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Review: Trillion Dollar Coach

Even executives of the Fortune 500 need coaches, too.

And if a number of these companies happen to be in Silicon Valley, at a time when the technology industry is dominating the upper-end of public market capitalizations and valuations, someone who can wrangle egos and personalities and dynamics of this set of powerful, yet close-knit, people can exert massive influence. After all, the valley is small, and good coaches are hard to come by.

Trillion Dollar Coach is about Bill Campbell, that special coach who has made an impact on the executive teams of Google, Apple, Facebook, plus dozens of smaller public and private tech companies. The title is startling—it uses the same system of bestowing credit that we normally ascribe to CEOs and their company valuations1, but moreso because Bill didn’t want attention and likely would have never described himself in this way2. Even the simple title of the book is a demonstration of the coach’s humility, that others will instinctively speak so highly of his impact.

The book does start out with a biography of its subject and his early days as a football player and coach. Very quickly, though, the authors detail Bill’s transition into a business leader, first as a sales leader and chief executive, and then eventually as “Coach”, the executive coach and corporate director and advisor of some of the biggest tech companies in the world. In this narrative, the authors make sure to let his mentorship style shine through, and make frequent notes to draw discrete lessons from this collection of anecdotes. After all, the point of this book is to try to share Bill’s teachings more widely; telling personal stories to let the listener make their own connections was, in fact, a favorite technique.

Given Bill’s background in collegiate football, a lot of his personal life and coaching lessons draw from the sports world. And although it’s somewhat cliche at this point to draw the parallels between sports leadership and business leadership, I still think some of the underlying why and how they relate is worth studying. In Trillion Dollar Coach, the framework of sustained success starts with the team and the interpersonal relationships defined therein; repeatedly, it’s what Bill hones into and makes it a core part of his coaching toolbox. It almost sounds too simple to remember that a social fabric underlies most human endeavors, even that of business decisions with the highest stakes.

I will say, though, that having sports be the well to draw lessons from can feel exclusionary to those who don’t count professional and amateur sports as a hobby. The book makes an explicit point about Bill’s promotion of women executives—ahead of his time—but it almost seemed like a tacit admission that his social connections made were around sports, complete with some of its accompanying jock culture. His top catchphrases, for instance, wouldn’t fly with anybody else.

Don’t get me wrong—I really enjoyed this book and its lessons around the importance of people. It reaffirmed my belief that even at the highest levels, thinking critically about how people interact and facilitating those relationships is immensely impactful, and in this case materially altered the course of modern history to what we experience today. It’s an inspiration for the pinnacle of coaching, equal parts impressive and humble.

  1. Though in the cases of multi-CEOs like Jack Dorsey and Elon Musk, do they just sum up all their companies as a personal executive portfolio?

  2. The book is written posthumously, Bill Campbell passed away in 2016.

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