Fooxes Consulting

Trillion Dollar Coach - The Leadership Handbook of Silicon Valley´s Bill Campbell - Eric Schmidt, Jonathan Rosenberg, Alan Eagle

Buch-Review - Hannes Kleist - 27.04.2019

Trillion Dollar Coach - The Leadership Handbook of Silicon Valley´s Bill Campbell

Bill Campbell was the most influential business coach as well as a leader in silicon value in his own right at Apple, Kodak or as CEO of Intuit. Nearly every author of books I read in the last years seems to have been coached by The Coach. Steve Jobs, Jeff Bezos, Eric Schmidt, Larry Page, Sergei Brin…

While reading this book, I found myself pumping my fist and shouting “hell yeah” in all chapters — much to the confusion of my kids or neighbours ;-). This man was a force of nature, swearing like a sailor but bear hugging people. He cared so deeply about people, I had tears in my eyes half the pages. These are my personal takeaways:

Chapter 1: The Caddie and the CEO

“There is another, equally critical, factor for success in companies: teams that act as communities integrating interests and putting aside differences to be individually and collectively obsessed with what’s good for the company.”

This begs the question for us: Is our vision strong enough to create a sense of “good for the company”?

“Conversely, a lack of community is a leading factor in job burnout.”

Interesting. I would have thought the #1 reason is being stressed but not seeing a way out of the situation.

Chapter 2: Your Title Makes You a Manager. Your People Make You a Leader.

“Your Title Makes You a Manager. Your People Make You a Leader.”

This is what I tell every new manager at Stanwood. Ideally, we promote people into management positions after they already are leaders.

“How do you bring people around and help them flourish in your environment? It’s not by being a dictator. It’s not by telling them what the hell to do. It’s making sure that they feel valued by being in the room with you. Listen. Pay attention.”

This took me a while to understand. My #1 realisation of 2018: Leadership is not about having all the answers and solving all problems yourself.

“‘What keeps you up at night?’ is a traditional question asked of executives. For Bill the answer was always the same: the well-being and success of his people.”

Damn good question for 1:1s ;-). And the same answer from me.

“Even when you have clearly communicated something, it may take a few times to sink in. Repetition doesn’t spoil the prayer.”

Yeah. This took me a while. Beginning of 2018, I got super frustrated that my “orders” were ignored. After reading Eric Schmidt had the same problem at Google, I took it to heart and we developed our internal communication strategy. Eric basically says: ‘When you cannot stand to talk about it any longer yourself, then the first people will start to listen.’

So we developed our 22 touch points process whenever we want to implement important changes in the company. With every important topic, we try to provide a myriad of touch points so our team members can have an interaction. We start with blog posts about some vague idea I have, then we make all strategic topics public in Trello, then we talk about it in our all-hands-meetings and only then we develop new organisational policies or processes with the team.

“Bill had us pay close attention to running meetings well; “get the 1: 1 right” and “get the staff meeting right” are tops on the list of his most important management principles.”

Good advice. One of the big topics in our leadership meetings, especially after our quarterly leadership feedback survey, is sharing notes on how we run meetings and 1:1s.

“After talking about family and other non-work stuff, Bill would ask Jonathan what his top five items were.”

I started doing the first half as well. The first 5% of every meeting is a check in with the family or hobbies. I will introduce the “top five items” for my 1:1s as well.

“Bill advocated that each person should put his or her list on the board-a simultaneous reveal.”


“Bill believed the most important thing a manager does is to help people be more effective and to grow and develop.”

That’s a brand new realisation for me. It’s not “problem-solving” and being the smartest person in the room. Quite the contrary. We try to hire smarter people than ourselves and then coach them.

This is also quite a shock for new managers. One of their first questions is usually: “What if my team does not respect me”. I tell them: “Leading does not mean you say what to do and then get your team to do it. It’s about enabling them to come up with the solution. You are a moderator, coach, asker of questions…”

Also quite a shocker for junior team members: I do not promote the best Android coder to run the Android team. We look for seven core qualities in our leaders:

Wow. That is quite an insight. Good thing, I bring our leaders together every month for workshops and cooking.

“Think that everyone who works for you is like your kids,” Bill once said. “Help them course correct, make them better.”

Funnily enough, I often see uncanny parallels between raising kids and building teams. Empowerment is the word!

“Back then, I was ninety percent style, ten percent substance,” Nirav remembers. “Bill was one hundred percent substance.”

Been there. The style, not the substance ;-))))

“Rule of two.” He would get the two people most closely involved in the decision to gather more information and work together on the best solution.”

Interesting. I sometimes tell managers or devs to grab another manager to solve a tricky situation. Will do that more often.

“Bill believed that one of a manager’s main jobs is to facilitate decisions.”

“Facilitate” not “make”. Love it.

“He didn’t encourage democracy. (Before he arrived at Intuit, they took votes in meetings. Bill stopped that practice.)”

There you go.

“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.”

His definition of “company politics”. Interesting. Really interesting.

We are trying this now with the decision which team gets a new project. Our business unit (squad) leads will have to work this out. I will only break the tie.

“He believed in striving for the best idea, not consensus (“ I hate consensus!” he would growl).”

Word! Consensus-driven cultures end up in compromises that accomplish nothing and only end in mediocracy. To do something meaningful you need to be prepared to be spectacularly wrong. I call this the “I am wrong 90% of the time” rule.

“The way to get the best idea, he believed, was to get all of the opinions and ideas out in the open, on the table for the group to discuss. Air the problem honestly, and make sure people have the opportunity to provide their authentic opinions, especially if they are dissenting.”

Brilliantly put.

“To get those ideas on the table, Bill would often sit down with individuals before the meeting to find out what they were thinking. This enabled Bill to understand the different perspectives, but more important, it gave members of his team the chance to come into the room prepared to talk about their point of view.”

I started doing that before important decisions. Feels a bit time consuming, but makes the debate in the meeting super efficient.

“…shows that when it is called a debate rather than a disagreement, participants are more likely to share information.”

Nice one.

“Getting to the right answer is important, but having the whole team get there is just as important.”

Indeed. My biggest learning in 2018. I stopped presenting my solutions altogether. Even if I have an answer (which is shit 90% of the time), I do not propose it. Instead, I frame the problem and guide the discussion by asking questions. The teams usually come up with great solutions themselves, often better than my own. But the even more significant upside is, that we get fully aligned with the idea because they came up with it on their own.

“There’s indecision in business all the time, because there’s no perfect answer. Do something, even if it’s wrong.”

I could not agree more. “Do something, even if it’s wrong” could be my life’s motto.

“Having a well-run process to get to a decision is just as important as the decision itself, because it gives the team confidence and keeps everyone moving.”

That is a real skill, people.

“Then, when you make the call, commit to it, and expect that everyone else do so as well.”

Hear, hear…

“Even if he didn’t agree with the decision, he needed to commit to it. If he couldn’t, then he was no longer a member of the team.”

This sparked an interesting discussion between our leads on when dissent becomes disloyalty.

My work-in-progress definition:

  1. Intentionally withholding information from me in one internal meeting, then airing that information in a second meeting or publicly with a client or larger group making me look incompetent or sloppy.

  2. Committing to a decision, then working against it.

    “[Talking about divas] Bill always reminded us that managing these people is one of the bigger challenges of the job.”

Yeah. The tricky question then is: When does a great coder with a matching ego require more management attention and does more harm to the team than he adds value.

“He believed that nothing was more important than an empowered engineer.”

So true. I do not know of another industry where the difference of the output of a great professional to a medium professional is that huge. We are talking 50x.

“Letting people go is a failure of management, not one of any of the people who are being let go.”

Amen. One of our leadership pillars. If you have to let somebody go, you either failed at recruiting or at coaching.

“Treat them well, with respect. Be generous with severance packages. Send out a note internally celebrating their accomplishments.”


“Shishir knew that the move was going to be a surprise to the engineer, for which Bill scolded him. “Bill told me that I had screwed up,” Shishir says. “It shouldn’t have been a surprise.”

Another thing we need to work on. Most of the people we had to let go, were surprised and rightly disappointed or even angry.

Chapter 3: Build an Envelope of Trust

“He chose the people he was going to work with based on humility.”

Indeed. Our core value #5.

“[I] learned from Bill to never embarrass someone publicly.”

Super important. Never criticise somebody in a group setting. If you are angry — wait for 24h hours. Then talk to the person. Do not do it in an email or slack.

“Bill’s perspective was that it’s a manager’s job to push the team to be more courageous. Courage is hard.”

Yeah. We usually tend to go with the save compromise than trying something awesome but dangerous.

“Be the person who gives energy, not one who takes it away.”

Should be my motto: After a meeting, the other person should feel more energised than before.

“He usually didn’t tell you what to do; rather, he shared stories and let you draw conclusions.”

I wish I could do that.

Chapter 4: Team First

“As managers, we tend to focus on the problem at hand. What is the situation? What are the issues? What are the options? And so on. These are valid questions, but the coach’s instinct is to lead with a more fundamental one. Who was working on the problem? Was the right team in place? Did they have what they needed to succeed?”

Damn, this is so good.

“If you’re running a company, you have to surround yourself with really, really good people.”

Yessir. I vowed to improve our hiring process big time. My #1 priority for 2019: Hire people who are better than ourselves. And coach people more.

“Everybody that is managing a function on behalf of the CEO ought to be better at that function than the CEO.”

So obvious. Why is that so hard for me?

“The person has to work hard, and has to have high integrity. Finally, 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.”

Oh, I love this word. We call this our value #2: Work to completion. But “grit” is so much better.

“Does the person say “I” (could signify a me-first mentality) or “we” (a potential indicator of a team player)?”

Our Value #4: Be humble

“And also when someone is excited because something else is working well in the company. It isn’t related to them, but they are excited.”

Very good point. We should cheer one another on more often.

“Bill looked for in his players: people who show up, work hard, and have an impact every day. Doers.”

“Grit” again. I love it.

“Create a forum where they can help each other.”

This is interesting. How can we do that?

Buy the book on amazon


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