TDC Final Installment – #3

This is the third and last post in a series about Bill Campbell and the book Trillion Dollar Coach written by Eric Schmidt, Jonathan Rosenberg, and Alan Eagle. Here are links to post1 and post2. In this post, I’ve tried to provide a handful of actionable takeaways on a few topics in hopes they may help you in your own leadership evolution. Like all coaching of this nature, the underlying concepts can be modified and applied to many situations.

As an aside, one of the things I have wrestled with (and lived through) personally is that in many smaller / growth oriented businesses you have to be both a doer and a leader. In other words, a player coach, sometimes heavily slanted toward player. This is not a simple situation as you have to balance these roles. Even CEOs of larger companies do not spend all of their time coaching. The conclusion is probably obvious – that is normal, and it’s ok. It simply means you have to think before your next interaction – what role and frame of mind should I be in for this conversation or interaction?

The CEO & Board Meetings

Bill worked a great deal with CEOs. While you may not be a CEO, these concepts can be modified for use in any situation of reporting out and communicating up in an organization. For CEOs, an important part of their role is working effectively with their Board. And it takes effort and thought to do it well, which I can tell you does not always happen. I have been in a lot of private company board meetings, and to be honest, many of them have been at best not as productive as they could be, and at worst completely dysfunctional. Here, I will focus on Bill’s perspective of the CEO’s role. A perspective I agree with.

Bill believed the CEO should manage board meetings. Ops, financial updates and other details must go out ahead of time, and the board must be given enough time to review them in advance. At the meeting, the CEO should assume the Board has reviewed the materials. I cannot tell you how many board meetings I have attended where the materials come out late / too close to the meeting, and / or sat through meetings in which the team just regurgitates what I and others have already reviewed. So get your team organized to get your materials out on time, assume your board has read them, and deliver the highlights that matter in the meeting.

For Bill, the agenda always started with a frank and open ops update. Succinctly, how is the company performing? What are the highlights and the lowlights? Your board needs to know how the company is doing. What is it doing well, and what is it not doing well? Interestingly, according to the book, he never sent the highlights section out in advance – or the board would obsess about the lowlights. I would add, that if there is a critical issue, problem, or crisis, the board meeting is NOT the time for the board to find out. You should strive to live by “good news travels fast, and bad news travels faster.” Other agenda items for Bill include financial and sales reports, product status updates and some key metrics around operational rigor (hiring, communications, marketing, etc.). Your actual agenda items will obviously be company specific.

Avoid Consensus, Facilitate Decisions, Focus on Immutable Truths

The book also spends a fair amount of real estate discussing Campbell’s philosophy on a manager’s role in decision making in an organization. In other posts I have explored some of Bill’s other fundamental maxims on a manger’s role, but here is a brief summary of an additional critical role – facilitating decision making and running decision making processes.

Campbell believed the best idea or the best solution was always the goal. Not consensus. In fact he hated consensus. As a leader, you must strive to ensure all perspectives are heard and considered, but that does not imply consensus. Debate is fine, but be careful about disagreements, particularly if they bleed into personal jabs. In business, there is always indecision, lack of clarity, and rarely a perfect answer. Bill drove his teams to focus on first principles, on immutable truths that are the foundation of the company, or of the product or service. If you keep bringing a decision making process back to focus through that lens, decisions are often easier. He also made sure to prioritize the right thing for the business. Every time – for the business, not an individual.

Get your 1:1s & Staff Meetings Right

As mentioned in a previous post, Bill often said that one of a leader’s key responsibilities was to try to ensure everyone was on the same page. Minor differences about what happened in a meeting, what next steps should be, or minor misunderstandings around goals and objectives can set an organization adrift toward muted progress or possibly disaster. So a big part of your 1:1s and your staff meetings is to ferret this out. Listen carefully to what is being said in response to questions, and try to make sure all are leaving on the same page. And then reinforce it. Over and over.

In 1:1s, he had a formula:

  • “Not so small talk” – he took an interest in, and cared about people and their lives. This matters to people.
  • Performance on Job Requirements – What is the person working on? Is there a crisis? How is it going? Can you help? Obviously, person, role and function specific, but you get the idea.
  • Peer-To-Peer Relationships – Campbell believed peer-to-peer relations were more important oftentimes than those above you. If you are not on the same page about priorities, can’t leverage cross-functional help via understanding their needs and priorities and do not have a personal relationship, you will be less effective and successful. And so will the team. As an aside, I have often asked executives “who among your functional peers do you talk with least?” and then ask them to spend time with that person proactively before the next meeting.
  • Managing & Leading Teams – Next, Campbell would check in on the team. Was direction being set clearly and reinforced constantly? Who needs course correction or guidance to make them better? Are your direct reports guiding / coaching their teams? Are they weeding out poor performers and bad apples? Are they hiring well?
  • Innovation – Bill tried to make sur teams made room for innovation. It can often slip as it tends to have a longer duration than the current crisis, but functional innovation helps organizations get better.

Finally, in his coaching sessions he was also fluid. He would sometimes walk in with a list of 5 topics and would ask the other party to do the same. The lists could be compared or merged. Or sometimes he might not even bring his out if it was clear the required coaching needed to focus on the executive’s list.

I would like to close this series with a thank you to the authors Eric Schmidt, Jonathan Rosenberg, and Alan Eagle. Additionally a thank you to Ben Horowitz who in various writings and at various times has discussed Campbell and his impact on his development and career. Someone like Bill Campbell often flies under the radar of a narrative about a successful company or executive, but leadership and coaching are roles that very few take to naturally. While we each develop our own style, there is a lot to be learned from Bill Campbell, and without this book, much of his wisdom would not be widely available. In the end, Bill cared about people and about teams. If we all just did a little more of that, I am convinced our lives would be richer in many ways.