Build an Envelope of Trust
At one point when Bill Campbell was CEO of Intuit, the company was having a rough quarter and it looked like it might not make its revenue and profit objectives. When the board got together to discuss what to do about it, most of its members were willing to tolerate missing short-term financial targets, as they felt it was more important for the company to invest in the future. Short-term objectives weren’t as important as long-term growth, which might be sacrificed if spending was curtailed. Bill disagreed. He wanted to get leaner and make the numbers. That is the culture we want to have around here, he explained. It wasn’t so much about hitting those short-term numbers, but about creating a culture where anything less than operational excellence wouldn’t be tolerated. He felt it was management’s job to deliver results, not just for shareholders but for the team and customers. The board wanted to focus on the long run by investing; Bill knew that he was also investing in the long-term success of the company by instilling strong operational discipline.
This particular moment was shaping up as an unusual disagreement between a forgiving board and a disciplined former football coach turned CEO. As the conversation moved around the room, most of the board members wanted to spend their way through the crisis, to invest in the future. They disagreed with their CEO. Finally, it was John Doerr’s turn to weigh in. “You know,” he said, “I think we should back the coach.” John says that was the moment when he earned Bill Campbell’s trust. “The board may have been correct,” he says. “But isn’t the real right answer to back your CEO?” It almost didn’t matter what the debate was about; it was something that Bill felt passionate about, and John decided to bet on Bill. He trusted him.
Perhaps the most important currency in a relationship—friendship, romantic, familial, or professional—is trust. This was certainly true with Bill Campbell. If Bill didn’t trust you, you didn’t have a relationship with him. But if he did trust you, and vice versa, that trust was the basis for all other aspects of the relationship. Trust is of course important for any relationship, but in most business relationships it takes its place alongside other factors: personal agendas, mutual exchange of value. For Bill, trust was always first and foremost; it was sort of his superpower. He was great at establishing it, and once established, he was great at honoring it. In one of the last times they saw each other, Bill told Alan Eustace, “You know I would do anything for you.” He meant it, because of the trust between them.
Trust is a multifaceted concept, so what do we mean by it? One academic paper defines trust as “the willingness to accept vulnerability based upon positive expectations about another’s behavior.”1 That’s a bit of an academic mouthful, but it captures the essential point that trust means people feel safe to be vulnerable. When we are referring to Bill and trust, it means a few things.
Trust means you keep your word. If you told Bill you were going to do something, you did it. And the same applied to him; his word was always good.
Trust means loyalty. To each other, to your family and friends, and to your team and company. Bill was one of the few Apple executives to fight to keep Steve Jobs when he was let go from the company in 1985. Steve never forgot that expression of loyalty, which later became the basis for their close friendship and working relationship.
Trust means integrity. Bill was always honest, and he expected the same in return. And it means ability, the trust that you actually had the talent, skills, power, and diligence to accomplish what you promised.
Trust means discretion. When Eric was CEO of Google, one of his team members was diagnosed with a serious medical condition (he later fully recovered) but chose not to share it with Eric or the rest of the team. The only person who knew was Bill, who told no one. Eric later found out, and rather than be annoyed that Bill kept the information from him, he was happy to learn that Bill was so trustworthy. Bill could keep a secret, even from Eric, and so could act as a confidant to anyone on the team. This is very valuable to a coach, who always needs to know what’s going on, but also needs to be seen by his coachees as someone who honors their privacy.
Perhaps the idea that trust is a cornerstone of business success belongs in the “well duh, Captain Obvious” bucket. But it is missing from many of today’s business books, and it never came up as a factor in Google’s success when we were researching and writing our previous book, How Google Works. So it was somewhat of a surprise to us that when we interviewed the dozens of successful businesspeople Bill had mentored, the word came up again and again. Dean Gilbert, a former executive at Google and @Home, and an accomplished management coach in his own right, notes that “Bill would build an envelope of trust very quickly. It was a natural thing for him, this ability to build rapport, a sense of comfort and protection. It’s the cornerstone of any coaching in business.” Vinod Khosla, a Sun Microsystems cofounder and head of Khosla Ventures, says that he and Bill “built a great relationship around trust, whether we agreed or disagreed.” An important point: trust doesn’t mean you always agree; in fact, it makes it easier to disagree with someone. These are just a couple of the numerous quotes we could cite from people who worked with Bill, all of them basically saying the same thing: You could trust Bill. His success stemmed from that.
A slew of academic research bears out what Bill intuitively knew—not just that trust is important, but that it is the first thing to create if you want a relationship to be successful. It is the foundation. For example, a highly cited 2000 study from Cornell University discusses the correlation between task conflict (disagreements about decisions) and relationship conflict (emotional friction) in teams. Task conflict is healthy and is important to get to the best decisions, but it is highly correlated with relationship conflict, which leads to poorer decisions and morale. What to do? Build trust first, the study concludes. Teams that trust each other will still have disagreements, but when they do, they will be accompanied by less emotional rancor.2
Most business people, when they meet, get right to the task at hand. There’s stuff to do! This is especially true in technology, technologists not being noted for their high EQs or social skills. In our world, the attitude is often first prove to me how smart you are, then maybe I’ll trust you, or at least your intellect. Bill took a different, more patient approach. He started relationships by getting to know the person, beyond their résumé and skill set. Shishir Mehrotra notes that Bill “walked among a set of driven technologists, but he saw the world in a completely different way . . . He saw it as a network of people, learning each other’s strengths and weaknesses, and learning to trust each other as a primary mechanism of achieving goals.”
Trust is also an important theme among the best sports coaches (and was the subject of Bill’s pregame talk to the Stanford football team, when he was made honorary captain for a game in 2012). Red Auerbach, who as a coach and executive led the Boston Celtics to sixteen NBA championships in thirty years (including a remarkable eight straight), had a simple way of expressing the importance of trust: “The players won’t con me because I don’t con them.”3 He believed that level of trust led to stability and to greater commitment from his players: “When players find themselves in a situation where management has a great deal of integrity and they can depend on my word or anybody else’s word in the organization, they feel secure. And if the players feel secure, they don’t want to leave here. And if they don’t want to leave here, they’re going to do everything they can on the court to stay here.”
Establishing trust is a key component to building what is now called “psychological safety” in teams. Team psychological safety, according to a 1999 Cornell study, is a “shared belief held by members of a team that the team is safe for interpersonal risk taking . . . a team climate . . . in which people are comfortable being themselves.”4 This is exactly the feeling we experienced when working with Bill; he quickly established a relationship where we could be ourselves, without fear. Not surprisingly, when Google conducted a study to determine the factors behind high-performing teams, psychological safety came out at the top of the list.* The common notions that the best teams are made up of people with complementary skill sets or similar personalities were disproven; the best teams are the ones with the most psychological safety. And that starts with trust.
It’s hard to disagree with the notion that trust is essential for productive relationships. But in the high-stakes, big-ego world of business executives, it is easier said than done (especially when you remember that our protagonist, Coach Bill, had quite a healthy ego of his own and the opinions and stubbornness to match). How did Bill do it? First, he only coached the coachable. Then, if you passed that test, he listened intently, practiced complete candor, believed that his coachees could achieve remarkable things, and was intensely loyal.