Active Listening

Practice active listening.

“We would be a lot wiser if we listened more. Not just hearing the words but listening and not thinking about what we’re going to say.” — John Wooden

Listen to people with your full and undivided attention. Don’t think what to say next, and ask questions to get to the real issue. People perceive the best listeners to be those who periodically ask questions that promote discovery and insight.

When you listen to people, they feel valued. A 2003 study found that mundane and almost trivial things like listening and chatting with employees are important aspects of successful leadership because people feel more respected, visible, less anonymous and included in teamwork.

Intrinsic Motivation

Feelings of competence, relatedness, and autonomy, are the Holy Trinity of the self-determination theory of human motivation.

Radical Transparency

Being a great boss means saying what you really think in a way that still let’s people know you care. Be aggressive and tenacious and giving negative feedback.

Be relentlessly honest and candid, couple negative feedback with caring, give feedback as soon as possible, and if the feedback is negative, deliver it privately.

No gap between statements and fact!

“I Don’t Know”

If someone asks you a question and you don’t know the answer, don’t dance around it… tell them you don’t know.

Good Cop, Bad Cop

As a leader you want to be supportive and demanding, holding high standards and expectations but give the encouragement necessary to reach those goals.

On Micromanagement

Don’t tell people what to do, tell stories and help guide them to the best decisions for them.

Leadership and Team Morale

The more senior people are more like mercenaries. They will leave as soon as things go south.

As a leader, you can’t fix problems on your own and you can’t fix them when morale is down. So you need to build the confidence of the team.

Be the evangelist for courage. Believe in people more than they believe in themselves, and push them to be more courageous.

Loyalty and commitment are easy when you are winning and much harder when you are losing. When things are bad. Teams look for even more loyalty commitment and decisiveness from their leaders.


Encourage people to be themselves. When people can be authentic they are more respected by their colleagues and appreciate it more when others are also authentic. People are more effective when they can be completely themselves and bring their full identity to work.

On the Collective

You can’t get anything done without a team. You can only really succeed and accomplish things through the collective, the common purpose.

On Hiring and Problem Solving

Work the team, then the problem. If you have the right team in place working on the problem then you will be fine. When faced with a problem or opportunity, the first step is to ensure the right team is in place.

Choose your team, think much harder about that.

If you’re running a company you have to surround yourself with really, really good people. Everybody that is managing a function on behalf of the CEO has to be better at that functions than the CEO.

Look for for characteristics in people when hiring:

  • Smart
  • Hard working
  • Integrity
  • Grit.

Don’t just ask people what they have done, ask them how they have done it.

Outstanding performers are often difficult. You want them on your team.

Look for doers; people who show up work hard and have an impact every day.

If you are creating a high performing team and building for the future, you need to hire for potential as well as experience.

Building Camaraderie

Take a couple of people who don’t usually work together, assign them a task project or decision, and let them work on it on their own. This develops trust between the two people, usually regardless of the nature of the work.

The Elephant in the Room

Bring the elephant front and center first.

The political stuff is very toxic. Beat the politics out of the situation by bringing up the problem clearly, then forcing everyone to focus on it.

Call out all the negative issues, but don’t dwell on them. Move on as fast as possible.


You can make mistakes but you need to commit. You can’t have one foot in and one foot out, because if you aren’t fully committed then the people around you won’t be either. If you’re in, be in.


Care for your people.

Bill’s Super Bowl trips we’re not the goal of his communities; the community was the goal of the Super Bowl trips. It was all about making connections between people, generating what sociologists call social capital.

Help people. Be generous with your time connections and other resources.

The Elevator

Put yourself and interactions that are not natural but can make a difference. When you run into someone in the elevator, start up a dialogue, “how’s it going?”, “what are you working on?”… go out of your way to have lunch in the cafeteria with new people.


Prize decisiveness. Strong managers recognize when the time for debate is over and make a decision.

The things we care about — love, family, money, attention, power, meaning and purpose — are factors in any business situation.

Give Back

If you’ve been blessed, be a blessing.

Steve Glaveski is the co-founder of Collective Campus, author of Employee to Entrepreneur and host of the Future Squared podcast. He’s into everything from 80s metal and igh-intensity workouts to attempting to surf and do standup comedy.

Workflow Podcast

The WorkFlow podcast is hosted by Steve Glaveski with a mission to help you unlock your potential to do more great work in far less time, whether you're working as part of a team or flying solo, and to set you up for a richer life.

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To help you avoid stepping into these all too common pitfalls, we’ve reflected on our five years as an organization working on corporate innovation programs across the globe, and have prepared 100 DOs and DON’Ts.

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Steve Glaveski

Steve Glaveski is the co-founder of Collective Campus, author of Time Rich, Employee to Entrepreneur and host of the Future Squared podcast. He’s a chronic autodidact, and he’s into everything from 80s metal and high-intensity workouts to attempting to surf and do standup comedy.

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