Sadness: Remembering Bill Campbell

Bill Campbell’s remarkable impact as a coach, CEO, and mentor will get a lot of attention in the coming days, as well it should. He was an extraordinary person who gave generously of his time, energy, and insights to help other people grow and develop. In the process he had a massive impact on the technology industry and particularly on the way technology companies are built. As an Adjunct Associate Professor at Columbia Business School, I was fortunate to work with Bill in a very special setting – the classroom.

From approximately 2004 to 2009, Bill Campbell was a regular guest in the Venture Capital Seminar that Stuart Ellman and I teach at Columbia. During this time he was in tremendously high demand as he served as Chairman of Columbia University, as an advisor to Google’s management and board, and as a Director of both Intuit and Apple, all while mentoring a number of CEOs.

In spite of these commitments, every year Bill would make time for us. Talking about human capital and the development of high performance teams has always been a core part of our course and I think that’s what kept Bill coming back.   Every year we would hold a closed-door session with just our students and Bill. The sessions were never announced publicly and we kept everything off the record – no tweets, no posts – so that Bill would feel comfortable talking openly about the companies and CEOs he was close to.

And talk he did, telling stories from the early days at Google and recalling tough moments as CEO of Intuit. We dug deeply into topics like hiring, performance reviews, and firing, and even how to do a layoff. We talked about the role of founders and some of the challenges faced by founder CEOs in dealing with investors. We talked about values and how to build an organization around them. Some years we were joined by former Intuit executive Bill Strauss and longtime Intuit Board Member, Chris Brody, who had both worked with Bill for years. They would get him going on a particular memory and Bill would go off. The students loved it. And as a young partner in the venture capital industry, I loved it. Bill taught me a great deal about how to be a good investor and board member. Eventually the university found out about these sessions and wanted to film them. We knew that many of Bill’s stories could never be made public. We dodged them for a few more years and then Bill made it clear that he had to step back.

Bill possessed a deep, powerful humanity that one doesn’t encounter very often. I don’t know whether it was a product of his modest upbringing in western Pennsylvania or his passion for football and coaching, but he knew how to connect with every sort of person. He had vast reserves of energy, and compassion and he was fiercely loyal. No matter how long he had been away, he always greeted you with a big hug and a slap on the back – a not so subtle reminder that he was counting on you to do your best. When I was moderating these sessions with Bill, I sometimes found myself on the receiving end of a sharp glance or a suspicious look if I asked a question that didn’t really flow with his thinking. He always expected the best of the people he committed to – and he was there to help us hold ourselves accountable.

When my father died of cancer in March 2006, I received a single, one word email from Bill. “Sadness” was all he wrote. It turns out that Bill had lost his brother in the same week. With just one word, he reached out to make the connection, to let me know that I wasn’t alone in going through something tough. Bill’s great strength was his incredible humanity.

I feel immensely fortunate to have known Bill and to have helped him share his experience with our students. My RRE colleagues and I want to express our deep sympathy to Bill’s family, his many friends and all the people he influenced throughout his long career. Today we are all touched by sadness.