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The bear-hugging football coach who became Silicon Valley’s go-to guru

Google leaders Eric Schmidt, Jonathan Rosenberg, and Alan Eagle recall the teachings of the late Bill Campbell, who coached some of tech’s biggest luminaries.

The bear-hugging football coach who became Silicon Valley’s go-to guru
Bill Campbell (right) and Ben Horowitz speak at the Tech:Crunch Disrupt SF 2012 Conference. [Photo: C Flanigan/Getty Images]

They’re still talking about Bill Campbell, the ex-football coach who came to work at Apple in 1983 and ended up one most effective, beloved, and storied players in Silicon Valley history. For more than 15 years Campbell coached, among others, Larry Page, Sergey Brin, Eric Schmidt, Jonathan Rosenberg and Sundar Pichai at Google, Steve Jobs at Apple, Brad Smith at Intuit, John Donahoe at eBay, Marissa Mayer at Yahoo, Dick Costolo at Twitter, and Sheryl Sandberg at Facebook.

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Stories about Campbell, his style, and his executive teachings still float around Silicon Valley, three years after his death from cancer in 2016. He told Apple to run the famous 1984 ad against the wishes of Apple’s board. He fought against Steve Jobs getting forced out of Apple while both were there, and helped him grow into a leader. Campbell famously hugged everybody–including the notoriously unhuggable Bill Gates. In 2001 Campbell asked Sheryl Sandberg (then at Google), “What do you do here?” and he refused all her answers until she explained how she contributed every day.

Three Google leaders–former CEO Eric Schmidt, former Google SVP Jonathan Rosenberg, and Google director Alan Eagle–decided to collect hundreds of Campbell stories and lessons in a new book: Trillion Dollar Coach: The Leadership Playbook of Silicon Valley’s Bill Campbell.


The power of love

In February 2003, Brad Smith had just been hired as a new executive at Intuit. The hiring had entailed some drama, with a claim from one of Brad’s former employers that by joining Intuit Brad had violated some noncompete agreements. It took some time, lawyering, and money to work things out. Not long after the dust settled and Brad joined the company, he attended an internal Intuit leadership conference, where the top people from all over the world gathered to discuss the company’s plans and get to know each other better. It was a great opportunity for Brad to meet his new colleagues and make a strong first impression.

The first morning of the conference, as people filled coffee cups and caught up with friends and colleagues, Brad milled among them, exchanging handshakes and greetings.

Suddenly he was grabbed from behind and wrapped in a bear hug. Bill Campbell’s first words to Brad: “So you’re the son of a gun who cost me so much money. You better be worth it!” Except he used a more colorful term than “son of a gun.”

We do not necessarily recommend that you greet new colleagues with hugs and curses. Personally, we still favor handshakes and more traditional conversational niceties. Everyone has their own style, obviously; hugs and curses was Bill’s. What’s more important is what it meant, to Bill and to the many of us on the receiving end. The reason Bill was able to get away with his hugs-and-curses approach was that all of his behavior was rooted in his heart: It came from love. “Get away” isn’t the right way to describe it; people looked forward to Bill’s hugs and profanities, because they meant he loved you.

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Yes, love. Let’s be clear: The kind of love we are referring to here is entirely chaste. He never crossed the line or came close to it. He hugged just about everyone, and if he couldn’t get close enough to hug you, sometimes he’d blow kisses. Right there in the middle of a board meeting or Eric’s staff meeting, Bill would give you a wink and blow you a kiss. Everyone understood with great clarity the intent of the hugs and kisses: to show that he cared, to show that he loved.

So this is what we learned from Bill: that it’s okay to love. That people in your team are people, that the whole team becomes stronger when you break down the walls between the professional and human personas and embrace the whole person with love. Literally, in Bill’s case.

Top 10 “Billisms”

Bill often had a unique way of telling you that he loved you. These are his top 10 favorites, as recalled by his Columbia friend and teammate Ted Gregory. They were printed on the back page of the program given to guests at Bill’s memorial service.

10. “You should have that shirt cleaned and burned.”
9. “You’re as dumb as a post.”
8. “He’s one of the great horse’s asses of our time.”
7.  “You’re a numbnuts.”
6. “You couldn’t run a five-flat forty-yard dash off a cliff.”
5. “You’ve got hands like feet.”
4. “You’d fuck up a free lunch.”
3. “You’re so fucked up you make me look good.”
2. “Don’t fuck it up.”
1. “That’s the sound of your head coming out of your ass.”

The lovely reset

Bill cared about people. He treated everyone with respect, he learned their names, he gave them a warm greeting. He cared about their families, and his actions in this regard spoke more loudly than his words. Jesse Rogers talks about how much his daughter cared for Bill, about how Bill always took the time, when he saw her, to give her a big hello hug. Ruth Porat says that when she took the job as Google’s CFO and started commuting back and forth from New York, Bill’s primary concern was how her husband was faring with the arrangement. Was he happy? What could Bill do to help out? “He cared about the whole you,” Ruth says. “We talked about that a lot.”

Sundar Pichai recalls that Bill would start every one of their weekly Monday meetings by asking about Sundar’s family and weekend and talking about his own. “I was always busy going into these meetings, with lots of things to do, but my time with Bill always gave me a sense of perspective. That whatever I was doing was important, but he showed me that what really matters at the end of the day is how you live your life and the people in your life. It was always a lovely reset.” Bill’s small talk about families wasn’t small at all. It provided his coachees a respite in a busy day and a chance to ease their work-family conflict at least momentarily.

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And when the situation was more dire, Bill always made himself available to the families. When Steve Jobs became incapacitated by cancer, Bill visited him nearly every day, whether Steve was at home, in the office, or in the hospital. Phil Schiller, Apple’s longtime head of marketing, worked with and was friends with both of them. He recalls, “Bill showed me that when you have a friend who is injured or ill or needs you in some way, you drop everything and just go. That’s what you do, that’s how you really show up. That’s what Bill would do. Just go.”

In our own lives, we don’t try to match the way in which Bill loved people. We don’t hug; we don’t go quite as deep into people’s family lives. We don’t call their fathers! If you don’t naturally have as big a heart as Bill’s, faking it won’t work. Repeat: Don’t fake it! But most of us like our coworkers. We care about them, but we check all but the most sanitized feelings at the door when we walk into the office. Bill taught us to do the opposite. Bring it in! Ask the questions about the family, learn people’s names, then ask more questions, then look at the pictures, and, above all, care.

The percussive clap

Imagine you are presenting a new product to the Apple board, sometime in the 2000s. Perhaps you are nervous as you walk into the room. There’s Steve Jobs, there’s Al Gore, and in between them sits Bill Campbell. You start talking about the product; maybe it’s the new iPad or iPhone, maybe it’s the latest Mac operating system. You talk about the timing, when the product will be released. Then you hold your breath and give the demo.

Trillion Dollar Coach: The Leadership Playbook of Silicon Valley’s Bill Campbell by Eric Schmidt, Jonathan Rosenberg, and Alan Eagle

Sometime around then, the clapping starts. “Bill would clap and cheer, give double fist pumps, he would get so excited!” Phil Schiller recalls. “He provided an emotional reaction to the products, not a dry, boring, revenue-driven board reaction. He’d be out of his seat, an explosion of emotion.”

The effect of this wasn’t so much about the approval of the product. It was about approval of the team. “It always felt like your uncle or dad just gave you appreciation and respect,” Phil says. “That’s one of the biggest things I learned from Bill. Don’t just sit your butt in the seat. Get up and support the teams, show the love for the work they are doing.”

“Everything Bill brought to the boardroom came from a place in his heart,” says Bob Iger, CEO of Disney and an Apple board member. But there was another purpose behind the enthusiasm besides showing love for the team. “Once he started the applause,” Bob says, “it was hard to disagree. The applause felt like it was coming from the board, not just Bill. It was his way of cheerleading, but also of moving things along.”

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When Bob told us that, a little lightbulb went off. That was so Bill; of course that’s what he was doing! With one gesture, a short outburst of enthusiastic clapping, he would both tell the team that he loved their work, giving them all a big pat on the back, and keep things moving. Bill’s raucous cheerleading didn’t just signal his approval, it generated momentum among the entire group in the room. What a brilliant technique!

Help people

Susan Wojcicki was an early employee at Google and spoke with Bill frequently over the years. A few years back, Susan, who was by then the head of YouTube, wanted to attend an important tech and media conference. Despite YouTube’s status as one of the biggest video destinations for consumers around the world and an important player in the media and entertainment world, Susan could not secure an invitation. She worked through her considerable list of contacts, to no avail. In her one-on-one with Bill, she brought this up.

He responded with a burst of colorful language. “This makes me so angry!” he said. “Of course you should be there!” They ended their meeting soon afterward, and a day later an invitation to the conference appeared in her inbox.

Bill did Susan a favor. He made a few calls and got her the invite. This is such a simple thing, but something surprisingly unusual in companies. We have had a couple of situations over the years where we asked colleagues to do us favors. These were not big favors, but they did entail bypassing processes or waiving minor rules. No one would have been hurt, and in fact the things we requested, if judged on merit alone, were absolutely the right things to do. Nevertheless, we were turned down. I’m sorry, I can’t do that, was the generic response. You see, we’ve got this process in place . . .

To which Bill would have said: bullshit. Bill believed in doing favors for people. He was generous, he liked to help people, so when he could call on a friend to help the CEO of YouTube get into an event at which she absolutely belonged, he did it without hesitation.

Bill enjoyed helping people and was incredibly generous. Good luck buying a dinner or a drink when Bill was around. One time, when he had a group of friends together in Cabo for vacation, Bill took all the kids to dinner; everyone got the bar T-shirt. He bought cases of very nice red wine to pour at his annual Christmas party, not because he enjoyed wine, but because he enjoyed watching his friends enjoy wine. You might think, well, heck, it’s easy for a rich guy to buy everyone T-shirts and wine, and you’d be right. But Bill was that way well before he was rich. He had a generous spirit, which anyone can afford. For example, he was a very busy man, but he was generous with his time. Sometimes it took a couple of months to get on his calendar, but if you truly needed him, that phone call would come right away.

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Most of the time, these little gifts were what Adam Grant, crediting businessman Adam Rifkin in his book Give and Take, calls “five-minute favors.” They are easy for the person doing the favor, requiring minimal personal cost, but mean a lot to the recipient. Grant also notes, in a 2017 article written with Reb Rebele, that “being an effective giver isn’t about dropping everything every time for every person. It’s about making sure that the benefits of helping others outweigh the costs to you.” People who do this well are “self-protective givers.” They are “generous, but they know their limits. Instead of saying yes to every request for help, they look for high-impact, low-cost ways of giving so that they can sustain their generosity—and enjoy it along the way.”

We learned from Bill that it’s okay to help people. Do favors. Apply judgment in making sure that they are the right thing to do, and ensure that everyone will be better off as a result. Then do the favor.

Love the founders and the love they bring

Too often we think about running a company as an operating job, and Bill considered operational excellence to be very important. But when we reduce company leadership to its operational essence, we negate another very important component: vision. Many times operating people come in, and though they may run the company better, they lose the heart and soul of the company, the vision that is going to take it forward. This is where founders excel.

Bill loved founders, not just for the chutzpah they possess to try entrepreneurship in the first place, but for the vision they have for the company, and the love they have for it. He understood their limitations, but he usually felt that their value outweighed the shortcomings.

Bill saw this scenario play out a few times. Perhaps the most spectacular example was at Apple. Bill was there when the new “business guy,” John Sculley, came in as CEO, and he observed as Sculley eventually forced out cofounder Steve Jobs. Many years later, when Steve returned to Apple, he asked Bill to join the board to help him do what seemed impossible: save the company, which was only a few months away from bankruptcy. Steve needed to change so much, to force the company to regain its singular focus on building superb products. He had to move fast, so he needed people he trusted to help him. Bill was at the top of that list.

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As they got to work, they became not just confidants but close friends. They took long walks together nearly every weekend, talking about Apple issues but also other things. Bill understood founders and understood why Steve was so exceptional. He supported Steve and was careful to protect him from the many who pursued him seeking one thing or another.

As Phil Schiller recalls, “They were like friends coming back together at a college reunion and trying to do one more thing together. Steve needed his help and strength to support the plan. Sometimes he just needed an arm around the shoulder.”


Related: When Bill Campbell tried to repair Steve Jobs’s relationship with Apple


Bill was the business guy brought into GO, where founder Jerry Kaplan stayed on as a very important presence for the life of the company. Then he was the business guy who joined Intuit to replace Scott Cook as CEO. Again, Scott stayed on, to this day, as a very important presence. And Bill helped with perhaps the greatest and most challenging pairing of founders and incoming CEO, in coaching Eric, Larry, and Sergey at Google.

Many business leaders outside the startup world never have to grapple with the founder question, as the company’s founder may be long gone by the time they join. Nevertheless, the essential argument in favor of founders remains: Vision is an important role. Heart and soul matter. Often that is embodied in the founder, but many other people may also embody what the company stands for, its mission and spirit. They don’t show up on a balance sheet, income statement, or org chart, but they are very valuable.

One of our big surprises in putting together our memories of Bill was how often the word love came up when people talked about him.

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This isn’t a typical word when speaking with tech executives, venture capitalists, and the like. But Bill made it okay to bring love to the workplace. He created a culture of what people who study these things call “companionate” love: feelings of affection, compassion, caring, and tenderness for others. He did this by genuinely caring about people and their lives outside of work, by being an enthusiastic cheerleader, by building communities, by doing favors and helping people whenever he could, and by keeping a special place in his heart for founders and entrepreneurs.


Eric Schmidt served as Google CEO and chairman from 2001 until 2011, Google executive chairman from 2011 to 2015, and Alphabet executive chairman from 2015 to 2018. Jonathan Rosenberg was a senior vice president at Google and is now an advisor to the Alphabet management team.  He ran the Google product team from 2002 through 2011. Alan Eagle has been a director at Google since 2007. Formerly Eric and Jonathan’s speechwriter, he currently runs a set of Google’s sales programs.


From the book Trillion Dollar Coach: The Leadership Playbook of Silicon Valley’s Bill Campbell by Eric Schmidt, Jonathan Rosenberg, and Alan Eagle. Copyright 2019 by Eric Schmidt, Jonathan Rosenberg, and Alan Eagle. Reprinted by permission.

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