Not every great leader follows the same calling. They each make their personal mark on the people around them and walk their own path. However, they do have similar qualities: they believe in themselves and others, and they believe passionately in their work and their life purpose. In every edition of Evolve we spotlight one of these inspiring figures. This edition we are delighted to feature Richard Branson.
DOING IT THE VIRGIN WAY
Sir Richard Branson clearly knows a thing or two about success. This British born multi-billionaire, business magnate is a self-made man who dropped out of school at the age of 16. His first successful venture was a student magazine called ‘Student’, that became hugely popular and was run out of the basement of his home with his best friend from childhood. His mother, who was always, and still is his inspiration, helped him out with moral support and financial support. He was able to secure exclusive interviews with John Lennon, not because of the magazine’s fame, but because Lennon thought it was fascinating that a 16-year-old was determined enough to call him everyday asking for an interview until he got one.
His success with the magazine started him on a roll, and within a year of launching ‘Student’, Branson opened Virgin Records in 1972 and signed up some of the biggest names in the industry at that time, such as the Rolling Stones. He followed this up with Virgin Mega Stores in 1976 and in 1979 the company opened their first mega store at the end of Oxford Street.
THE GROWTH OF BRANSON’S EMPIRE
As successful as Virgin Records was, he didn’t stop there, but continued to build his empire. In 1980, he launched a travel company called The Voyager Group, and in 1984, started the world-renowned airline Virgin Atlantic. The story of how his airline started is quite interesting: Branson was in his late twenties and had booked a flight to the British Virgin Islands to meet his girlfriend, who later became his wife.
However, the final flight to the island on that day was cancelled. Determined to make the trip, he came up with the idea of chartering a plane, and raised money for the charter by advertising tickets for $29 on a board at the airport. It paid off, people bought tickets and he used the money to charter a plane. This was the spark that inspired ‘Virgin Atlantic’.
He continued going from strength to strength and in 1991 started Virgin Books. He has personally written and published 72 books, the most popular of which is: “Losing My Virginity”, with other popular titles such as: “Screw It Let’s Do It”, “The Virgin Way”, “Business Stripped Bare”, “Reach For The Skies”, “Finding My Virginity”, and “Arctic Diary”. Virgin Radio station came hot on the tracks of Virgin Books in 1993 and in 1996 he started a second record company, V2, which signed up artists such as Tom Jones.
The ever-adventurous Branson turned his focus upwards into space and launched his space-tourism venture ‘Virgin Galactic’ in 2004. He partnered with Scaled Composites to form The Spaceship Company, which set to work developing a suborbital space plane. In April 2013, the project made an impressive leap forward with the test launch of SpaceShip Two. Branson was delighted by the success of his spaceship’s first test, telling NBC News: “We’re absolutely delighted that it broke the sound barrier on its very first flight, and that everything went so smoothly.” In the same year, more than 500 people had reserved tickets to ride on a Virgin Galactic spaceship for as low as $200,000.
In Dec 2014, Branson announced the establishment of Virgin Cruises, which later became Virgin Voyages. On October 31, 2017, the company commemorated the milestone of laying down the keel for its first liner, designed to hold 2,800 guests and a crew of 1,150. The venture remains on track to debut in 2020.
“HAD I PURSUED MY EDUCATION LONG ENOUGH TO LEARN ALL THE CONVENTIONAL DO’S AND DON'TS OF STARTING A BUSINESS, I OFTEN WONDER HOW DIFFERENT MY LIFE AND CAREER MIGHT HAVE BEEN” - Richard Branson
As well as immense business success, Branson has spent years building his personal brand, and the brand of Virgin. Through his penchant for adventure and publicity stunts, he constantly challenges himself to “get out there” and believes that success and adventure isn’t going to come to you but you have to go and find it. He was the first to cross the Atlantic Ocean in a hot air balloon in 1987, and by 1991, he crossed the Pacific by air balloon. On a lighter and less dangerous note, he drove a tank into New York City’s Times Square, bungee jumped off a Las Vegas casino, and had to dress up as a female flight attendant after he lost a bet with a competing airline CEO.
DOING GOOD AND GIVING BACK
Branson is one of those billionaires who strongly believe in giving back. According to Branson, “if you aren’t making a positive difference to other people’s lives, then you shouldn’t be in business.” He says this goes not only for individuals, but companies as a whole. While he regularly contributes to charities, he has a passion for humanitarian efforts. He is also one of the backers and founding members of a group founded by Nelson Mandela that leverages the power of influential people to find peaceful resolutions to conflicts.
Another humanitarian initiative of Branson is the International Center for Missing & Exploited Children, an organization that helps locate missing children and put an end to young people’s exploitation. Saving the environment is also a big thing for Richard Branson. He is the Co-Founder of “The B Team” which is a non-profit initiative formed by a global group of business leaders to catalyze a better way of doing business, for the wellbeing of people and the planet.
While Branson’s approach to business has been unconventional, his results are definitely unmatched. The Virgin Group reaches 35 countries around the world, with nearly 70,000 employees handling affairs in the United Kingdom, the United States, Australia, Canada, Asia, Europe, South Africa and beyond. Believing very much in diversification, he has expanded his businesses to include a train company, cosmetics, a luxury game preserve, and a mobile phone company to name just some.
An advocate of work-life balance, Branson spends half of his time on his own personal island with family and friends. He has a net worth of more than $5 billion, and was knighted in the year 2000 by the Prince of Wales. When asked: “What is the key to your success?” His answer was very simple: happiness!
RICHARD BRANSONS’S INSPIRATIONAL LEADERSHIP STYLE
Let's take a look at what lessons we can learn from Richard Branson’s passionate, fun, fresh and highly effective approach to leadership.
JUST DO IT – SAY YES & TAKE A RISK
“Fortune favors the bold, so make sure you are zagging when everyone else is zigging.” – Richard Branson
Throughout his life, Branson has taken quite a few risks, and that’s one of the reasons why he is so successful. By daring to be different, entrepreneurs can set their business apart from others. Great leaders know that they will win some and lose some, but they do not allow fear to prevent them from taking risks and trying new things.
LOOK AFTER YOUR TEAM – EMPLOYEES COME FIRST
“If you take care of your employees, your employees will take care of your customers, and your customers will take care of your shareholders.” – Richard Branson
According to Branson, good leaders work to create a culture that always puts people first. Flexibility is a key part of a people-first culture. One size rarely fits all, so it’s important to listen to the needs of each individual and find solutions that allows everyone to do their best. Branson fosters a culture that creates a welcome, safe and innovative environment where everyone can feel like a family. He strongly emphasizes the importance of hiring the right people, who love what they do, who look for the best in others and invest time in praising rather than criticizing and blaming others.
LEARN TO DELEGATE
“We find brilliant people to run it, give them a lot of freedom to make mistakes, and don’t second guess them all the time.”– Richard Branson
Learning that you don’t have to do everything yourself is a difficult skill for many entrepreneurs, but it’s worth it. “If you find people who can take on tasks you aren’t good at, it frees you up to plan for the future,” Branson writes. Stop stressing that something won’t be done correctly if you don’t have a hand in it and start putting more faith into the people who work for you and under you. Employees won’t be fully motivated unless they experience autonomy, mastery and purpose, as this is the way they learn and grow. The boss who constantly looks over his shoulders will disengage team members. By granting true autonomy, individuals take ownership of the outcomes, and achieve growth and pride along the way.
“We’ve never been 100% sure that any of the businesses we’ve started at Virgin were going to be successful. But over 45 years, we’ve always stood by our motto: ‘Screw it, let’s do it’.” Do not be embarrassed by your failures, learn from them and start again – Richard Branson
Why would you encourage or celebrate failure? Quite simply: failure is the foundation for growth and innovation, and it is critical to long- term success. Every time a person, a team, or a company tries something new and makes a mistake or fails, valuable data is gathered for future success. Yet, a lot of companies have a fear-based culture that penalizes mistakes. Hence when failure is associated with a negative impact on career, workers naturally will choose to play it safe, and not speak up or give valuable ideas that could lead to great innovation.
MISSION OVER MONEY
“From my very first day as an entrepreneur, I’ve felt the only mission worth pursuing in business is to make people’s lives better.” –Richard Branson
The need for purpose is one of the defining characteristics of human beings. Purpose is a fundamental component to living a fulfilled life. When people know that their day-to-day work aligns with the greater mission of the organization it dramatically changes the way they feel about that work. Great leaders know how to craft or reinforce the mission of the organization and understand that it can’t just be a sentence written on a poster in the conference room. The mission is a great tool to engage and energize teams.
“Most people make the mistake of listening too little and talking too much. Being a good listener is absolutely critical to being a good leader.” - Richard Branson
The Virgin Way explains that the best leaders are great listeners. It’s important to listen carefully to everyone involved in a business venture, from individual team members to investors who allow the whole project to get off the ground. Listening allows entrepreneurs to make the most of the skills of those around them. Too often what looks like listening is just the other person thinking of what they’re going to say next. To truly listen requires you to focus on the other person with the intent to understand before being understood.
HAVE FUN AND FOLLOW YOUR DREAMS
“Those people who spend their time working on things they love are usually the ones enjoying life the most. They are also the ones who dared to take a risk and chase their dreams. Don’t think about fun as a word, think of it as a responsibility.” – Richard Branson
Branson says fun, is one of the most important ingredients in any successful business. “If you’re not having fun, then it’s time to try something else,” he writes. The concept of having fun has driven some of Branson’s most successful businesses, as he believes that you’ll never be successful if you don’t love what you do and wake up every morning excited. The key element is to realize that making time for fun can actually increase positivity and productivity.
KEEP SETTING NEW CHALLENGES
“If you don’t write down your ideas, they could be gone by the morning.” - Richard Branson
Branson writes down every single idea he has, no matter how big or small, and then challenges himself to follow up. He advises carrying a notebook so that it is always possible to take notes.
INTERESTING FACTS ABOUT RICHARD BRANSON
• When Branson was at school, he suffered from dyslexia, and with few academic achievements, his prospects for securing a well-paid job in those days were low.
• His mother always believed in him and instinctively knew that he would be successful in life. She would regularly say: ‘One day he’ll become the Prime Minister Of England.’
• His first experience turning failure into success happened at 11 years old. He and his best friend had planned a Christmas tree business, and planted many trees. Upon returning home from Christmas break, they found rabbits had eaten all their tree saplings. Instead of letting the situation get the best of them, they went out and bought BB guns, killed all the rabbits, and sold the meat for profit.
• After winning a court case against British Airways (caught for playing dirty tricks against Virgin), he was awarded £500,000: £110,000 awarded to Virgin Airways, and £3 million in legal fees paid for by BA. Branson generously divided the compensation among his staff – widely known as the BA Bonus!
• Not only does the business magnate own his own wildlife reserve in South Africa, he also owns his own Caribbean island (Necker Island), which is frequented by A-list celebrities all year round.
• In 2007, Richard Branson stunned the media by announcing the Virgin Earth Challenge, which will award $25 million to the individual or group capable of designing a commercially viable design to remove anthropogenic, atmospheric greenhouse gases without harmful effects.
• Branson has made several attempts to break world records (of which some he failed first time around!) including: the fastest Atlantic Ocean crossing in the Virgin Atlantic Challenger II and crossing the Atlantic in his Virgin Atlantic Flyer hot air balloon.
• He enjoys collecting memorable cars.
• How he describes himself on Facebook: Tie-loathing, adventurer, philanthropist, & troublemaker, who believes in turning ideas into reality. Otherwise known as Dr. Yes!