Lessons From Bill Campbell, Silicon Valley’s Secret Executive Coach

Former Columbia University football coach Bill Campbell had long ago tossed the football for a more corporate role: coach to legendary CEOs such as Steve Jobs, Jeff Bezos, Eric Schmidt and Larry Page. Before long, tech CEOs in Silicon Valley, who wanted to level up, sought out Campbell for advice.

On the recent episode of Ventured, I sat down with Campbell, who is my longtime friend and colleague from Claris Corporation, to discuss how he coaches tech company founders and executives to great success.

In our discussion, Campbell reflects on his own career and the choices he made that brought him to Silicon Valley, what personality traits are important for executives to possess (and more importantly, what not to possess), and reveals aspects of his mentoring process that applies to anyone working in tech.

The Role of a Mentor Is to Be Part of the Solution

Being a mentor, and being part of the solution, often means asking good questions. Mentors are often expected to have all the right answers, but this is not the way Campbell’s coaching methodology works. Campbell’s style involves a relationship with the mentee and an ongoing dialogue about self-development. In that relationship, the mentor and mentee should feel comfortable talking about anything.

In a typical session, Campbell will likely run through these questions: “What are we trying to fix? What can we do? How much of it is people? How much of it is technology? How much of it is process?”

Other questions Campbell likes to ask are: “Why do you do a one-on-one? Tell me how you run a staff meeting? When do you prepare the agenda? How do you send it out? How do you expect people to participate?”

The Risk of Giving Advice

Campbell admits that as a mentor, he worries about giving someone the wrong advice. However, although he believes that mentors should give advice, it is ultimately up to the mentee to make his or her own decisions.

The Job of the CEO Is to Break Ties

Campbell can dig deep and tell an exec how to run a staff meeting, how to do a one-on-one, and how to drive their OKRs. But Campbell can also help entrepreneurs solve problems by considering the big picture. And ultimately, help them understand their role. The job of the CEO is to break ties when leaders are at a stalemate.

Being Rich Doesn’t Make You Smart

In recent years, there seems to be more venture capitalists who come in, make a deal, get a win, and then move on. The win gives them a reputation of being smart.

When Campbell came to Silicon Valley, venture capitalists were interested in coaching and had longer-term horizons. Campbell thinks that less and less, VCs are taking the time to coach entrepreneurs and invest in something that really matters.

Entrepreneurs should look for a venture capitalist who not only wants to invest in problems that really matter, but also has expertise in a specified field and who wants to make them better. When people speak the same language, there’s less of a learning curve when talking about the technology.

You Can’t Be Afraid to Fire People with Bad Character

Attitudes are contagious: One asshole can spoil a solid team. For that reason, don’t be afraid to fire people because of their bad character. Campbell is referring to the points outlined in the book called The No Asshole Rule: Building a Civilized Workplace and Surviving One That Isn’t, written by Stanford professor Robert I. Sutton.

Founders and Their Dreams

Founders represent the best of a company because founders want to see their dream turn into reality. They continue to articulate their dream to the company, even as it grows. They communicate it to more people, who then communicate it to others as the company scales.

As the company works on making the dream operational, the founder looks ahead to the next phase. Without continuing to innovate, companies literally die. For this reason, Campbell believes founders represent the best of a company.

When Jeff Bezos was returning from paternity leave, the board of Amazon considered giving the operational role to someone else. However, Campbell defended Bezos, as he believes founders care even more about the outcome.

Culture Is the Way People Behave

A company’s integrity is important and it manifests itself in the way people at the company treat each other. Google cofounder Larry Page tries to model the type of behavior he wants to see at the company so he takes the time to show humility and listens carefully to employees. Page has an ego about his understanding of technology, but not about his seniority or stature.

Make Sure to Have Courage

In 1983, Campbell took a chance by taking a job at Apple under John Sculley and Steve Jobs. Campbell left a job at Kodak, which was a $14 billion company at the time, for Apple, which was around $90 million then. Campbell’s mother thought he was crazy for leaving Kodak.

Setting the Record Straight on Twitter

Nick Bilton’s book “Hatching Twitter: A True Story of Money, Power, Friendship” reveals a surprising origin story of Twitter and its struggle to mature as it went through a series of CEO changes. Nevertheless, the story told by Bilton was a bit controversial in Silicon Valley.

Until now, Campbell did not refute claims made in the book about him. Listen to this segment below as he discusses his portrayal in the book and a conversation he had with Bilton who later admitted that his source was not trustworthy.