Leadership/Management Lessons From Bill Campbell, Trillion-Dollar Coach

A few years back, American psychologist and author Adam Grant read a story in Fortune about Silicon Valley’s best-kept secret. He writes that it wasn’t a product or process or hardware or technology. It was about a person. His name was Bill Campbell — football coach turned leadership coach. Bill had coached and guided several leaders from Google to Intuit to Apple to several other companies. For many leaders, he had remained a shining light during their period of turmoil.

Bill Campbell, Image Source::cnbc.com

Eric Schmidt, Jonathan Rosenberg, and Alan Eagle have written a book “Trillion-Dollar Coach” based on what they’ve learnt from Bill Campbell. The following lessons are derived from the content of that book.


When you ask people to mention one trait that’s responsible for transformational leadership, many of them would answer it as charisma. Some people believe that charisma can inspire the commitment and devotion of others. The idea is so deeply rooted in the society, making many wannabe leaders believe that to inspire other people, they must radiate the charisma of someone like Steve Jobs, Martin Luther King, Jr., or Mahatma Gandhi.

However, some psychologists say that charisma is not a personality trait but exists in the eye of the beholder. It’s subjective.

It appears that Bill Campbell also doesn’t believe in Charismatic Leadership. He says, “Charisma is not leadership.”

Be A Good Manager To Be A Leader — Bill Campbell says, “Steve Jobs had always been charismatic, passionate, and brilliant. Yet, he wasn’t a great leader during his first stint at Apple. However, when Jobs returned to Apple as CEO in 1997, he had become a great manager. He was detailed in everything — The way he ran product division, finance organization, sales organization, operations and logistics. Steve Jobs couldn’t be a good leader until he became a good manager.”

To bolster Bill Campbell’s view, an HBR article says, “Our research found that highly charismatic leaders were perceived to engage in more strategic behaviour and less operational behaviour.” It means that charismatic leaders may be ambitious, but would struggle in planning, implementing the strategic vision, and executing them.

Bill Gates, Lou Gerstner, Jack Welch, Lee Iacocca, Carlos Ghosn, Stephen Schwarzman, Ray Dalio, and several other leaders succeeded because they had the unmatched ability to execute. They didn’t inspire people through charisma but by their actions, ideas, and the ways to execute them.

Leaders aren’t remembered because of their dreams, aspirations, or intentions. They are remembered because of their accomplishments — Samuel Bacharach, Professor, Cornell University.

The HBR article further points out that charismatic leadership could lead to several other problems — Overconfidence, narcissism, manipulative behaviour, and attention-seeking behaviours. In several cases, it had distracted the organization from its mission.

It appears that costs associated with the charismatic leadership would eventually come to outweigh its benefits.

Let me conclude this topic with a quote from Nick Tasler in his HBR article — What this all means is that change leaders don’t have to be brilliant or charismatic in order to inspire change. If you can make a decision, you can inspire change.


Respect and Engage

Bill Campbell says, “People or employees are the foundation of any company’s success. They are the most valuable asset. A leader’s priority is to respect them, care for them, and engage with them.”

Happy employees put their hearts into their work and can produce innovative ideas, products, and services that benefit both customer and company — From an HBR article.

WALMART — One of the main reasons why Walmart consistently outperformed the competition was its employees. Sam Walton(Founder-Walmart) in his earlier years of retail business realized that his employees(Store-front employees, Truck Drivers, supervisors, and others.) had the potential to influence customer experience as they were the interface between the store & the customers. He also perceived that his store employees were in the best position to learn customer’s needs, wants and desires. They could provide crucial insights into the overall customer experience. So, he began to treat them as business partners and not as employees. He listened to their ideas, thoughts, opinions, and suggestions. Some of those ideas had become massively successful.

As Sam Walton considered people working in his stores and warehouses as partners rather than employees, he shared profits and every business information with them. He also provided them with incentive bonuses, discount stock purchase plans, and health benefits.

Sam Walton said that a leader should not treat employees as a passive audience. They need to be actively engaged. He added that a leader has to think about his employees before thinking about his customers.

Support and Empower Them

Bill Campbell writes, “The primary job of each manager is to help people be more effective in their job and to grow and develop. He/she should create an environment where people can flourish, grow and be energetic.”

Bill adds, “A manager has to support his/her people. It means giving people the tools, information, training, and coaching they need to succeed — A continuous opportunity to develop people’s skills. Great managers help his employees excel and grow. They help them achieve their career goals in a way that’s consistent with the needs of the company. They also free people to do their jobs and to make decisions.”

Walmart & Supporting Employees — Initially, as Walmart’s stores were in small towns, the company hired most of the people from the local community. They had little exposure to the real-time business environment, were naturally shy, barely finished high school, and had terrible grammar. Walmart managers spent a considerable amount of time and money in training them to learn to speak correctly, teaching them customer interaction, business knowledge, and leadership skills. Because of that kind of support, a not so well-educated rural person could go on to become store manager, regional head, or national head inside Wal-mart, within a couple of years. On the other hand, in the competitor stores, a recruit had to have ten years of retail experience before the management considered him for the role of a store manager.

Empower Through Autonomy — Sam Walton gave autonomy to people. If people showed willingness and desire, he allowed them to manage the store. Sam never interfered with their activities/decisions. He allowed them to make mistakes and learn from them.

Stephen Schwarzman, CEO of Blackstone, says, “Brilliant people do not like to work at a place where they have tight controls. There is no dignity if there is no autonomy”.

Think From Their Shoes and See What’s Beneficial To Them

Bill Campbell forced managers to think every decision/idea/action from an employee’s perspective. He’d ask, “Think how it would affect employees? Is it consistent with the department’s mission to “maximize the opportunities for an employee to grow and achieve his/her goals”?.”

When Brad Smith took over as CEO of Intuit, Bill Campbell told him that he would go to bed every night thinking about those eight thousand souls who work for him. What are they thinking and feeling? How can I make them the best they can be? How to create an environment where an employee can get more out of himself/herself.

Sam Walton — Sam Walton always thought in terms of ‘benefits’ to his employees. When he wanted to hire a person, he would think from the potential hire’s perspective. His focus was never on what would Walmart gain but how much the person would benefit by joining his company. If Sam saw a better outcome for the potential hire, he would approach him/her, give reasons, and explain how joining Walmart would transform his/her life.

Whenever Sam Walton had a new proposal for the shops, he would think about whether it would benefit his employees. One day, he thought of implementing an idea in all the stores. He felt that the concept would be beneficial both to store people and company. The idea was that the employees should try to greet their customers and ask if they could be of any help whenever they were within ten feet distance. While inquiring, they have to look into the eyes of the customers. To execute the idea, Sam met his employees and shared the concept. Then, he explained the reasons and benefits an employee would gain if he implemented the plan. He told them, “If you do this, your natural shyness will fly away. It will help your personality to develop and would help you in becoming a leader. And, one day, you might become the manager of this store”. Always, Sam Walton thought and talked in terms of benefits to others.

Treat Them As Your Family

Bill Campbell considered his people as part of his family. He coached other leaders to do the same.

Howard Schultz, the Starbucks CEO, writes, “The best way to achieve loyalty and goodwill of the employees is to treat them like family. A sense of belonging would help them put their best foot forward and this would not only help achieve better performance but also cut costs of training and recruiting.”

Ray Dalio, the founder of Bridgewater Associates, writes, “When I treated my employees like extended family, I found that they typically behaved the same way with other employees and our community as a whole.”

Studies also show that the way employees treat one another within an organization is a direct reflection of the way they treat customers and clients.

If the company treats its people well, they will, in turn, treat the customers well, thus ensuring their repeat visit and also positive word of mouth references. Real profits in the business lie in ‘repeat customers.’


During weekly business meetings with his staff members, Bill Campbell would start the discussion by asking a report of what people did for the weekend. The members would share tales of their outstation trips, family get-togethers, programs of their children, and other personal stories. It was a casual discussion. However, Bill Campbell says that though the conversation seemed impromptu and informal at first glance, it was a part of a communications approach. It served twofold objectives.

  • Team members get to know each other as people, with families and fascinating lives outside of work
  • It would get everyone involved in the meeting from the outset in a fun way.

Research shows that there is a direct correlation between fun work environments and higher performance. People become more empathetic, resulting in genuine relationships, better communication, and trust between people.

Walmart and Fun Environment — At Walmart, Sam Walton and his team would begin weekly business meetings by singing a cheer song. It would pump up the people. Most of the times, a crazy event also would precede the business discussion where everybody had to participate. Sam Walton calls this fun time at the beginning of every meeting as “Whistle While You Work”.

Sam Walton writes, “We work so hard. But doesn’t mean that we have to go with long faces all the time, taking ourselves seriously, pretending we’re lost in thought over weighty problems. So, while we’re doing all this work, we like to have a good time. And, we observed that we work better because of that fun. We build spirit and excitement. We break down barriers, which helps us communicate better with one another. And we make our people feel part of a family.”

So, find a way to add fun and little weirdness in meetings. Being formal all the time seems to be boring and uncreative.


Lee Iacocca wrote, “You might be good at your work. You might be capable of doing the work of two people but still, it’s only two people. But if you learn to delegate and if you could motivate another person, who in turn able to motivate another person with your guidance, you are equal to the work of thousands of people. Delegation is about inspiring the next guy below you to inspire more people. If you do not delegate, business growth will be affected”.

Delegation is not about asking followers to carry out a specific action based on the manager’s instructions. It is about a manager transferring a part of his or her work and responsibility to others. It means letting others make decisions.

Yes, letting others to make decisions.

Unfortunately, decision-making is a critical component of every manager’s progress in his/her work. His/her choices have a direct effect on an organization’s success.

However, studies show that more than 60 per cent of those individual decisions had resulted in bad outcomes for the business.

Bill Campbell writes, “A place where the top manager makes all decisions leads to mess because people will spend their time trying to convince the manager that their idea is the best. It’s not about that the best idea carrying the day, it’s about who does the best job for lobbying the top dog.” Bill believed in striving for the best idea/solution rather than who makes the decision.

The Solution

Lauren Landry in her HBS online article, writes, “One way to increase a manager’s likelihood of successful decisions is to include his/her team in the process.”

Bill Campbell also says, “A manager’s main job is to facilitate decisions.”

Kim Scott says in his book Radical Candor that as a leader, he preferred not to make any decisions in his staff meetings. Instead, he pushed them out to the people closest to the facts.

Studies also show that diversity leads to better decision-making. Lauren Landry adds, “By bringing people into the conversation with different disciplinary and cultural backgrounds, you can enhance creativity and gain a fresh perspective on the task or problem at hand.” It would lead to better decisions most of the time.

How a manager can facilitate decisions?

The Environment — Bill Campbell writes that a manager should create a conducive environment in the meetings that would encourage people to share their honest views. He/she should empower people to throw all their opinions/ideas out in the open.

The manager also has to provide adequate resources and ensure the supply of sufficient information to help people in making decisions.

The Facilitator — Bill Campbell adds that a manager’s role is more of a facilitator. He/she has to host the gathering, then, take a step back and let the members lead the discussion and run it.

He/she would interfere in a meeting only in the following scenarios —

  • When he/she sees the members deviating from the core problem during the discussion,
  • When the members need additional clarity of the problem,
  • To reduce tension and bring cohesion among members during a heated debate.

The manager has to find a way to make people collaborate. He/she should ensure meaningful, honest, and open communication among members.

Kim Scott says that Google is famously viewed as a bottom-up company, one that empowers even very young employees to drive decision-making. The manager’s role is mostly to stay out of the way, sometimes to help, but never to interfere too much.

Choose Members Wisely — Have a diversified team with deep knowledge and sufficient experience to get different perspectives/opinions/ideas. A decision is as good as its team members.

Avoid Groupthink — Managers should strive for the best idea, not consensual decision. To avoid conflict and maintain group harmony, a manager might opt for a majority opinion. Bill Campbell says that the goal of consensus leads to “groupthink” and inferior decisions.

Harvard Business School Professor Len Schlesinger also says that consensus is likely to lead to a lower evaluation of the problem and a less creative solution.

Who Leads The Discussion — Bill Campbell says that a person with functional expertise should lead the discussion. When it is a broader decision cutting across multiple functional areas, then the team leader could own the discussion but necessarily not the decision.

It’s About Company, Not Me — Bill Campbell gives another crucial advice — A leader should train his members to imagine every problem from the company’s perspective than from his/her perspective. Every employee should think that they are solving the problem, not for himself/herself but the benefit of the company. It should be profoundly ingrained in their minds. Ask whether the solution would be the right thing for the company, employees, and customers.

This practice also would result in additional benefits — Since the focus would be on the company and not himself/herself, he/she’d have less pressure while opening up in the meetings. He/she could express opinions, share feelings, and articulate theories without fear. Bill Campbell reiterates that if your team is thinking company-first rather than me-first, then the best idea will emerge.

Framing The Discussion — Bill Campbell writes, “In the office meetings, how a leader frames the discussions matters.”

Framing bias is a type of cognitive bias where people unconsciously decide based on the way they received the information.

Melissa Raffoni, in an HBR article, writes, “What exactly does it mean to “frame” or “reframe” an issue? Think about the metaphor behind the concept. A frame focuses attention on the painting it surrounds. Different frames draw out different aspects of the work. Putting a painting in a red frame brings out the red in the work; putting the same painting in a blue frame brings out the blue. How someone frames an issue influences how others see it and focus their attention on particular aspects of it.”

So, the first step in any decision-making process is framing the problem in the right way as it can influence the choices we make.

In the book Trillion Dollar Coach, the authors write that a 2016 study shows that when a leader frames a discussion as a debate rather than disagreement, participants are more likely to share information. In that case, the researchers felt that the participants were more receptive to dissenting opinions.

Be The Last Person — Bill Campbell says, “When the leader was discussing a decision with the team, he/she should always have to be the last person to speak. It is to avoid a leader’s opinions, decisions biasing decision-making. It also robs the team of the chance to come together. Getting to the right answer is important, but having the whole team get it is just as important. Team’s ability also improves. Leaders could feel confident.”

The Other Benefits

As Bill Campbell said, allowing employees to make decisions not only improves their abilities, but also empower them by leveraging their strengths, experiences, and expertise. Research shows that the involvement of people in the decision-making process had lead to higher engagement among employees, less stress, cross-learning from each other, greater collaboration, and better communication. It also improved the trust between the leader and the members. Moreover, asking people to participate in decision-making showed that the manager trusts and values their opinion, which, in turn, builds employee loyalty.


Bill Campbell says, “Letting people go is a failure of management, not one of any of the people who are being let go.” So, it is essential for management to let people leave with their heads held high. Treat them well, with respect. Be generous with a severance package. Send out a note internally celebrating their accomplishments.

Before meeting people and informing about letting them go, Bill would practice those situations with his people. He would role-play all possible scenarios so that he could make the situation tolerable for the employee.

Alan Eagle and his team write, “Bill would visualise how he was going to conduct the meeting, line by line, even thinking through the practical details of who would sit where in the conference room. He would go through reasoning and provide details to the employee. For him, treating the departing people well is important for the morale and well being of the remaining team.”

Ben Horowitz says, “Many of the people whom you lay off will have closer relationships with the people who stay than you do, so treat them with the appropriate level of respect. Still, the company must move forward, so be careful not to apologize too much.”

Research also confirms that people who stay back follow who’s doing the layoffs and how good an explanation laid-off employees get.

Layoffs impacts both the laid-off people and the people who stay on with the company.


For a manager, having a star performer in the team would be an excellent one. It’s a fact that he/she could take the company to greater heights. Yet, managing him/her can be a real challenge. Several managers have found it painful to work with the star performers.

Bill Campbell also acknowledges that managing star performers was one of the more significant challenges he had faced in his professional life. He writes that those stars required as much attention as possible.

One of the adverse effects due to the presence of star performers is the impact on group dynamics. A manager, favouring a star performer would build resentment among other members. Additionally, the star’s errant behaviour could further flame the discontent. Most of them don’t interact or collaborate with others. Bill called those stars with unconventional behaviour as “aberrant geniuses”.

Protect and Tolerate — Bill Campbell says, “Though they are a challenge to manage, star performers are enormously valuable and productive people. They have quick insights. They can build great products and high performing teams. So, the stars have to be tolerated and protected to a possible extent. However, it is a leader’s job to manage that person in a way that doesn’t disrupt the company.”

The Solution — Bill Campbell says, “The manager should find ways to support star performers as they continue to perform, and minimize time spent fighting them.” Support could be in the form of helping the person to acquire new skills and strengthening the existing ones. Engaging him fully in work would help a manager to save time in managing him.

Changing Their Behavior —Bill Campbell writes, “A manager has to invest his/her energy to coach geniuses past their aberrant behaviour. He/she should try to get him to behave as a leader.”

How to encourage an aberrant genius to change his behaviour? How to teach him about networking with people? How to make him/her a leader?

Linda A. Hill offers some tips in her HBR article, “A manager has to help the employee get “exposure to other parts of the organization” that will “broaden his perspective.” Demonstrate trust by delegating authority and responsibility. Ask your rock star to work with other people on the team to mentor them and develop them.”

Rebecca Knight in her HBR article says, “It’s a manager's job to encourage star performers to network and to help them develop their capacity to engage with others and learn the power of collaboration.” She also adds, “The manager should explain that to contribute to organizations today, the star performer needs to be able to work with other people in different functions. The manager should act as a partner in helping the person integrate with the group. He/she should demonstrate how the star performer’s work benefits from other points of view. And use role-play to teach him/her how to successfully work with peers.”

Where is the limit?

Now comes the crucial question. How long do you tolerate or protect the aberrant genius? When it would be too much?

Bill Campbell answers them —

Ethics — Bill advises us to let star performers go if they cross ethical lines — lying, dishonesty, or other ethical factors. Integrity is the most critical factor to build trust between people. Without that, everything would cease. Bill says that a manager should never put up with a person having lapses of integrity.

Bill also lays out other conditions for firing the star performers — Does the aberrant genius repeatedly break team communication, protocols? Does he harass or mistreat people? Does the person interrupt others, or attack or rebuke them? Does he make people afraid to talk? And importantly, does he takes up too much management time? Bill says that if a manager is spending hours upon hours controlling damage or coaching star performer or arguing with him, then that’s a good sign that it’s gone too far. Time to let him/her go.

Bill adds, “The manager should ensure that the star performers should be able to work with other people. If they can’t, then he/she need to let them go.”


For a manager to succeed, the critical thing he/she needs is to build a strong bond of trust between him/her and employees. And, trust begins with establishing a relationship between him and people. So, when a manager hires a new person, the first thing he/she should focus on is to build a successful relationship with him/her.

Bill Campbell advises managers to establish a trusting relationship with every single person reporting to him/her.

However, if a manager is leading a big team, how would it be possible for a person to establish a close relationship with everyone.

Kim Scott has an answer for it. He writes, “If you lead a big organization, you can’t have a relationship with everyone; but you can really get to know the people who report directly to you. The relationships you have with your direct reports will impact the relationships they have with their direct reports. The ripple effect will go a long way toward creating — or destroying — a positive culture. Relationships may not scale, but culture does.”

How to establish a relationship?

Genuinely Learn About Them — Bill started relationships by going beyond what’s termed as professional life — A world beyond one’s work life. He didn’t see people as programmers or technologists or employees or a network but as humans. Bill genuinely wanted to learn about a person — his/her strengths, weaknesses, motivations, ambitions, and other interests. For Bill, it’s like involving deeply with other’s personal life. He helped them whenever possible.

Open Yourself — To open up people’s mind, Bill Campbell didn’t hesitate to share his weaknesses, vulnerabilities, feelings or mistakes. It created a safe space for others to do the same.

Nobody Is Superior — Bill Campbell treated everyone with respect irrespective of their hierarchy or job. He never considered himself superior or smarter to anyone. He was humble. Scott writes, “Some people consciously or unconsciously begin to feel they’re better or smarter than the people who work for them. There’s nothing more damaging to a human relationship than the feeling of superiority. Just remember, being a manager is a job, not a value judgement.”

Spend Time — Bill would greet every new colleague with a warm hug. His hugs came from the heart. The author of the book Trillion-Dollar Coach writes, “When Bill enters office, he’ll walk around greeting people by name, hugging them, and he will talk about their families, trips, and friends. He is a lover of people.”

Kim Scott says, “Building relationships is not about memorizing birthdays and names of family members. Nor is it about sharing the sordid details of one’s personal life, or forced chitchat at social events you’d rather not attend. It’s about acknowledging that we are all people with lives and aspirations that extend beyond those related to our shared work. It’s about finding time for real conversations; about getting to know each other at a human level; about learning what’s important to people; about sharing with one another what makes us want to get out of bed in the morning and go to work — and what has the opposite effect.”

Don’t Keep It Professional — One reason why people failed to build relationships in the workplace is due to the usual advice ‘Keep it professional’ or ‘Be Professional’. It meant that we should behave like a robot, devoid of emotions and focus only on delivering quality work on time. “Be professional” implied us not to get emotionally attached to anyone at the workplace.

Kim Scott writes, “Keep It Professional — This phrase denies something essential. We are all human beings, with human feelings, and, even at work, we need to be seen as such. When that doesn’t happen, when we feel we must repress who we really are to earn a living, we become alienated. That makes us hate going to work. The result is that nobody feels comfortable being who they really are at work.”

The people in your team are humans. It’s okay to love them for what they are. The whole group becomes powerful when you break down the walls between the professional and human personas and embrace the unabridged person with love — Bill Campbell.


References:: Too Much Charisma Can Make Leaders Look Less Effective by Jasmine Vergauwe, Bart Wille, Joeri Hofmans, Robert B. (Rob) Kaiser, Filip De Fruyt. Article by Lauren Landry in Harvard Business School Online, How to Manage Your Star Employee by Rebecca Knight, Radical Candor by Kim Scott, Trillion Dollar Coach: The Leadership Playbook of Silicon Valley’s Bill Campbell by Eric Schmidt, Jonathan Rosenberg, and Alan Eagle.

Secular Humanist, Business Growth Consultant, Design Thinker, India. Reach me at mmshah8@gmail.com. or https://www.shahmohammed.com