This is the first of a two-part interview. It has been edited and condensed.
Bill Campbell is the most important executive you’ve probably never heard of. His official biography is impressive: chairman of Intuit, president of Go Corp., founder and CEO of Claris Corp., former Apple executive and its longest-serving board member. But it’s what he does on the side that has made an even bigger impact.
The former Columbia University football coach is an executive adviser to some of the biggest names in technology, from Steve Jobs and Jeff Bezos to Google’s Eric Schmidt and Larry Page. He’s also worked with Ben Horowitz and Marc Andreessen, who went on to found one of the country’s top venture capital firms, Andreessen Horowitz.
Campbell typically declines to be interviewed, saying that the CEOs he advises make the decisions and deserve the credit. But in a rare talk with OZY, he shared a wide-ranging look at his ideas and approaches, some of them controversial. “You’re going to get me into a fist fight with everyone in the Valley,” he said with a laugh at one point.
Campbell is energetic and vibrant, like Rocky Balboa’s corner man.
In person, Campbell is energetic and vibrant, like Rocky Balboa’s corner man. After all, the guy grew up in Pennsylvania steel country and coached a college football team.
We’d only met once before, but he gave me a big hug as I walked in. Ever the great coach, he talked about what can be taught and what can’t, why it’s necessary to value creative talent, and why the old-school sales process is just plain wrong.
On Becoming an Executive Coach
Ironically, considering his football background, Campbell became an executive coach almost by chance. His first client was Amazon’s Jeff Bezos. As Campbell tells it, Bezos was preparing to return from paternity leave and there were discussions about the right role for him — he was certainly creative, but did he have the operational chops to run the growing company? A few members of Amazon’s board, who were also his friends and colleagues, invited Campbell to join them for a visit to Seattle.
I wasn’t sure that I was going to do this long term at that point, that it would turn into something that l really enjoy. But l really wanted to give back, because so many people gave so much to me in the Silicon Valley. I care deeply about wanting to do stuff for people.
The board thought Jeff was one of the brains, a creative guy, and that he needed operational help. Long story short, l went up there and worked with them for … l would guess about six weeks. I spent a lot of time with Jeff, we talked a lot, and l just thought that Jeff is a genius. I feel like people immediately assume that if you’re Bezos or Steve Jobs, that if you’re creative, you’re not operational. But I think these people care even more about the outcome.… Jeff ultimately took over all the operations.
While Campbell is a big proponent of creative talent, particularly in engineers, he insists that leaders have fundamental operational skills, whether it’s understanding a manufacturing process or basics like hiring and running good meetings.
Brilliance can’t be taught, but the operational stuff can be. Do you have operational instincts? Who cares? If you work with me for six months, I can give you enough prowess and process to be able to go run something, and really do something with it.
These 20-somethings turn into 30-somethings and then into late 30-somethings, and they land in positions of major influence. And sometimes they haven’t been beaten up enough to know what they don’t know. Some of these guys get to a point where they think that that brilliance is going to carry them without the process. But guys like Steve [Jobs] learned that they had to be both — run a great staff meeting, hire great people, and put them in right positions. They had to understand the manufacturer, the supply chain, the retail element. It’s not just brilliance, but a lot of other stuff. Good people have both sides, but that’s unique. Steve was one of them.
He made himself an operating guy. I don’t think anything went on at Apple, at any level, that he didn’t know about, wasn’t familiar with, or trying to make better if he didn’t think it was good. It was just amazing how he cared. [Jobs’ widow, Laurene Powell Jobs, is an investor in OZY.]
I had [CEO of a large media company] here yesterday. The two of us sat and he just picked my brain for 90 minutes. He’s struggling a little bit with making sure the existing product continues to sell, and also how to improve. All the people there want to work on the next big thing, so how you do that? How do you allocate people? How do you get people to sign up? Those are the right things to talk about. That operating shit — believe me, I fucked it up so many times [laughter]. I’m an old guy; I’ve made many mistakes.
Who’s the Next Star Executive?
Who else is a good leader? Campbell ticked off a number of names, including Mike McCue at Flipboard, Twitter’s Dick Costolo, Apple’s Sheila Kilbride, Danny Shader of PayNearMe, Justin Kitch at Curious.com and Chegg’s Dan Rosensweig. [Rosensweig is an investor in OZY.] One of the best executives he knows is actually venture capitalist Ben Horowitz of Andreessen Horowitz.
Another guy who can do both [operations and creative] is Ben Horowitz. He’s got this computer science brilliance; he thinks deeply about products, etc. But he’s a really good manager. Just look at Ben’s blog — he has some fantastic posts. They’re all instructive. He’s one of these guys that says being a CEO doesn’t come naturally; you’ve got to work at it. He’s doing a book right now that I think will be the hottest seller in the Valley.
Are Entrepreneurs Born or Made?
Campbell has a different take on the question of whether being an entreprenuer is innate or something you learn. To him, everyone is an entrepreneur.
People like Mark Zuckerberg, they see an application of science that hasn’t been done before, and they run with it. They’re founders. They’re product creators. I’m an entrepreneur just like they are, but I’m a different entrepreneur. So, I’m an entrepreneur, you’re an entrepreneur, we’re just at different stages. I don’t think anybody in the world would say, “I’m not an entrepreneur.”
Great Sales People
Do great sales people have something in common? Yes they do, says Campbell, who ran sales at Apple. But it’s not what you think.
You’re going to get me at fistfight with everybody in the Valley talking about this. I am a big bully about that [classic] sales process where you’re the CEO and I want you to buy something, so I take you to the strip club or go for drinks or buy your wife a gold chain.
People think these guys, they’re killers, they’re machines, they know how to do this stuff. They make sales this mysterious process. The jet pilot swoops in, bombs everybody up and down, and then everyone else is ready to go and clean up. I don’t believe it.
People think these guys, they’re killers, they’re machines, they know how to do this stuff. They make sales this mysterious process.
I want to come in there with a quantitative process and say, “Let me tell you what our stuff does and let me tell you based on our work what this can do for you in terms of your productivity.” Every company I work with today, I tell them to hire investment banking or consultant types to be salespeople.
The fact is, if someone did all her homework, she could go in there and sit down with somebody and explain how our product was better than the others. I want somebody inside who is sitting at their computer doing all that analysis, and then they put that on a piece of paper or a computer screen and ship it to a guy that’s out on the field: Here’s what you’ve got, and here’s what we can do for you.
So that’s my view of sales. About 90 percent of Silicon Valley will shoot me for this speech.
Tomorrow: Silicon Valley then and now, how Apple’s stores came to be, and the importance of appreciating creative types.
Why you should care
From Steve Jobs to Jeff Bezos, Bill Campbell has coached some of the top executives of our time. What he shared with OZY will up your game, whether you’re the CEO or just starting out.