Last week, I had the extraordinary pleasure to sit down with Sir Richard Branson, Founder of The Virgin Group to discuss entrepreneurship, attitude, optimism, innovation – and space travel.
Sir Richard is one of the most prolific serial entrepreneurs in the world, he holds many titles, not least: Guinness World Record holder, adventurer, environmentalist, author, astronaut, partner, father, grandfather – and most importantly to his grandchildren – “pirate”.
In our unorthodox conversation, we discussed his life and career and compared notes on leadership. Sir Richard also shared why, at the age of 72, and more than half a century in business, he is not ready to retire yet. On the contrary, he remains as energetic, enthusiastic and in love with life as ever.
Here are my six top takeaways from our time together.
POWER OF PURPOSE
This year, at RESHAPE, we acknowledged the need for brands to embrace A Brand New Way™ in crafting customer experiences. Our mission? Encourage companies to embrace the individuality of their consumers and become a purpose-led partner in facilitating their lifestyle, routines and values, or to say it more plainly – help consumers live better lives. It is a philosophy that Sir Richard shares;
“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”.
During our interview, Sir Richard said “every company that exists has a positive purpose because it wouldn’t exist unless it was making a difference in people’s lives”. Brands exist to benefit their customers. Furthermore, it has been proven time and time again, that established industries and market leaders can be toppled when emerging brands enter the marketplace with a deep or newer understanding of what can make customers’ lives better. Virgin is one company that has done this repeatedly. Sir Richard once said;
“I’ve had great fun turning quite a lot of different industries on their head and making sure those industries will never be the same again because Virgin went in and took them on.”
For any leader – one of the most difficult things to get right is knowing what to focus on to get ahead. One piece of advice from Sir Richard is to never stop focusing on the small details; “an exceptional company is the one that gets all the little details right…improve all those niggly things”. In doing so, an average company can transform into an exceptional company. For me, this was music to my ears – having customer obsession articulated so clearly, and why even Founders and CEOs should constantly be friction hunting.
ATTITUDE IS EVERYTHING
It may come as no surprise that the man nicknamed “Dr Yes” in his own company believes in the power of attitude and managing one’s psychology. In our interview, Sir Richard referred to himself as an “eternal optimist” and spoke about the recent coronavirus pandemic and the toll this took on his team, and businesses. Having led Virgin through multiple recessions, and the dot-com bubble burst in the nineties, Sir Richard’s unwavering belief in the power of people and what they can achieve, was evident:
“People are wonderfully imaginative in dealing with really difficult situations and trying to think of positive ways out of them.”
While attitude is important – Sir Richard grounded his enthusiasm with a nod to his own experience, and that he has developed a gut-feel “intuition which comes from experience”.
This attitude is perfectly encapsulated in the title of his 2006 autobiography, “Screw It, Let’s Do It”. While you may be forgiven for thinking that time may have tarnished this view – but it is not true. In our interview, Sir Richard revealed that he is in the process of writing another book and when I asked what the title may be, he told me that he is considering: “Say Yes. Now what was the question?” So it does appear that after all this time, attitude still is everything.
SEEING THE BEST IN PEOPLE
In preparation for our interview, I was struck by one particular account of Sir Richard’s childhood, that he shared in another interview:
“My mum had very good advice…if I ever said an even slightly negative word about anybody, which I did not do very often, she would send me to the mirror, make me stand there for ten minutes, and she would say “it reflects so badly on you, I don’t want you to ever to speak ill of anyone ever again”. I think that’s really good advice, especially as a leader, you’ve got to always be looking for the best in people. If you look for the best, you get the best”.
When I asked if this encounter is what helped Sir Richard deal with disappointment, this is what he had to say;
“I really do think that [my mother’s] advice was the right advice…especially if you’re a leader. Most people don’t let you down and most people really want to perform well. You may find that you put one or two people into the wrong positions, and therefore, they don’t deliver quite as much as you’d like them to deliver. But, if you look for the best in people, if you praise people, you’re going to get the best back.”
Speaking specifically about Virgin – Sir Richard shares that, in his experience, when people feel valued, loved, praised, and part of something bigger than themselves, it becomes palpable even for customers – it permeates the very customer experience – and can become a market differentiator;
“I like to think that…with every virgin company, people feel loved, they feel wanted, they feel appreciated, they feel listened to. And I think listening to people is critical…writing down what they have to say and following through”
INNOVATION FROM FRUSTRATION
The hunger to innovate and not accept arbitrary rules is a quality that is deeply rooted in many entrepreneurs and changemakers – it is also something that I recognize in my own psychology. When the Virgin brand was born in the 70s it specialized in selling records. In the 52 years that have passed since the Virgin brand has infiltrated numerous industries, in Sir Richard’s own words;
“I suppose Virgin is an unusual brand…I suspect we’re the only ‘way of life’ brand in the world. We’re one of maybe the top 30 best-known brands in the world, yet if you look at the other 29, they all specialize in one area.”
One of the qualities that I admire in Sir Richard, is his ability to see improvement in almost all areas of his life. If he sees an industry or experiences something that he thinks he can do better – he will. It was the reason why he founded Virgin Atlantic, because, in his own words, he felt they could do it better than British Airways. Virgin’s latest venture into the cruise industry, was also a product of this imagination and will to innovate;
“The cruise business was very, very staid and pretty boring. Our team has created a cruise company that’s exciting and fun, and it’s for adults only. And, you know, people absolutely love it, they come off, booking again…so, I think [it’s about] looking at industries that are a little bit stale, and then and then getting in there!”
When I asked Sir Richard, how he went about deciding which areas of the customer experience to focus on when entering an industry – his advice for the RESHAPE community was unsurprisingly uncomplicated:
“Make a list of all the things that you hate about a particular industry, then make a list of all the things that you think you can improve on. And then, get the best people around to do it. And hopefully, hey, presto, you come out trumps.”
PUT YOURSELF OUT OF BUSINESS
Sir Richard puts much of his success down to learning to delegate from a young age. When a group of business leaders recently arrived at his home, Necker Island, for a leadership workshop, his key piece of advice was;
“If you’re running a business, put yourself out of business.”
What he meant by that, was to not be afraid to find someone else to run the day-to-day, so you can focus on the bigger picture. For Sir Richard, there are seldom things in life that cannot be delegated, with a great team in place. In fact, in his own words, the only aspects of life that cannot be delegated are your health and well-being and spending time with loved ones.
“A lot of people are frightened to delegate and when they do delegate, they often second guess people and say, “Oh, I would do it differently”…obviously, you’re not going to have somebody doing everything exactly the same. So, delegate, make sure that you’re not second-guessing the person all the time, and free yourself up…look at the bigger picture. It’s worked for me from a very young age. And, other people who’ve taken that advice, it’s worked for them as well.”
During our interview, I was particularly keen to hear Sir Richard’s point of view on what makes a successful partnership – in both a personal and professional capacity – here is what he had to say;
“I think as far as relationships are concerned, there’s an element of luck. I was lucky enough to fall madly in love with this wonderful girl when I was 27, and she was 33. And, she was very down to earth and she’s become a wonderful mother and grandmother. And anyway, we were lucky. It worked well.”
I should say that I do not believe that anyone is born “lucky” or has an innate ability to effortlessly succeed in life. I do, however, believe in luck. I also believe that luck can be manipulated or manufactured – that it favors the bold, and so luck can be created. For this, I am very pleased that Sir Richard was lucky to find his partner, as well as find success. Luck aside, Sir Richard also had this to share;
“You don’t try to get the best deal from your partners, you try to be fair. You listen to the other side and sometimes, you compromise, maybe against what you want. [There are times] when they’ll be graceful back. You just make it work…When you have partnerships that are strong, they are unbreakable.”
And, so in the end, magical partnerships come down to compromise (in Sir Richard’s words “more give than take”), a shared belief in doing what is right for the other partner, not just what is right for you…and, of course, a little luck too – but that is perhaps a conversation for another day.
If you are still reading at this point – well done for making it this far. For me, this was an unusually long article, but I wanted to ensure that I could pass on the knowledge and wisdom from my conversation with Sir Richard, with the attention and detail deserved.
If you are interested in listening to some of the wisdom and experiences from any of the other leaders who joined RESHAPE, you can access the content on-demand, via the replay page.