When Steve Jobs was fired in 1987, Bill Campbell was one of the only Apple executives who stood up for him. When Jobs returned a decade later, he appointed Campbell to Apple’s board, where Campbell served until he died of cancer in 2016. Prior to Jobs’ own passing in 2011, the two shared a weekly walk together to discuss Apple's strategy.
An accomplished football coach and executive, Campbell was recruited by Google investor John Doerr to coach the founders and executive team of Google from its earliest days. Three senior Google executives, including former CEO and Chairman Eric Schmidt, published a book about Campbell last year, Trillion Dollar Coach, to share his lessons and honour him.
Coach Campbell positively impacted countless American technology companies. For example, Campbell referred Doerr a small startup called Amazon in 1995, then seeking angel investment. After the Dot Com bust, Amazon’s board was contemplating replacing CEO Jeff Bezos, and Campbell was called to evaluate the situation, ultimately recommending Bezos stay in place.
The instrumental roles he held at Apple and Google, and informal advice he provided to Amazon, contributed to the development of three of the first trillion dollar market cap companies.
On advice from software entrepreneur Norm Francis (CEO.CA Mentors Podcast Ep 1), who had a personal relationship with Campbell, I downloaded a copy of Trillion Dollar Coach and listened to the audiobook this week. I found it an exceptional book about business leadership and team building.
“Bill on Boards” from Chapter 2 was especially relevant to the startup execs and investors who frequent CEO.CA.
Coach Bill Campbell on Better Boards of Directors
“The CEO manages the board and board meetings, not the other way around.”
Campbell favored operators as board members. “Smart people, with good business expertise, who care deeply about the Company and are genuinely interested in helping and supporting the CEO.”
His definition of a bad board member: “Someone who walks in and wants to be the smartest guy in the room and talks too much.”
“Board meetings fail when the CEO doesn’t own and follow her agenda. That agenda should always start with operational updates. The board needs to know how the company is doing. That includes financial and sales reports, product status and metrics around operational rigor, hiring, communications, marketing, support.”
Board committees, such as finance, audit or compensation, should conference ahead of time, and present updates at the board meeting.
“The first order of business always needs to be a frank, open, succinct discussion of how the company is performing… If you throw a full set of financial reports up on the screen in a board meeting they will want to talk about it forever, and you end up getting bogged down in operational details that probably don’t need the board’s attention. Send out financial and other operational details ahead of time, and expect board members to review them and come with questions.”
“Board members who don’t do their homework shouldn’t stick around.”
The board should see the bad news with the good. “Determining low-lights is an important task, to be handled by those running the business.”
“We would not include the highlights and lowlights in the packet of information we sent to board members ahead of the meeting. If you do that, they will spend too much time obsessing about the low lights and will want to start the meeting there.”
Boards should back their CEOs when in disagreement, if the CEO is trusted and passionate about their position.