Eric Schmidt reveals the best wisdom he got from ultimate Silicon Valley CEO coach Bill Campbell, who worked with Steve Jobs, Sheryl Sandberg, and other star executives


Eric Schmidt, Jonathan Rosenberg, and Alan Eagle

  • Google executives Eric Schmidt, Jonathan Rosenberg, and Alan Eagle have written a new book called “Trillion Dollar Coach: The Leadership Playbook of Silicon Valley’s Bill Campbell.” 
  • In this excerpt, they share some of the best management lessons they learned from legendary business coach Bill Campbell, who mentored many of the most successful modern tech leaders before he passed away in 2016.
  • Campbell had a talent for really listening to people, watching body language, sensing mood shifts, and using empathy when delivering short, effective messages to employees.
  • In many ways, Campbell was like a sports coach, and he seemed to operate by tha mantra that if you get the team right, you’ll get the issue right.
  • 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 is a former senior vice president at Google and an advisor to the Alphabet management team, and Alan Eagle is a communications director at Google.
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Eric Schmidt was involved in a Google meeting, with some people attending in person in Mountain View, and some (including Eric) joining via video conference. They were discussing a few different issues, but they ran out of time and one of the issues didn’t get resolved. One person made a comment toward the end of the meeting, which Eric interpreted negatively. He felt sure, based on that one remark, that things weren’t going to go his way on the issue in question. The comment sat with him and festered for a full week, and by the time the group got back together Eric was gunning for battle. That is when he realized, though, that he had completely misunderstood the comment and, as a result, the entire situation. The crisis was inadvertent. A lack of communication and an apparent slight had dug a fissure that was completely false.

This is not an unusual story. It happens every day: The offhand comment, the quickly drafted email or text, and people careen off in emotional directions way out of whack with reality. This is when a coach can really come in handy. As Bill described it, his job as our coach was to “see little flaws in the organization that with a little massage we can make better. I listen, observe, and fill the communication and understanding gaps between people.” The coach can spot those fissures before they become deep and permanent, and act to fix them by filling in the information gaps and correcting any miscommunication.

Bill wasn’t involved in that meeting with Eric, but if he had been, Eric would have gone to him to test out his assumptions about the perceived slight. Bill would have corrected him — everyone was, in fact, aligned — and Eric would have been spared a lot of angst.

So, what would Bill do? First, he would listen and observe. This is the power of coaching in general: The ability to offer a different perspective, one unaffected by being “in the game.” (Patrick Pichette: “Bill saw all the chess pieces all the time, because he had the luxury of not being on the board.”) Bill sat in Eric’s weekly staff meetings, listening intently, watching the body language of attendees, sensing mood shifts.

Marissa Meyer on Bill’s power of observation

Marissa Mayer tells a story about Bill’s power of observation. She had started a new program at Google for people right out of college, computer science majors who were brought into the company as “associate product managers.”

One day Eric told her, “Marissa, you’ve hired all the smartest 23-year-olds on the planet. But they are driving everyone crazy. Either this becomes a home run or the whole thing blows up. Get them under control.”

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Marissa turned to Bill. Could he help? He agreed to attend one of their meetings, an evening session where the first class of APMs gave updates on their projects and what problems they were having. Marissa thought the meeting was a failure — it was so boring! Just a bunch of people giving status updates and griping.

Bill observed something different. After the meeting he took Marissa aside. They’re all getting stuck, he said, and you’re the wrong person to help them. You’ve been here since almost the beginning and know how to get things done, so you can’t relate to the problems they are having. Get someone who will help them figure out what the next step is. Create a forum where they can help each other. That will fix the problem.

And of course, he was right.

This is one example of the power of observation at work; listening, looking for patterns, assessing strengths and weaknesses.

As Lee C. Bollinger says, “Bill had the highest capacity to understand the people he was working with. He had an intuitive sense of people and what motivated them and how to move them forward.” He accomplished a lot of this by looking for tension, the smoke to a problem’s fire. In Eric’s staff meetings, for example, he’d sit in the room, usually not saying much, sensing when tension levels were rising and from where. Our staff meetings were generally open, transparent affairs where everyone was encouraged to share opinions and ideas, even on issues not directly related to their functions. Still, that goes only so far. People would simmer, and Bill would spot it.

Listening to more than words

This requires keen observation. Not just listening to the words, but noticing the body language and the side conversations. So many of the people we talked to commented on Bill’s ability to sense when people were frustrated. This is a natural skill, but one that can be developed. You have to listen and watch.

Jim Rudgers, who was on Bill’s coaching staff at Columbia, recalls Bill’s remarkable ability to see the entire field of 22 players as a play unfolded. Hold up a finger and look at it, Jim says. That’s how most of us watch football; the finger is the player with the ball. But Bill could see, recall, and assess the things that happen on the periphery as well.

He brought that skill to team meetings. He wouldn’t just see the speaker, he could see the entire field and gauge reactions and intents even with the people who remained silent, the ones without the ball.

bill campbell

Then he would talk to people. As Bill explained it one time at a Google management seminar, “I have a little more time than Larry does to do some of that stuff. I have a little more time than Sundar does to do some of that stuff, so, you know, I’ll say to Sundar, Do you want me to meet with so-and-so?  Sure. And here’s what I’m going to tell ’em. You okay with that? Yeah. Great. Perfect, and, you know, that helps a little bit in moving the thing along. Let’s get it moving.”

Rachel Whetstone recalls a time a decision didn’t go her way when she was running communications and policy for Google. She was in one of Eric’s staff meetings, where they were discussing an important issue that had been causing PR headaches. She had been pushing for a change for a while, and when she didn’t get the decision she wanted she was upset.

She felt they were making a mistake. Bill sought her out after the meeting. Listen, he told her, we decided not to make that change to that particular thing this time. I’m sorry and I know it’s tough, but you’re going to have to suck it up. Deal with the problem, okay?

Not much of a pep talk, right? His advice was “deal with it”! But sometimes that’s all it takes. An acknowledgment that things didn’t go your way, some empathy that it sucks, a reminder to buck up and soldier on for the team. These were the sort of messages that Bill delivered all the time. Short, timely, and highly effective.

And while the skill of observing tension is a challenging one to develop, this idea of going around and talking to people is not. It simply takes time, and the ability to communicate well with colleagues. Bill could have noted Rachel’s frustration and simply forgotten about it; it wasn’t his job to fix her problem. But instead he made the effort to have a conversation with her. To make that short, important connection.

It’s so easy to forget to have these little conversations in a busy day; Bill made it a priority. While none of this was underhanded or secretive, it all had a “behind the scenes” quality. Bill rarely talked about these little 1:1 conversations; he would simply take you aside and have a few quiet words. This was all by design, another difference between a sports coach — who’s out in front, leading the team, highly visible — and a business coach.

The essence of Bill was the essence of just about any sports coach: team first. All players, from stars to scrubs, must be ready to place the needs of the team above the needs of the individual. Given that commitment, teams can accomplish great things.

That’s why, when faced with an issue, his first question wasn’t about the issue itself, it was about the team tasked with tackling the issue. Get the team right and you’ll get the issue right.

Excerpted 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. To be published on April 16, 2019 by HarperBusiness, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers. Reprinted by permission.


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