Mentors Are Good. Coaches Are Better.

Adam Grant
Organizational psychologist at Wharton; Author: GIVE AND TAKE, ORIGINALS, OPTION B; Podcast: WorkLife; NYT writer


Nearly a decade ago, I read a story in Fortune about Silicon Valley’s best kept secret. It wasn’t a piece of hardware or a bit of software. It wasn’t even a product. It was a man. His name was Bill Campbell, and he wasn’t a hacker. He was a football coach turned sales guy. Yet somehow, Bill had become so influential that he went on a weekly Sunday walk with Steve Jobs and the Google founders said they wouldn’t have made it without him.

Bill’s name sounded familiar, but I couldn’t place it. Eventually it hit me: I recognized him from a case I had taught a few times on a management dilemma at Apple in the mid-1980s, when a brave, bright young manager named Donna Dubinsky challenged a distribution plan from Steve Jobs himself. Bill Campbell was Donna’s boss’s boss, and he dished out exactly the kind of tough love you’d expect from a football coach: he tore her proposal apart, pushed her to come up with something stronger, and then stood up for her. I hadn’t heard of him since—the next few decades of his career were a mystery.

The story gave me a clue about why: Bill loved shining the spotlight on others but preferred to stay in the shadows himself. I was writing a book on how helping others can drive our success, and it dawned on me that he would be a fascinating character to profile. But how do you profile someone who shuns public attention?

I started by cobbling together everything I could find about him online. I learned that what Bill lacked in physical strength he made up in heart. He was the MVP of his high school football team despite standing 5’10” and weighing 165 pounds. When the track coach was short on hurdlers, Bill volunteered. Since he couldn’t jump high enough to clear the hurdles, he just ran right through them, bruising himself all the way to the regional championships. In college he played football at Columbia, where he was elected captain, and went on to become the head coach there, struggling through six straight losing seasons. His Achilles heel? He cared too much about his players. He was reluctant to bench walk-ons who gave it their all and refused to ask his stars to put sports above school. He was there to make his players successful in life, not on the field. He was more interested in their well-being than in winning.

When Bill decided to transition to business, it was his old football teammates who opened the door. They were convinced that his weakness in a zero-sum sport could be a strength in many companies. Sure enough, Bill ended up excelling as an executive at Apple and as the CEO of Intuit. Every time I talked to someone in Silicon Valley who had a reputation for unusual generosity, they told me the same thing: it was Bill Campbell who gave them their worldview. Not wanting to bother Bill himself, I started reaching out to his mentees. Soon I had a flurry of calls with Bill’s protégés, who described him as a father and compared him to Oprah. The calls usually ended with me scribbling down a dozen new names of people whose lives Bill had changed. One of those names was Jonathan Rosenberg.

When I got in touch with Jonathan in 2012, he took the liberty of copying Bill himself on the email thread. Bill declined to be featured, closing the door on that chapter of my book—and on my quest to find out how he had done so much good for others while doing great for himself as well. Ever since, I’ve wondered how he flourished as a giver in a field that supposedly rewards takers, and what we could learn from him about leadership and management.

I’m delighted to say that at long last, thanks to Trillion Dollar Coach, I have my answers. The book reveals that 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.


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