I read Trillion-Dollar Coach: The Leadership Playbook of Silicon Valley’s Bill Campbell for two reasons. Campbell was a legendary executive coach in Silicon Valley. I wanted to pick up leadership insights that I could use. I also coach people on how to write great books. I wanted to pick up some coaching tips.
This book takes an awfully long time to start to prepare to begin to get ready to share anything helpful. The book opens with Bill Campbell’s memorial service. The authors talk about what a swell guy Bill was and what a great coach he was and what a great impact he had on them. They tell you why they decided to write the book. That takes about 20 pages. Now that you know, you can skip ahead if you get bored.
I’m glad that I stayed with the book, despite the slow start. There were some good things that make the book worth the price. There are also some bad things that you can overlook or that may keep you from wanting to read the book. And there are ugly things, too. Let’s take the good things first.
There’s a lot of standard management/leadership advice here. You may have heard many of these ideas before, but they’re worth reading again. Sometimes the stars align, and a common point becomes an uncommon insight.
There is one powerful idea here. “Your title makes you a manager, your people make you a leader.” That was one of Bill Campbell’s mantras, but he gave Donna Dubinsky credit for opening his eyes to it.
There were also three areas of advice that seemed particularly insightful to me. One was the advice to “Lead based on first principles.” First principles are things that everyone agrees on and set the foundation for the company or the product.
The second important, practical insight was, “Manage the aberrant genius.” The aberrant genius is that high-performing team member who is difficult to deal with. I’ve seen several treatments of this in other books, but this is the best. There are specific guidelines for what to tolerate and what not to tolerate. There are ideas about when it’s time for the aberrant genius to depart.
The third, and the most potent insight was, “Work the team, then the problem.” This seems to have two meanings. First, make sure you put the right team together before you tackle a problem. The other is that when you have a problem getting things done, address the team and the way it works before you worry about fixing the problem. This is not something unique to Bill Campbell. Ed Catmull says much the same thing in Creativity, Inc. The section on coaching the team is excellent
These are things that I didn’t like. They may keep you from buying the book, or that you skip when you read the book, or things that don’t bother you at all.
Early in the book, the authors say, “We quickly rejected the idea of writing a hagiography.” A hagiography was originally a biography of a saint. Today, the term refers to a biography that idealizes its subject. Sorry guys, you wrote a hagiography.
There’s way too much about what a swell guy and a great coach Bill Campbell was. We learn that he used the “F word” a lot, but it was okay because it was Bill. He hugged everyone, but it was okay because it was Bill. We’re told that he knew things “instinctively.” People took things from him they wouldn’t take from anybody else. There were too many phrases describing how Bill did something no one else can do.
- “Of course, he was right.”
- “Intuitive sense”
- “Remarkable ability”
- “Conversations with Bill were more nuanced than layered.”
- “Bill’s genius”
Then, there’s my favorite. “With Bill, you close your eyes and it’s more about who he was.”
That may be true, but it’s distinctly unhelpful and it’s nothing like a “playbook.” If you can’t describe how he produced those remarkable results or developed that “remarkable ability,” you’re describing a magic trick.
The book would have been less of a hagiography and more helpful if there was more about times when Bill Campbell dealt with adversity.
There is something about how he supported Steve Jobs when Jobs was forced out of Apple. The authors could have used that to humanize Bill. We could have learned about his struggles at the time and how risky his stance was.
Another example. Bill was CEO at GO when the company was in its death spiral. That’s a failure story in one sense. The authors could have told it in some detail. It illustrates why people admired Bill Campbell, trusted him, and listened to him.
This wouldn’t be a hagiography if there was more about how Bill the football coach became Bill the Silicon Valley Wonder Coach. There’s plenty of ticking off achievements and admiring quotes, but precious little that humanizes the man.
The content of this book will work better for you if you are a Silicon Valley or high-tech CEO. The authors describe things that a middle manager often can’t do. They blur the line between what a middle manager can do and what an external coach can do.
There are also some things in the book which step over the line from bad to ugly.
Some things made me uncomfortable. One of them was a tone throughout the book I call “Silicon Valley macho.” There’s a kind of repeating background beat of “We’re tough. We can handle this stuff.”
Bill Campbell liked to give “everyone” bear hugs. He used the “F word” and other colorful language a lot. The book seems to imply that it’s okay because Bill did it, and Bill was a great guy. There’s not a single note that I could find of anyone being uncomfortable when Bill did it.
People are less likely to object to a hug from a guy who is a great friend and coach of the CEO of their company. They may not like it, but they’re not real likely to speak up.
Full disclosure here. I don’t think that kind of language or that kind of behavior are appropriate in a business or professional setting. If that’s what it takes to be a great coach, I’ll pass.
There are good leadership insights in Trillion Dollar Coach. Those insights, by themselves, make this book worth reading. I don’t think you’ll learn much about coaching, though.
A lot of the book describes Bill Campbell’s unique way of communicating. It might not work for you if you haven’t been a football coach and a Silicon Valley CEO. It’s dangerous to believe you can do it his way and succeed. Bill Campbell gave people insightful and helpful advice and he told the truth. If you can figure out how to do that in your own way you’ve learned something powerful indeed.
You can check out some of my highlights and notes from this book on my GoodReads page.
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