For the longest time, the best kept secret of Silicon Valley wasn’t a software or an incubator. It was a vivacious football coach turned sales guy called Bill Campbell. He went on weekly walks with Steve Jobs and the founders of Google said they wouldn’t have made it without him. Such was the level of trust he inspired that both Google and Apple took Bill’s counsel when they were going through the bitter dispute over some features of the Android operating system.
Bill didn’t write a line of code or contribute to any product discussions. That’s why it is a mystery how a non-technical football coach with a very average on-field track record transformed Silicon Valley and built companies that are collectively valued over trillion dollars.
In 2016, when Bill succumbed to cancer, Mark Zuckerberg, Larry Page, Sergey Brin, Jeff Bezos and all major Silicon Valley stalwarts attended his funeral. He wasn’t just respected, he was loved by everyone he ever worked with. He wasn’t their mentor, he was their coach.
Bill inspired people to do great work, have a team-first approach and be their best every single day. People trusted him in good times and bad. When serial entrepreneur and investor, Ben Horowitz had to fire an industry veteran, he reached out to Bill for advice. Bill said, “You can’t let him keep his job, but you absolutely can let him keep his respect.”
While mentors are essential for career growth, their role is restricted to sharing insights and ideas. They help us think things through but aren’t really involved in implementing ideas. Coaches, on the other hand, roll up their sleeves and get their hands dirty. They empower us to see our blind spots, hold us accountable and take responsibility for making us better without taking credit for our accomplishments.
Let us understand how coaching came into sports and eventually permeated to all forms of management practice. In 1875, Harvard and Yale played one of the very first football games. Yale hired a head coach; Harvard did not. The results? Over the next three decades, Harvard won just four times. Then Harvard hired a coach and the Yale-Harvard rivalry suddenly got more interesting. Many players from these sports teams went on to build successful careers in management and could trace their leadership development to early exposure to coaching.
Thanks to our innumerable biases and blind spots, we tend to be terrible judges of our growth and development. While we may get things right in broad strokes, we tend to ignore the micro elements that collectively compound to macro changes. Overnight progress is a myth and coaches help us realize that quickly.
If we want to master any skill, we need a coach. While we may not be lucky enough to have Bill Campbell in flesh and blood, we do have his principles. My favourite “Billism” is always build communities. Everyone has something to learn and something to share. Being part of and adding value to our communities is the most effective way to learn and find someone to learn with.
As part of the Network Capital learning community, we recently piloted peer coaches. These are fellow community members who help their peers with the power of objective feedback. It is entirely voluntary, but the initial results have been promising. In addition to tangible improvements in skills, the community effect serves as a huge force multiplier. Our members push each other to achieve more because they know that there is someone in the same community looking out for them.
In modern workplaces, managers should ideally serve as coaches. Their job is not to police progress and give performance rankings but to work with their direct reports to be their best. They need to create psychological safety within their team so that the team moves together with the right attitude, commitment and skills. This is of course easier said than done. That’s why Bill Campbell always said, “Only coach the coachable.”
Millennial Matters discusses the skills needed to survive and find meaning in the workplace of tomorrow.
Utkarsh Amitabh is founder of Network Capital, a global peer mentoring community and a WEF Global Shaper.