Bill Campbell, widely known in Silicon Valley as “The Coach,” died Tuesday after a long battle with cancer.
Before entering the tech industry, Campbell served as head football coach at Columbia University, and maintained a pep-talk approach when dealing with executives. Campbell’s illustrious career included a stint as an Apple executive and board member, and he served as CEO and chairman of Intuit.
He became not only an adviser to, but also close friend of power players like late Apple CEO Steve Jobs, Google cofounders Larry Page and Sergey Brin, and Twitter and Square CEO Jack Dorsey.
As Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers partner Randy Komisar explained in an episode of his “Ventured” podcast, Campbell’s executive coaching style was akin to that of a psychiatrist, asking the right questions to steer his subjects to their own conclusions rather than giving mandates.
Campbell preferred to stay out of the spotlight, but we’ve collected some of his best leadership advice from relatively recent interviews.
These lessons shed light on why he was such a valuable coach to have.
Know that great products drive success. Everything else is a supporting function.
Campbell was adamant that the greatest marketing in the world was useless if it didn’t advertise an excellent product. It’s why he was a fierce advocate for granting engineers creative freedom.
Trust your managers, and make sure they trust their subordinates.
At companies Campbell worked at, he would aim to eliminate tensions between product managers and engineers by building a culture of trust, where managers knew that engineers were in the best position to find a solution and engineers knew managers were in the best position to guide them to that goal.
Experiment, but never at the cost of your existing business.
Campbell was close friends with Ron Johnson, the Apple executive’s whose attempt at relaunching J. C. Penney in 2012-2013 failed miserably because, as Campbell said, he tried starting from scratch.
Spend your days doing, not planning.
“Writing a list of things and checking dates and all that, that’s a bunch of bullshit, you can take the last 10 minutes of your day and do that,” he said. The vast majority of your day as a leader should be spent working with your team.
Your company must have unifying product principles.
Even while evolving, you must ensure your company retains its unique identity by sticking to fundamental creative principles. “That’s what Apple does brilliantly,” Campbell said. “Everyone knows where the design principles are trending.”
It is imperative that you stop infighting as soon as it arises.
Campbell said that internal warfare “brings companies to their knees” and that it is the CEO’s job to end tensions immediately. He said that Apple under CEO John Scully, before Steve Jobs was brought back in to lead his company, was marked by turf wars and power grabs.
“The political problem just goes down through the organisation,” Campbell said. “Everybody’s paralysed by the fighting that top executives have, all the time.”
He recommended CEOs bring their warring parties into the same room and give them a deadline for settling their dispute, or else they would step in and make the decision for them.
Determine cultural values from the outset and then model them.
Values allow employees to hold each other accountable, and the CEO must embody the values, or else no one will follow them.
Source: “Venture” podcast
Evaluate your managers by what their employees think of them.
Regularly survey your employees to ensure that their managers are upholding the company’s values and guiding rather than interfering with their work.
Source: “Venture” podcast
Maintain a culture of respect.
Campbell placed prime importance on respect when leading or consulting with a company. For example, he said, “Larry Page takes great, great pride in making sure that [executives he hires] are humble about what they do.”
If someone continuously disrespects their colleagues to the point where they feel their opinions aren’t heard, then that person needs to be let go.
Be honest with your team.
The reason why Campbell was not only greatly respected in the Valley, but also deeply admired on a personal level was because he spent time building relationships with those he worked with.
To him, the best leaders are straightforward with both their praise and criticism, so that there were no illusions holding someone back from success.
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