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In my opinion, the Virgin way book written by Sir Richard Branson is an excellent read that touches on different subjects from his personal life of an entrepreneur to the business world.
Branson wasted no time by stating the worst kept secret in entrepreneurship. If you do not enjoy it then don’t do it. Simple as that, Branson goes on further to state how surprised he is at how many people appear to live their lives either always looking in the rear-view mirror or speculating about how things are going to be different in the future. He then added that the present time we are in is the good old days we will be looking back on twenty years from now. He gave an example of when he was sixteen and decided to leave Stowe school and pursue a dream of his own magazine publishing business. Again, if you do not enjoy doing it then do not do it.
He then talks about how he gained a lot of inspiration from both his parents in his early years. He recalls his mother always making things happen business-wise, opening shops on the high street and having him and his sister work for their parents, gaining little insights on character, business, and entrepreneurship from a very early age.
One memory and a good bit of parenting that stuck with him until now was a time he was not following his mother’s orders in Sunday church and annoyed her mother to the point where once they got home his mother asked Richards, dad, to spank him on the backside for not listening. His dad took him to the other room and clapped his hands together loud enough so mum could hear without laying a finger on Richard. Branson said that taught him a bigger lesson than a bruised ego spanking from his father ever would.
‘Speak no evil, hear no evil’ was another massive lesson he was taught as a boy, Branson stating “whenever I was caught speaking bad about somebody, I was made to look at myself in the mirror for at least five minutes. We are products of our upbringing and environment Branson stated, and he further emphasized that growing up around the right people with the right mindset certainly can only do you more good than harm.
Companies are like young people.
- When starting a company and finding your feet at the very early stages (Which many do not survive)
- Then most companies become like teenagers, they develop other character blemishes while they get a bit cocky and know it all.
- Then the mature stage, by this stage they should hopefully have learned from their mistakes and lessons, this period is then filled with different risks, complacency being the biggest. Then comes the mid life crisis stage were laziness sets in and like most adults, spend more time looking in the rear view mirror.
One day after a poor performance in a cricket match he took part in, Branson stated, he was feeling quite sorry for himself and down. His mother quite simply said, “Ricky, I am sure you will agree that wasn’t one of your better performances out there but remember one thing; you are guaranteed to miss every shot you don’t take”. Years late, Branson realized she was talking about more than just cricket and those words are still with him today. This shows how much of good parenting Richard Branson benefited from and is probably still benefiting from today.
Listen, it makes you smarter
Branson remembers his mother urging him at a young age to interact and listen and not being allowed to much time in front of the TV screen. He spoke about this having an influence on him, to the point where he developed a habit of regularly carrying a small notebook and regularly even now taking notes in meetings or important conversations. “Courage is what it takes to stand up and speak, courage is also what it takes to stand up and listen” Winston Churchill.
Branson added, people view listening as a sign of weakness but listening and taking in information is one of the signs of a true leader. Listening is not hearing he added, he gave an example of sitting on a flight and hearing a baby’s loud scream, you can hear it but it does not necessarily mean you are listening to it.
Furthermore, Branson explains that listening does not go unnoticed as the person would more likely see you as a good conversationalist if you can let them do the talking 20/30 minutes. You must try to speak with people, rather than speaking at people.
When it comes to having a company, it seems like some companies are more concerned with giving their employees rulebooks with dos and don’ts. At Virgin, Branson states that each employees task is to ensure that customers are cared and catered for. He continues to say that he was never a big fan of giving unnecessary rules to employees, he even makes time for himself to visit his employees on a consistent basis just to move away from the traditional only see the ‘big boss’ on the screens.
Branson points out that we are all leaders in our own orbits, be it, families, communities, among our peer groups or even in the office. So, therefore, he is not one to really label the importance of someone with position name tags, and in his own experience any culture with an over-emphasis on ‘knowing our position’ creates problems in terms of relationships and can interfere with progress and innovation.
He goes on to add if senior executives of a company consider themselves too precious to share the same food and dining space then that is a place he would definitely not want to work. And something that all virgin companies stay away from.
Branson adds that good leadership in any business or company is being able to take a venture forward and finding viable new avenues where the business can evolve and prosper. Poor leadership, on the other hand, tends to be static and much more about protecting the status quo. He adds, this approach might have been viable twenty odd years ago but definitely not at the frenetic pace of today.
To stand still is to go backward. Quickly.
Branson backs this statement up by giving us the example of what happened to Kodak.
Kodak blew its chance to lead the digital photography revolution. They go things half right. Kodak invented the digital camera in the 1970s. Their willingness to invest in blue skies research. But having the space and capital for innovation is not enough. A business’s leadership and the culture to create must then be willing and agile enough to embrace innovations. Kodak rejected the digital camera, fearing it would cannibalize existing business, Kodak’s management focused on the flaws of early digital cameras, Kodak’s rivals seized the opportunity, leaving the incumbent flailing in pursuit of patent royalties. Sassons Kodak digital camera expired in 2007. Kodak filed for bankruptcy in 2012.
Fortune favors the bold. People or businesses that are generally considered fortunate or luckier than others are usually also the ones taking the greatest risks and have probably fallen flat on their faces very often.
Branson recalls a time when Virgin records released their first ever album; Mike Oldfield’s Tubular bells had become a huge hit in the UK, but he was still trying to get someone to take it in the US. Despite its European success, Branson just could not convince, legendary Atlantic Records, Ahmet Ertegun that an all instrument album would sell in the US. One day, Ahmet happened to be playing in his office, probably curious what the fuss is all about and boom William Friedkin, looking forward to a background music for his film has walked in and heard Tubular bells and instantly loved it.
It just happened that William had been looking for a background music for a movie he has been working on, just happened to be Exorcist. Call it luck Branson said, but “if I had not been yammering this instrument to Ahmet he probably would not be intrigued to listen to it and open doors for Tubular bells to be featured on Exorcist.
Couple of words that Branson repeating were loyalty and culture. Branson talks about how most airlines only caring about what happens to their passengers from the time they board the aircraft until they get off the plane. Virgin decided to take a different approach by deciding to provide transportation and comfortable accommodation for the whole trip.
Including a limo services from and to the airport for their business class customers and develop lounges which their customers would look forward to waiting for their flights rather than the usual “long” to board flights. Branson added, the evolution of Virgins clubhouse lounges which today, offer everything from a full bar, haircuts, shoe shine service, hot tubs and pool rooms.
Furthermore, he added, “this is an example of deciding to sink millions into tangible resources for our customers to enjoy and let them spread the word on our behalf”. Rather than spreading millions i.e. the super bowl commercials cost four million dollars and if you blink you miss it.
Hiring should be number one priority
Whether you are planning a start-up, re-launch or expanding your business, it is often difficult to know which tasks to delegate to who. This is why Branson believes a lot of emphases should be put on the hiring process.
If you think you are too big to be involved in the hiring process, think again. I demand to be involved in the hiring process for leadership roles and even it if means flying out applicants all the way to Necker island to spend time with me.
Branson says even a $400 billion dollar company like Google with a high hiring rate of 4,000 people a year. Their founder and CEO Larry Page still insists on being the final arbiter on whether or not to make a job offer to anyone being considered in a leadership role in the company.
CV is just a paper, Branson believes that there are things more important to find out about a person, rather than what they have written on a piece of paper. “I usually like to ask people about things that are not on the paper”.
When people ask me what secret sauce has made virgin a success over the last forty plus years, the honest answer is our people first culture that we started way back in the last century. The fruits of passions, Branson touches on being passionate about what you do once again. I find it sad that so many people are on the ‘thank god its Friday brigade’ are not in the least bit passionate about what they are doing with their lives. I believe that hard wired passion, some call it obessesion for giving customers, both internal/external a better work environment or service experience that they can’t find elsewhere is at the very heart of what I and Virgin brand stands for.
When I started out with what was to become Virgin more than four decades ago I genuinely and still do want to change peoples lives for the better. Business doesn’t have to be a zero-sum game. Where some win and others lose, when done properly everybody stands to gain; companies, communities, and the beautiful planet we are privileged to live in.
Branson believes that collaborating is key in ‘winning’ and providing value. Most people have this almost ethereal vision of the ‘entrepreneur’ as someone who operates alone. This is fiction, he said.
Good business is good for business
Branson gives an example of earlier when they were just starting off a non-profit student advisory centre with a 24/7 hotline on which young people could get guidance on issues ranging from sexual transmitted diseases to birth control, to mental health and anything that was causing them strife. Looking back now it seems clear that I have always seen businesses, whether small or large, have the opportunity and responsibility to do good things in their communities and beyond.
The Virgin way is a great read which is not only target at entrepreneurs and business owners but also at great perspective on life. He puts great emphasis on giving value and creating a culture for people and giving me the sense that he genuinely didn’t set out to just ‘make money’ but to actually make the world a better place.
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