Becoming a Better Coach: Some Lessons from The Trillion Dollar Coach

by Jamie Flinchbaugh on 07-02-20

I recently read the book The Trillion Dollar Coach: The Leadership Playbook of Silicon Valley’s Bill Campbell. Besides the fact that he was a coach to Steve Jobs, Eric Schmidt and others of such stature (hence the title), I loved that (a) he connected his sports coaching with his business coaching, (b) I knew people who he had coached, and (c) his roots in Pennsylvania. I never met Bill, but I felt a kindred spirit and enjoyed the stories about him. 

As someone who does a lot of coaching myself, I read the book looking for lessons on how I can become a better coach, an area I’m always trying to improve. Much of the book seems to come down to attributing his success to his personality. That’s of course hard to emulate, and one really shouldn’t try. Some traits I do share with, but others I’m not even close. But I will share some lessons that come out of the book that mostly reinforces how I approach my coaching, but hopefully can help me build on my strengths (which is often the advice I give others). 


The lesson: Coaching is about others

Some quotes from the book: 

  • Bill loved shining the spotlight on others but preferred to stay in the shadows himself.
  • To be a great manager, you have to be a great coach. After all, the higher you climb, the more your success depends on making other people successful. By definition, that’s what coaches do.
  • That’s one thing I learned from Bill: be the person who gives energy, not one who takes it away.
  • As Deb Biondolillo says, Bill was “the shadow behind you. You hear him, but you are the one in front. He could be less confined, more genuine if he was in the background.”
  • And the essence of Bill was the essence of just about any sports coach: team first.
  • If you’ve been blessed, be a blessing.

Jamie’s take: 

Coaching means that you’ve made a commitment to the other person’s success. You achieve fulfillment seeing what they’ve done with your coaching. You want them to appropriate your advice without attribution because otherwise, you would be diminishing their success. As a soccer coach, I always tried to stay out of victory photos – the team won the tournament. It’s important to understand that this is not about humility. Humility is great, and when learning, I adopt that principle. But I also have a healthy ego. So did Bill Campbell. Being in the background and enabling others isn’t about humility. It’s about understanding what your product really is meant to be. I’ve said for a long time that my product is people. Their success is my win. 

I think there is another, more subtle, aspect to this. Maybe it’s about confidence or ego, but I believe the best coaches are heavily indexed to be their own judges of success. That means they aren’t looking for external validation that they were good or effective. They know, and that’s all that matters. That’s why they are able to stay so focused on other people’s success. Coaching is about others. 



The lesson: Coaching is a contact sport 

Some quotes from the book: 

  • Whereas mentors dole out words of wisdom, coaches roll up their sleeves and get their hands dirty. They don’t just believe in our potential; they get in the arena to help us realize our potential. They hold up a mirror so we can see our blind spots and they hold us accountable for working through our sore spots. They take responsibility for making us better without taking credit for our accomplishments.
  • Bill’s listening was usually accompanied by a lot of questions, a Socratic approach. A 2016 Harvard Business Review article notes that this approach of asking questions is essential to being a great listener: “People perceive the best listeners to be those who periodically ask questions that promote discovery and insight.”

Jamie’s take: 

Coaching is about more than a conversation, it’s about a process. You are entwined with the person you are coaching. When I would teach coaching, I would always ask at the beginning of the lesson “how many of you think you do coaching?” Almost all hands would go up, usually mostly managers and executives. But what they thought they were coaching, they mostly meant what the first quote says: doling out words of wisdom. That’s great if you do it effectively, but that is teaching. Coaching is about creating learning experiences, enabling self-discovering, allowing the other person to still own their lessons and conclusions. You are the guide. You might be an active guide, and even sometimes a heavy-handed guide, but you are far more engaged with someone than dropping pearls of your well-earned wisdom. Coaching is a contact sport.



The lesson: Effective coaching depends on trust 

Some quotes from the book: 

  • It almost didn’t matter what the debate was about; it was something that Bill felt passionate about, and John decided to bet on Bill. He trusted him.
  • For Bill, trust was always first and foremost; it was sort of his superpower. He was great at establishing it, and once established, he was great at honoring it.
  • Trust means loyalty….integrity…discretion. 
  • Dean Gilbert, a former executive at Google and @Home, and an accomplished management coach in his own right, notes that “Bill would build an envelope of trust very quickly. It was a natural thing for him, this ability to build rapport, a sense of comfort and protection. It’s the cornerstone of any coaching in business.”
  • Don’t worry, he said, we have the right team in place. They are working the problem.

Jamie’s take: 

Trust is vital. I’ve recently written about the 4Cs of Trust, which is meant on a broader leadership and organizational perspective. But if you apply those 4Cs of Trust to coaching, consider its impacts. The coachee must believe that the coach cares about them. There must be open and honest Communication. The coachee must believe that the coach is Competent. And you must be Consistent over the relationship, as the coachee is often relying on the coach. 

Trust must be established between the coach and the coachee early and often. I can’t be an effective coach if you don’t share with me real information. We can’t get to root cause unless you’re willing to be transparent. You don’t execute the things I ask you to do (for the purpose of your self-discovery) if you don’t trust me. Effective coaching depends on trust.