Losing My Virginity

Leadership

Friday 16 May 2008

Sir Richard Branson

Losing My Virginity: Extraordinary lessons from the founder of the Virgin Group

Central Hall Westminster, London

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Richard Branson needs little introduction. He's a hero to most entrepreneurs, and any businessperson worth their salt knows his life story: school-leaver at 15, major record-seller at 20, convicted VAT-fraudster at 21, millionaire at 23. This was the man who, as a music label novice, signed both the Sex Pistols and the Rolling Stones; who defeated British Airways in court after eroding their transatlantic routes with his upstart airline; and who ultimately diversified into every consumer industry imaginable.

His business principles are equally well-known: high-quality service; derring-do; a sense of fun; and an emphasis on making employees feel rewarded. So why bother to hear him speak in person? The answer is simple: for the opportunity to see a big beast of business in the flesh, to divine the secrets of his success by staring into the whites of his eyes. This was Branson's first major public appearance in years, and over a thousand members of the London Business Forum (LBF) poured into Westminster Central Hall to pay tribute.

Compère Peter Fisk was ideally placed to elicit new information from the great man. He has often cited Branson in speeches to the LBF, and in books such as his bestseller Marketing Genius. At the beginning of the event he seemed a little star-struck in the presence of his favourite case-study. But, by the end, he had surprised even those of us who have studied Branson's various official and unofficial biographies. What's more, he devoted over 45 minutes to questions posed in advance - truly, this was an event at which the audience was in charge.

Some of the most interesting things we learned about Branson were to do with the practicalities of his day-to-day life. For example, when Fisk asked him the question: "Do you have a mobile phone?" he shrugged and answered: "I have a mobile phone company." Yet somehow, he manages to keep his own diary. "I have one wonderful girl called Nikki who looks after me," he explained, referring to a PA sitting in the front row of the audience. "But I find it much, much better, much more efficient to keep my own diary." In this way, he explained, "You make full use of your time, and I do try to keep a balance."

Achieving work/life balance is tricky when you're one of the richest men in the world, and are in constant demand from over 200 businesses. But Branson isn't complaining. "I'm very lucky," he told us earnestly. "I have a very full, very fascinating life." And with that, he moved onto telling us proudly how he had been all over England the previous day, visiting the staff of his Virgin Media business.

"I ended up last night at four different parties for different Virgin companies," he confessed. "And tonight I go to Kenya where we are celebrating a peace accord that the Elders have managed to sort out." This was a reference to the Council of Elders, a humanitarian group he formed in 2007 with Nelson Mandela, Jimmy Carter and others, to help broker peace deals and attempt to solve otherwise intractable problems.

Branson was trying to steer the conversation towards loftier issues, but Fisk - like the rest of us - wanted to press him on the details that made him human. "Do you manage your own e-mail?" he asked. "Well, I can read it," Branson replied sheepishly.

It was impossible not to warm to Branson as he explained his difficulties with technology, and his ignorance of financial matters, which both have their origins in dyslexia. "I was at Bill Gates's house about 10 years ago, with about 30 other managing directors of big companies and their wives, and two [embarrassing] things happened," he recalled. "The first thing was [when Bill asked the question]: 'Does anybody not use the Internet?' And my hand was coming up and I could feel my wife just pushing it back down. And then a few minutes later he said, 'And now we're going to have each of you come up and talk to the others for 10 minutes... I'm a great believer that all of us should be tested through life, so I'm going to hand out a piece of paper to everyone, and Richard's going to speak first and I'd like you to mark him out of 10.' And I thought: 'Fuck, I left school at 15!'"

One of the other men in the room that night was Steve Jobs, the CEO of Apple - a man whom Branson regards as a role-model. "Of all the other brands in the world that I really respect, I'm sure that Apple would be number one," he said. However, he added, Jobs is "quite a different animal in that he is incredibly hands-on, in every little detail. He'll vet every advertising campaign all over the world. But it's worked... I've got enormous admiration for him."

Many of the audience wanted Branson to dispense some entrepreneurial advice, and he didn't disappoint, mixing the common-sense with some fascinating and salutary anecdotes. "The importance of protecting the downside," was a key lesson to learn, he said. This is why, when he cut a deal with Boeing to buy his first second-hand 747, it included an option to sell the plane back after one year. Boeing's only concern, he said, was that Virgin "wouldn't live up to its name but would actually go all the way."

Similarly, he had a valuable tip on how to retain entrepreneurial dynamism while you're growing: as soon as the number of staff hits 100, split the firm in two. In this way, he said, Virgin Records ended up being 20 different companies that "didn't even share switchboards". It's a philosophy that Virgin still tries to observe in spite of its gigantic size. Of the group's 200 branded companies, "none of them are massive in any particular field," Branson said, and each has to stand on its own two feet". The people who lead each business are managing directors, and are incentivised accordingly. "Virgin has created about 200 millionaires over the years," he revealed.

The moment you go from one company to two companies, you've got to start learning the art of delegation, he added. "So what I try to do when we set up new businesses [is this]: I'll go in, I'll immerse myself for a month or two, I'll learn all about that industry, so that if a managing director does come to me and wants to talk to me about mobile phones or trains, I'll know something."

True delegation means giving people the freedom to make mistakes, he said. "[My parents] would always look for the best in what [I] did. They were great believers in lots and lots of praise... And I think if you're the leader of a company, this is even more important. You shouldn't be looking for people slipping up, you should be looking for all the good things people do and praising those. People know when they've slipped up, they don't need to be told."

Another defining characteristic of Branson's personal management style was his willingness to be humble, and to listen to criticism, where staff and customers are concerned. "I do try to make an effort," he said. "If I'm on a Virgin plane, I'll try to meet all the passengers. I'll have a little notebook in my back pocket. I'll meet all the staff." He stressed the importance of tiny details, saying that only by getting these right will you end up with "an exceptional company rather than an average company."

Ultimately, business is not about "balance sheets, money, profits and loss," he argued. It is about "creating something you're really proud of, something the people who work for you can be really proud of... the actual business aspect is simply there to be mopped up at the end."

The fact that he never got a tight grasp of financial matters was probably a benefit, he suggested, in that it persuaded him never to bring in accountants too early in the development of a venture. "You'll get one firm of accountants that will tell you, based on their own preconceptions, why starting an airline is a ghastly idea and every other airline fails and you're going to lose a lot of money. You'll get another set of accountants who'll tell you why they think you're going to make money. But they have no idea one way or the other."

Far more important is to create something that you, yourself, really want and value, he concluded. "If it's exceptionally good then people will always turn up and use it."