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What would Bill Campbell do?

Google’s former CEO and his co-authors reflect on the wisdom of the legendary management coach, and what advice he would give in the midst of the pandemic.

What would Bill Campbell do?
[Photo: C Flanigan/Getty Images]

Since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic and protests against racial injustice, we are often asked, “What would Bill do?” The Bill in question is Bill Campbell, our late friend and coach, and the subject of Trillion Dollar Coach, the book we published about him last year.  

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Bill Campbell was a head football coach at Columbia University, who, upon entering the business world at age 39, rose to executive positions at Apple and the CEO role at Claris, Go, and Intuit. Subsequently, Bill became the executive coach to a number of Silicon Valley executives. He was a revered behind-the-scenes voice in our business; the mentor to dozens—if not hundreds—of leaders, ourselves included. Bill passed away in 2016, and we feel his loss this year more acutely than ever.  

Bill would have turned 80 on August 31. “What would Bill do?” In light of his birthday, we’ve been thinking about him often, and asking ourselves the same question. Here’s what we think he would say.  

It’s still the people

Bill coached us that the top priority of any leader is the well-being and success of their people. Today, that is more critical than ever. People’s lives are in upheaval; they need to know that their manager and company leadership has their back. Executives will work on strategies, plans, and processes, but none of those matter if your people aren’t well.  

Lead with empathy

Bill coached us to start team meetings with trip reports, as a way to get people talking about their lives and perspectives outside of their roles at work. Today, however, we think he would tell us to start with empathy.  

Begin every day, every speech, every team meeting with a reflection on our shared humanity. While each of us are affected in different ways, some of us are fortunate in our circumstances, while millions of others have been hit hard by the pandemic, the economy, and racial injustices. Share your empathy, not just once, but often, for those who are suffering.

We always want to jump in and get to work. Before you do, consider: did something happen in the world overnight or over the weekend that may be affecting people on your team? Or you? Are they dealing with circumstances beyond work that are taking a toll? If so, then start by acknowledging that. They aren’t looking for you to solve their problems, but they need you to see and validate them.  

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Be present

Bill was a champion listener. You always had his attention. Your colleagues deserve the same from you.

Bill was at his best face-to-face, but we don’t have that option today. Whenever you can, use videoconferencing. Keep the camera on, and look into it to create eye contact. Put the phone away, close other screens, unmute the microphone, and do what you can to communicate physically (nod, laugh, clap, raise your hand). Bill was the king of hugs; we’re sure he would have figured out a way to hug virtually.  

We know . . . More meetings? Really? Yes!”

This may all seem like basic digital hygiene, but it’s so easy to forget and slip into bad habits. Videoconferencing is the best option we have to stay close to people, so we need to do our best to use it well.

Create reasons to meet with people, and for them to meet with each other. The danger of working from home isn’t loss of productivity, it’s the loss of energy that comes from people running into each other in the office. Working from home eliminates those positive serendipitous interactions that happen naturally in an office environment. Do your best to make up for that by creating reasons to meet. This will energize both of you. We know . . . more meetings? Really? Yes! 

To care about people, care about people

We knew an executive at Google that Bill refused to coach, because said leader didn’t really care about his people. That’s not an option today. For people to succeed while working in a crisis, they need to know that their leaders and colleagues actually care about them. Companies can express caring by having employee-friendly policies; people need to go beyond that.  

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Fortunately, in some ways it is easier today to care about others, because when we are on a videoconference with someone, we are usually looking right into their homes. There are family pictures on the wall behind them, random bits of sports gear stacked in the corner, a cat, dog, toddler, or teen strolling by in the background. What would Bill do? He wouldn’t ignore the passerby or prized pictures—he would ask about them. He would invite the kid into the videoconference and chat with them. How do they like attending school from home? Are they being nice to their parents? In fact, we could envision the home tour taking over the meeting with Bill, so curious was he about the whole person.   

By the way, remember that people are scrutinizing your background, too. We are on lots of videoconferences where people use fake or blurred backgrounds, but Bill would tell us that’s a bad idea. Let people see your home! But keep it real. Keep family photos and keepsakes visible, put books on the shelves that you have actually read, let the third-grader paintings stay taped to the wall, and if that toddler or teen wanders by, go with it. This isn’t about coming off as intellectual or perfect; it’s about coming off as you.  

Team first

When confronted with a problem, Bill wouldn’t dig into the problem, he would dig into the team. Who is working the problem? How are they working together? You can’t get anything done without a team, Bill often said. So how’s your team doing? Perhaps you have attended to them as individuals, but what are you doing to ensure the team is healthy?

Not everyone is equal in the burdens they may be experiencing outside of work.”

There’s a phrase going around Silicon Valley: while all of us are in the same storm, we are each in different boats. Individual employees should be given the flexibility to take the time and actions necessary to ensure their health and well-being and that of their family. Since not everyone is equal in the burdens they may be experiencing outside of work, some team members may not be able to do as much, and others may have to pick it up. This is what great teams do, and you should expect it of yours too.  

Expect it, but also acknowledge it. Be empathetic and supportive of the people who need to take care of things outside of work, but also of those who step in and do more.   

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Leaders lead 

We tell a story in Trillion Dollar Coach of one CEO who ran into some significant issues with his company and was considering stepping down. Bill stepped in and chewed him out, telling him, in effect, that when times are challenging, that’s when leaders have to lead.

These times are challenging! If we were to complain to Bill about that, he would empathize, check on our well-being and that of our families, then kick us in the ass and tell us to get to work.

Have a plan

Let’s be realistic. The pandemic which is keeping many of us from going into the office, traveling, or even going to our favorite restaurants is not going away anytime soon. Have a plan for at least the next year that assumes the current environment is more or less unchanged. Whether that means working from home or creating safe work environments, assume this isn’t temporary. This is our new normal, so plan that way.

On the other hand, don’t make permanent decisions based on the current environment.  We are all in a period of uncertainty and must do our best to accommodate one another.  We should assume those accommodations will last at least a year. But Bill would likely counsel us that decisions around commuting and our work environments and locations are best not made in times of crisis. We may well discover that some teams and functions can succeed remotely, but others cannot. Let’s do that evaluation ex post and not ex ante.

Be honest

Bill never hesitated to tell it to us straight. He would identify the biggest problem in the room and bring it out, front and center. Do your teams the same honor. Tell them the facts, as you know them. Trust that they can handle it.  

Be their evangelist for courage 

Bill was a constant cheerleader for his teams. He would stand and clap in meetings to celebrate peoples’ accomplishments. In the face of challenges, people need this sort of support. So don’t forget to channel Bill and be a cheerleader. Let them know they can do it. When someone does something remarkable, don’t just nod and mutter “good job.” Get excited! Clap, woohoo, and whistle! A crisis is an enervating slog. Bring the energy.  

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Decisions still aren’t about consensus

Bill often growled about how much he disliked consensus. He thought it’s a terrible way to make decisions. Rather, managers should create room for all perspectives to be heard, and if the best decision doesn’t emerge from that conversation, they should break the tie and expect everyone to rally behind the decision.  

Whatever you do, however you decide to lead, do it with love.”

These principles are as true today as ever, but we see instances emerging that may need a more deft touch. Many questions are coming up now—What happens after the pandemic? How do we address systemic racism?—that are about longer term issues. They cannot be resolved in a single answer or single step. Yet our tendency as leaders in a crisis may be to respond with a quick answer. There is a sense of urgency about these issues, and we don’t want to seem indecisive.  

But as Bill would tell us, you can’t be sure you make the right decision, but you can be sure you run the right decision-making process. When these questions come up, respond with a truthful process answer, then spend time with the teams to run a good process to get to the answer. It may go against instincts, but it is often better to give a softer process answer, which gives you time and will lead to a better outcome.  

Take care of yourself

Your mindset as a leader has a tremendous impact on your teams, as does the example you set by your behavior. You are just vulnerable to the effects of stress as anyone else on your team, so check in regularly on your own well-being, mental and physical. Take real vacation and close the laptop at night. This gives everyone else on your team permission to do the same.  

Our assignment

At the end of our coaching sessions with Bill, he would give us an assignment for the next session, something to think about and work on. With this article, we give you our interpretation of how Bill would coach us today. But everyone’s situation is different, so your assignment from us is to think about Bill’s principles and decide how to best apply them for your situation. How are you going to take care of your people and teams, and lead them? What are you going to do differently? Now that you know what Bill would do, what will you do?

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Bill was an optimist. He was full of love for life, for his family, for his friends and community. We hope that Bill’s principles will inspire and help you. Perhaps you will make a change in how you lead in a time of such turmoil. So here’s one more assignment. Whatever you do, however you decide to lead, do it with love. That’s what Bill would do.


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. He is the co-founder of Schmidt Futures.

Jonathan Rosenberg was a Senior Vice President at Google and is an adviser to the Alphabet management team. He ran the Google product team from 2002 to 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.

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