A (Trillion Dollar) Coach’s Mindset

Coach Bill Campbell earned his title at Columbia University with their football team. However, he earned his greatest accolades acting as a professional coach to Apple, Google, and other legendary executive teams. Famously never taking cash, stock, or crap,* he’s one of the most important behind-the-scenes figures of modern tech. Eric Schmidt (of Google) recently sat with Tim Ferriss (podcast #367) to discuss his book on Campbell, Trillion Dollar Coach: The Leadership Playbook of Silicon Valley’s Bill Campbell. Here are two insights from the interview we can apply with our teams, our clients, or anywhere we put our “coach” hat on.


Campbell said the difference between a coach and a manager is that the manager will say, “Please do this,” but the coach will ask, “What do you want to do?” Only after the coach knows what you want will he guide you to where your objective meets the collective’s best interest. Coaches have vision beyond a manager’s best execution. The job still has to get done, but the coach holds both what the players want individually and what the team needs collectively in his mind at the same time.  This is a critical skill. 


In the same vein, Campbell also said to work the people first, and then work the problem second. Much like Jim Collins’ concept of getting the right people on the bus (“first who”), Campbell stressed always having the right people on the team. Depth of bench means the right players can be subbed on for the right situation. No depth of bench means asking players to act in situations they either don’t want to be in or aren’t prepared for. Again, consider the connection between what each individual is motivated to do and how it connects to the collective vision of the unit. The coach is in control when he has the right motivated people on his bench.


Campbell’s advice is highly applicable anywhere. For example, it’s a common refrain to think of ourselves as the “quarterback” for our clients, but what if we think of ourselves as the coach and the client as the quarterback? As the coach, we pledge to understand what our client wants and then to align it with our vision for what the team needs (ideally a matching outcome with what is best for our client). Getting the right partners in place so that our client can thrive in various situations is a powerful perspective to take. It ensures that we’re not the star – the client is.


Likewise, what if instead of considering why a new client would hire us, we approached the situation as “what would make a prospective client want to try out for our team?” Campbell’s logic is all about instilling this type of coach’s mindset into our lives. It keeps us in service to the personal goals of others, and the collective mission of our teams.


Campbell died in 2016. We’re lucky to have a book like this at all, let alone from people who were helped by him directly. Trillion Dollar Coach comes out this week, add it to the reading list. 


*he used slightly more colorful language to express this one. Philosophically, he didn’t want cash or compensation to impact his decision making, so he just took it off of the table.