Trillion Dollar Coach - Eric Schmidt, Jonathan Rosenberg and Alan Eagle

This is partly a follow-up to How Google Works by the same authors, and partly a paean to the late Bill Campbill. Well, really, it's mostly the latter. Mildly internally hyped at Google with a talk, I thought it interesting enough to buy a copy.

On the former subject, How Google Works mostly focused on the individuals - the "smart creatives". This book fills that out with discussions of teamwork. In particular, it glosses over/builds on Project Aristotle. However, rather than try to build on the research there, it really just tries to tie back Bill Campbell's intuitive approach to this, when they happen to match up.

Really, though, the book is about Bill Campbell. He was hugely influential across big chunks of Silicon Valley (in a kind of hidden power kind of way), and his main contribution at Google was to act as a team coach - he would coach the executives, but in such a way as to make them work as a team and be effective as a group - he would ensure that any inter-personal problems would not simmer.

I find it amusing that we have this high-tech organisation fully of really bright people, and there's this person who's all about the feelings and stuff, and being all Deanna Troi in Star Trek: The Next Generation, except it's an ex American football coach whose main techniques appear to be giving people bear hugs and telling them to pull their head out of their ass. I would love to see TNG redone with Troi replaced with Campbell.

Aaaanyway, it does sound like Bill Campbell was exceptionally gifted as a person who could make executives work together as a team and bring out the best in people. There are a few hundred executives for whom reminsicing about Bill is enough. For most of the readers, though, there's a question of "are there lessons to be learned here that can make me better at leading?", and it's really not clear to me.

Before his life at Google and generally coaching in Silicon Valley, he was CEO at Intuit, and before that an exec at Apple back in the early days (and before that, an American football coach). So, he had a deep background in tech coming from the sales and marketing angle. His coaching seems to have been coupled to his networking, so he had the power to make or break careers (did he identify talent or did his blessing create the success?).

What of the advice? There are general platitudes about treating people as people, supporting them, coaching, being there for them, practising radical candour, etc. There's also some pleasantly specific ideas sprinkled through - how to pair leaders to work on a problem to build up a leadership team, how to do peer feedback surveys, how to run effective 1-1s, etc.

Some other parts are more "Why we liked Bill", and don't say anything useful, or are contradictory. Bill apparently had no time for bullshitters, but at the same time had unwavering faith in Steve Jobs, for whom the phrase "reality distortion field" was created. Bill was very generous, but also very, very rich, which makes generousity a lot easier. Part of the book talks about trusting people and helping them grow, but then there was an example of letting someone go because, in an area that had been growing rapidly, they had demonstrated their ability and said they wanted more responsibility, and Bill's view was not to give it. Apparently it was a "team first" decision, but never really explained.

I think this is where the limits of the book lie, and it's a huge limitation - it's easy to talk about keeping positive and supporting people, but sometimes businesses fail, and sometimes people problems can't be solved with more trust. The book fails miserably to cover genuinely difficult cases with anything like nuance that would provide meaningful insight.

The book touches on Bill's belief in "operational excellence" from time to time - you can't just coach people and bring them together, you also actually have to Deliver Stuff and make the business happen. The trade-offs here aren't clear either. As Intuit CEO there was a quarter where it looked like they weren't going to make their numbers. The board were ok with this, as various things were going on which explained the situation. Bill drove to hit the numbers anyway - deeming this important operationally. What were the costs in human terms of this decision? Not discussed by this book.

This is, in other words, a cheerleading book that lacks substance. Rather ironic, given the subject matter is a person who, from what everyone says in the book, backed up his people skills with real leadership strength.

It's also not clear to me who this book is for. Or rather, it seems to me clear who it's for, and that's going to be a much smaller number of people than copies of the book that'll be sold. To give you an idea, it's got a section on how to run board meetings. It's pretty much written for C-suite execs of silicon valley companies, people who probably knew Bill in the first place.

Posted 2019-06-10.