Bill Campbell dies at 75, leaving Silicon Valley’s top leaders without their most trusted adviser.
VC Ben Horowitz onstage with his friend and mentor Bill Campbell (right). CREDIT: Getty Images
Most Silicon Valley titans are familiar figures. They make commencement speeches that rack up millions of views on YouTube, get profiled by business websites such as this one, and have irreverent movies made about their lives.
And then there was Bill Campbell, who died of cancer on Monday at 75. He was one of the most influential figures in Silicon Valley, yet was outside the norm in just about every way. Even though he was CEO of Intuit and was chairman of its board until his death, “Coach,” as everyone called him, could not write a line of code. He grew up in the Rust Belt of Pennsylvania and attended Columbia only because his father knew the football coach there and he wanted to play. He got a degree in education and headed into a career as a college football coach. But somewhere along the way he took a left turn and wound up at Apple (where, among other things, he kept the company from chickening out and canceling its famous “1984” Super Bowl ad).
He went on to become a VC, take on the top slot at Intuit, and eventually become a valued and trusted adviser to an impressive list of high-tech luminaries that includes Steve Jobs, Eric Schmidt, Larry Page, Jeff Bezos, and Ben Horowitz, among others.
His death is a sad, sad loss. But we can all still benefit from his wisdom.
1. Care about people more than anything.
Campbell cared deeply both about the people he coached and the employees at the companies he helped lead. In 2002, Ben Horowitz (now a legendary VC and co-founder of Andreessen Horowitz) made a deal with EDS to save LoudCloud, the web-hosting company he had co-founded. Though the deal kept the company alive, it meant a major restructuring and layoffs of a third of its employees. Horowitz was headed to New York City for a joint press conference with EDS, but Campbell advised against it. “Nobody in the company’s going to care about anything but where they stand. You have to deliver the news,” Campbell said, according to a Fortune interview with Horowitz. “Be there all day — help them carry their stuff to the car.”
Horowitz canceled his trip and wound up happy he did. “It allowed me to live and manage another day. That was the foundation for everything we did after that.”
In a moving tribute posted on Medium earlier today, Horowitz describes the depth of Campbell’s empathy when Horowitz’s eldest child, Jules, revealed he was transgender and would undergo hormone treatment and surgery. Tears welled up in Campbell’s eyes when he heard the news — and he immediately asked to see Jules so he could give him a hug and let him know he would always be there for him. “The worst thing about today is that I can’t call Bill. I miss him so much,” Horowitz writes.
2. Judge people by more than their metrics.
Silicon Valley is famously data-driven. But many times, executives “make their numbers” by making life harder for everyone around them. Campbell understood this, so he came up with a review system that evaluates people across four measures: their traditional metrics; their peer relationships; how well they develop the people who work for them; and how innovative they are.
3. Don’t separate the vision from the operations.
You need to really kill it at both, Campbell counseled. This is why many of the companies he advised — including Google and Apple — have no COO. Vision is very important, he believed — and so is operational excellence. In a structure with a CEO and COO, the CEO can get too distant from the real life within an organization, while the COO gets bypassed by executives who insist on reporting directly to the top.
4. Put a premium on innovation.
Top executives who’ve been coached by Campbell report that he was always seeking to increase R&D budgets. At his suggestion, Intuit gave its engineers four hours of unstructured time every week — and wound up with some new products. Though he had no technological chops himself, many who knew him report that Campbell set a very high value on software engineers and their ability to come up with wonderful innovations when given the freedom and resources to do so.
5. Be completely trustworthy.
One reason so many top executives looked to Campbell for mentoring is that they knew they could trust him completely with anything they told him. Thus, he was able to serve for years on the boards of archrivals Apple and Google with no conflict-of-interest issues (although there was some yelling from Jobs).
6. Give away credit.
Campbell tended to stay out of the spotlight. You won’t find many videos of him on YouTube — which is ironic since one of his roles at Google was to counsel YouTube’s top executives. But he never wanted to accept praise for the accomplishments of anyone he mentored.
“People (many in the press) want to credit others for aiding the CEO/founder in these decisions. This result is totally unfair,” he told Fortune reporter Jennifer Reingold by email — as an explanation for his refusal to be interviewed.
7. Be yourself.
In further defiance of Silicon Valley norms, Campbell operated most often not from a shiny office but from a table (with a plaque reading “Coach’s Corner”) in the Old Pro sports bar in Palo Alto. Campbell was an investor in the bar, and often gave advice to high-flying tech executives there. He was fond of both hugs and profanity and apparently handed out plenty of both.
People loved him for it. He was living proof that you can be exactly who you are, live the way you want to live, and still do really, really well. And leave the world a better place for having been here.