Product Culture Marty Cagan

The Greatest Coach

I talk a lot about product culture and how important it is, but one inconvenient fact has always bothered me, which is that my favorite product companies – for example, Google, Apple and Amazon – all have such different cultures.

I came to realize that the conventional notions of culture don’t really capture what’s important to having an environment that nurtures great products.

And then, about a year ago, I realized that there was something very significant in common between so many of the companies I consider consistently strong in product.

The founders – in particular, Steve Jobs of Apple, Larry and Sergey of Google, and Jeff Bezos of Amazon – during their company’s formative years, were all coached by the same person, Bill Campbell (known as “The Coach of Silicon Valley”).

Most people outside of Silicon Valley weren’t aware of this, and that’s largely because Bill did everything he could to avoid being in the limelight.  He wanted the attention to be on the people he was coaching.

In fact, I tried to write about him back in 2007, but he asked me not to publish.  It turns out I wasn’t the only one he turned down (he was ok with me quoting him in the resulting article The Role of the CEO).

To be clear, I was never fortunate enough to be one of the people he coached.  I truly wish I was.  But I met him several times because I was lucky enough to work for people that he coached.

Bill passed away a couple years ago.  I’m still learning of others that he coached.  Just recently, two of the people he coached – Eric Schmidt, the former CEO of Google, and Jonathan Rosenberg, the former SVP Product of Google – interviewed many of the other people he coached, and put together a book of his leadership principles called Trillion Dollar Coach.

I just finished reading this book, and am truly grateful that these guys made the effort to create and publish this book, and share his principles.

I consider this the single best book for those responsible for managing people in the technology industry – especially if you manage product managers – and I strongly encourage you to read it.

It’s always hard for me to describe Bill because his personality was such a big part of the impact he made.  But I think this book does a remarkably good job.

But to give you a sense, here’s one of my all-time favorite Bill Campbell quotes (this one is not in the book):

“Leadership is about recognizing that there’s a greatness in everyone, and your job is to create an environment where that greatness can emerge.”

Another couple great quotes which are in the book:

“The path to success in a fast-moving, highly competitive, technology-driven business world is to form high-performing teams and give them the resources and freedom to do great things.”

“The purpose of a company is to bring a product vision to life.  All the other components are in service to product.”

Now don’t misinterpret this last one – he’s not saying that the whole company is in service to product management – but I would say that these quotes give you a good sense of what he believed, and more importantly, help to capture what it is the people he coached came to believe, and worked so hard to achieve in their own companies in their own ways.

I would argue that even though Apple, Amazon and Google have very different cultures, they all understand the essential role of product, and they all understand that empowering product teams to do great work is the key.

Hopefully after reading this book you’ll also have a better sense of why I’ve been so focused this past year on helping product leaders become better coaches:

“Coaching is no longer a specialty; you cannot be a good manager without being a good coach.”

While I loved reading this book, it was also personally humbling for me.  I’ve been doing product for so long, it’s hard for me to remember what things I learned from others and what things I figured out for myself.  But hearing so many of the points I feel most strongly about emphasized in this book, it made me realize that I owe much more to Bill Campbell than I knew.  It’s clear to me now that these points were drilled into me from those that he coached, that then went on to coach me.  But I think that fact would make The Coach especially happy.

One last point that really resonated with me personally:

“Bill would say that he had a different way of measuring his impact, his own kind of yardstick.  I look at all the people who’ve worked for me or who I’ve helped in some way, he would say, and I count up how many are great leaders now. That’s how I measure success.”

I’m often asked why I’m still coaching product people after so many years (and make no mistake, I don’t consider myself even in the same league as Bill Campbell), but I do feel a similar pride when the people I’ve spent time teaching or coaching go on to create great teams and great products.