Virgin’s Leadership Series: Episode 4/5

When Virgin Atlantic brought in Sir Richard Branson it was to challenge the status quo. Leadership is complex so it’s important to focus ourselves and prepare for action. How many of us have experience genuinely powerful leadership? Ask a different question… How many of us are faced with lukewarm to poor leadership every day? Right. So we definitely needed a step up and we needed to find ideas from all over.

The Panel

Richard Branson (CEO Virgin)
Andre Bello (Commercial Manager Caribbean for Virgin Atlantic
Gervase Warner (CEO of Massy Group)
Eudine Barriteau (Principal of UWI)
Juliet Skinner (Medical Director at The Barbados Fertility Centre)
Lisandra Rickards (Chief Entrepreneurship Officer at the Branson Centre of Entrepreneurship in Jamaica)

In Part 4 of our 5-part series, Virgin Founder, Richard Branson holds the floor with his experience and it’s his story-telling that explains it best.

Being entrepreneurial has many facets. What Branson outlines are the following:

  1. Knowing how to delegate
  2. Get out of the boardroom
  3. Believe in what you do
  4. Celebrate failure
  5. Be a good leader by being someone everyone wants to work with

When Branson came out of school aged 15 he was dyslexic and his need to cling onto power was balanced out by the fact that he needed someone else to do a lot of the numbers. It was a lesson he learned early on and understood the need to always make sure you were surrounded by a brilliant team. When his record label reached 100 employees, he took all of the managers to start a second record label and promoted all the deputy managers to managers. It gave so many people the chance to feel growth and change and they were all delegated real work. Branson has said before, Hire great people and then get out of their way.

It’s also vital to understand how everyone is doing. Empowerment is important but understanding the day-to-day is a part of this. When Branson flies he takes out his notebook and talks to the crew and passengers to see what people think. In a boardroom, managers are always afraid of speaking the truth for several reasons. Firstly they don’t want to the person to bring negative news to the room.  Often, managers are also afraid of how their superiors will react to anything that isn’t positive and so much of what is really happening in the business goes unheard. Finally we have to remember that by human nature we always want to believe that we can solve everything and that some issues can be dealt with easily – as long as they’re dealt with. Mr Branson used examples where he might have organised everyone to have lovely new red shoes but if the crew have their feet chafed by these new shoes then what’s the point. You might have red shoes on your crew but they certainly won’t be smiling.

From another angle, Virgin Atlantic had made some new salt and pepper shakers in the shape of windmills. They turned out to be so popular that people were taking them off the planes. The first obvious decision was suggested by the finance manager who explained that it was unaffordable to continue like this. Instead, Branson decided to have Pinched From Virgin Atlantic written on them and soon enough they became an excellent form of advertising. With his notebook, Branson always made sure he wrote things down systematically so he could never forget to action things and every time he opens it he walks away with at least ten ideas.

It’s a real love of what Mr Branson does that compels him to want to do more and it’s no trade secret that he has made himself the face of the company; What is Virgin without Richard Branson? Very aware of this he uses the press in many different ways to achieve great results. One excellent story was how he was trying to get Virgin Atlantic to fly to Cape Town but the government kept protecting South African Airways’ position and kindly postponing their ability to let Virgin land there. This happened over several years until one day, in the usual passively rejecting meeting, the minister explained that they would want Virgin to land there in the future. Mr Branson threw the biggest press event ever and publicly congratulated the minister for allowing Virgin to fly to Cape Town. The minister in question had no choice after that but to accept Virgin Atlantic’s landing in Cape Town. A large part of why this was possible was because Branson’s great personality and charm were mixed in with opportunity and public presence.

But it’s not always this easy and a lot of these ideas and tactics come from a series of failures. In the Caribbean we have a particularly denigrating attitude towards failing; so much so that it stops anyone from even trying. 9 out of 10 entrepreneurs fail and Mr Branson explains how they should be celebrated because they learned more in that period than ever before. In the UK there is an almost comical attitude towards failing where a constant winner is bad news. The British love a failed attempt! And it was the dawn of the limited company that allowed people to take a risk and start a company knowing that they were protected by the law.

Nurturing a culture without taboos on failure gives rise to people with new experiences and with these new experiences they try other ideas that are infinitely more successful. The chain reaction is that they then start teaching others and products/services reach the market that were unheard of before. One simple way of looking at it is by thinking about how many amazing developments there are all over the world and yet we don’t have any of it in Barbados. Our cell-phone penetration is extremely high but we don’t have Uber – why not? We have so much sunshine and scarce water so why don’t we farm aquaponically? So many elements of life that can progress us already exist. We need that one person to do it. Why is that person not you?

Once you have started you have to ensure you develop continuously to be a great leader. Be approachable and personable and avoid anything you may have seen on The Apprentice – those aren’t good leaders. You can’t tread on everyone else to get to the top anymore – things don’t work like that anymore. Be good to everyone you meet with because you will invariably meet these people again ten years down the line and they will be the ones trying to work with you. Don’t ridicule employees and don’t punish. Virgin is the biggest employer of prison offenders and they haven’t seen a single instance yet where the offenders did bad. When you give people a second chance in an honourable way they will not have much incentive to let you down.

From there you can continue as a great leader not just inside your company but for society as a whole. Virgin has several foundations now that have different roles in places where they want to make the world a better place. The group has also started shifting the attention away from Branson and onto the Virgin brand. Over time, the group has evolved and always made sure it remained relevant and in touch. Perhaps the reason it is loved by so many for so long. 

Chapter 1

Chapter 2

Chapter 3

Chapter 5