Branson: The Original Entrepreneur

Richard Branson embodied the word entrepreneur before it was commonplace. At 16, he launched Student magazine to give a voice to anti-Vietnam sentiment, and at 22, after being kicked out of record shops, opened his own in the crux of a church in west London. A local sanctuary for those who enjoyed music, it led to the launch of Virgin Records and the signing of the Sex Pistols in the early 70s. The Virgin brand continued to grow, evolve and stretch into various sectors over the past four decades, with over 400 businesses including Virgin Atlantic, Virgin Mobile, Virgin Hotels, banking services and — Virgin Galactic. If the first flight launches later this year as planned, with Branson and his children aboard, he will cement his legacy.

At the core of Branson’s leadership style is his relentless focus on his employees. They are the blood of his business. He believes it’s all about finding the right people, inspiring them and drawing out their best. He advises, “Lavish praise and never openly criticize people.” People flourish on praise and don’t need to be told when they’ve done something wrong; they know. He also believes in second chances. Arrested early in his career due to export tax evasion, he is aware that everyone messes up.

He notes when people are proud to be part of your company, they become the best brand ambassadors you can have. To be a truly good leader, you need to listen to them. Branson doesn’t hide behind his desk; he aims to meet as many employees as possible. On a Virgin flight, he not only speaks with the pilots and cabin crew, but to the passengers, too. He looks for kinks in the chain of assistance, because the chain is only as strong as the weakest link. “One of my key lessons over the years has been to surround myself with great management teams who complement me and ensure that we have the all-round skills to make our businesses succeed,” said Branson.

A proponent of decentralization, Branson enables managers to “own their own business” and be entrepreneurs within the company. He rewards his fellow risk-takers and has found some of the best ideas come from failures. At Virgin, there is little red tape and things get done faster. Branson attributes the success of his first-to-market products to the company mantra, “Screw it, let’s do it!” — unlike the bureaucracy found at competitor British Airways.

Though a risk-taker, he abides by the guiding principle: always protect the downside. He advises having a way out if things go wrong, such as limited one-year contracts, and protecting your people. “All you have in life is your reputation. Being the best business leader is dealing with people fairly and well,” he shared during his first TED talk in 2007.

His inquisitive nature and turning the status quo on its head is what propels the Virgin culture and their growth into hundreds of businesses. A bit of maverick, it was his mother that stressed he had to always be able stand on his own feet. She also taught him to never look back in regret but to move on to the next thing, and that has fueled his resilience.

Branson is hands-on, knee-deep in promoting all that is Virgin.To be a success, he is always out there, always selling himself, even at the risk of appearing a fool. As his own publicity magnet, he has starred in dangerous stunts, such as hot air ballooning across the Atlantic. His PR team advises against such antics, as it’s risky having a Virgin-branded balloon potentially sink into the ocean. But Branson knows it’s better to be on the front page than the back page and takes it all in stride, even his adventurous failures.

Not a traditional student (he left school at 15) and hindered by dyslexia, he said, “I’ve been running the biggest private companies in Europe, and I admit I didn’t know the difference between net and gross. In board meetings, they simplify: it’s good, it’s bad.” He has since learned to ask for the net number.

Branson has grown awareness for the phrase, capitalist philanthropy, though the nonprofit arm of his company, Virgin Unite. He’s shared, “When extreme wealth winds up in the hands of a few people, it’s important that the individuals in that position do not compete for bigger and bigger boats, but tackle issues around the world.” Initiatives including The Elders, the Carbon War Room and the B Plan have tackled important global issues such as social injustices in Africa, global warming and alternative fuels, and finding news ways to successfully do business without destroying the planet. Branson practices what he preaches and tests alternative fuel right in his own backyard on Necker Island.

The Virgin brand he created can be described as innovative, fun and quality service at a great price. As for the name, there’s no sexy story according to Branson. “It smacked of new and fresh and at the time the word was still slightly risqué, so thinking it would be an attention-grabber, we went with it.”

Some of Branson’s best advice includes:“If you don’t enjoy it, don’t do it,” and “to look for only the best in people.” His favorite quote from personal hero Sir Francis Drake, “Only a fool never changes his mind.’”

Richard Branson is a transformational leader who continues to change the face of business, because at the core he truly cares for his people. And he likes to have fun while doing it! When employees feel involved, appreciated and part of a team, they prosper and fuel productivity. The greatest example is how he sold the 4th biggest music company, Virgin Music in the 90s to EMI to save Virgin Atlantic (at best, the 25th biggest airline). If he let British Airways crush Virgin Atlantic, all those employees would be out of work. Turns out, it was one of his best business decisions, because after Napster, the music industry collapsed.

Branson celebrates life and reinforces that into every nook of the Virgin brand, providing an omni-channel of innovation, quality and fun. His self-deprecation is charming, and makes him appear more trust-worthy, not like another arrogant business tycoon, but someone I would love to work with. Hello Mr. Branson – is Virgin hiring?

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