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Lesson from Steve Jobs? Make great products

At the Demo Fall conference, Apple board member and Jobs confidant Bill Campbell talks about the former CEO, as well as management ideas for both young and more seasoned executives.

Apple board member Bill Campbell talks about Steve Jobs and much more during a talk at Demo Fall today.
Daniel Terdiman/CNET

SANTA CLARA, Calif.--The biggest lesson that Apple board member and longtime Steve Jobs adviser Bill Campbell learned from the former CEO? "Make sure you have great product."

Campbell, known as "Coach" to friends and some peers, may not be as known in the world of technology as he should be. The chairman of the board of Intuit, and an Apple adviser and board member who also has several other high-level tech-industry positions, appeared at the Demo Fall conference here today, in conversation with Bloomberg reporter Brad Stone.

Over the course of a 20-minute rumination on his career and the state of executive management in today's Silicon Valley, Campbell shared some of his management insights, especially in relation to companies like Twitter, Microsoft, and Google.

To begin with, Campbell said, when trying to help young companies and high-profile but young executives advance to the next stage, "what you really want to do is find out what they want to do and see what you can do to help them."

But what he said really helps a young executive like, for example, former Twitter CEO Evan Williams, is to try to help them understand what they truly want to achieve. When Williams began to chafe at the CEO job, Campbell recalled, it was important to help him understand that he--and the company--would be better off with a chief executive who's passionate about the job, and that Williams himself would be happier in a more product-oriented position. But to do that, it was essential that the company had already brought in a capable replacement: Dick Costolo, now chief executive, who was then COO.

At Google, Campbell said, it was important that co-founder Larry Page have a chance to spend years "learning at the knee of the master," Eric Schmidt, before Page was finally ready to take over the CEO role at one of the biggest tech companies in the world. "Larry Page is so gosh-darned smart, he could have done anything he wanted to do," Campbell said. "What he wanted to do [10 years ago] was continue to develop product strategy...He wanted someone [to lead the company] who did have [CEO] experience."

But when Page took over the CEO job earlier this year, he was ready to take on the job in part, Campbell explained, because he had surrounded himself with a stable of highly capable managers including CFO Patrick Pichette, Chief Legal Officer David Drummond, and others.

As for Apple and Jobs, Campbell was asked to address the company in the wake of Jobs' resignation as CEO. Rather than speaking to the state of Jobs' health issues, Campbell said that the man who he's "been hanging out with" since 1983 had had his energy sapped by a liver transplant, and had simply gotten to the point "where he couldn't do [the job] the way he wanted."

But Campbell--who is clearly biased, since he's still on Apple's board--says that the company is in good shape in the hands of new CEO Tim Cook despite losing, "at least as CEO, one of the great people [Jobs]."

Perhaps the most important question Campbell answered was whether he is carrying an iPhone 5? "Absolutely not," he said. "If I was, I'd probably...leave it in a bar."