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Your very own Co-Ventures Cup of Wednesday Wisdom delivered right to your inbox for a thought-provoking mid-week sip of inspiration…
If you asked the man on the street to name a successful businessman and great leader, you can bet your bottom dollar that he’d say Richard Branson.
The Virgin Group, of which Branson is both founder and chairman, now includes over 400 different companies. Both Virgin Atlantic and Virgin Trains are held up as setting standards for their respective fields. The Group’s net worth is estimated at $8 billion, and Richard Branson himself is said to be the 4th richest resident of the UK, worth a whopping $6.5 billion. Billionaires are rarely so publicly liked or so respected in the business world–so how does he do it?
There are many lessons to be learned from Richard Branson, not least how to be an effective, positive and authentic leader. To understand these, though, one has to go back to Richard’s beginnings, both in business and in life. Early on in life he learnt how to love and learn from people and how to always look for the best in others:
An academically poor schoolboy who suffered from dyslexia, Richard began his business career by selling discounted records out of a church, driven by the frustration of being forced to pay over the odds for music at other high street stores. From this, he graduated to a real record store, and then a record label–whose first release, through the company’s foresight and ability to appreciate the marketing value of the album being associated with the Exorcist film, turned out to be the chart-topping, best-selling seminal Tubular Bells by Mike Oldfield, a move which immediately made Virgin Records a serious player in the music market.
Virgin Records championed otherwise maligned artists, took chances on forward thinkers such as the Sex Pistols and bought incredibly successful nightclubs such as Heaven in the early 90s. Having branched out into other, more expensive areas with Virgin Mobile, Virgin Atlantic and eventually Virgin Trains, Richard made the personally difficult move of selling Virgin Records to the giant EMI in order to keep his airline afloat. According to Richard, he wept when the sale was completed; so difficult was it to let his company’s beginnings go.
Even just skimming the surface of Virgin Group’s early success, it’s clear that Richard Branson’s business acumen dwarfs that of many others. From beginning with a passion, seeing gaps in the market and taking chances, we can see that he has that spark of entrepreneurial spirit that is necessary in such a career. However, it’s only when you look at the Virgin Records sale that you see another side to this man: the ability to make emotionally difficult decisions when, in the long run, it’s for the greater good of the company.
From the 90s onwards, Virgin has gone from success to success–and so has Richard’s public popularity. It’s here that his real and authentic leadership qualities begin to shine, and the most notable of these are generosity, passion, vision and a warmth of kindness. Traits that we at Co-Ventures talk about often, which help to foster great employee engagement…a workforce that is committed, enthusiastic and generative.
When the Virgin Group won £610,000 from British Airways for so-called ‘dirty tricks’, Branson divided up this money amongst his staff and called it the “BA Bonus”. In 2006, he pledged to contribute that year’s profit from Virgin Atlantic and Virgin Trains (an estimated $3 billion) towards research for environmentally friendly fuels. A year later, he announced the Virgin Earth Challenge: a prize of $25 million to be given to the group that finds a solution to the problem of greenhouse gases for up to ten years.
Moves like these show an almost unprecedented connection with what matters to both Virgin’s employees and the wider world. To an individual worker, a generous bonus helps to pay the bills and feel a little more appreciated. To an entire company, seeing your leader take steps to make the world a better place must surely be an inspiration to contribute also. Virgin fosters personal growth in its employees–encouraging them to apply for jobs in Virgin’s other areas that are of interest to them–as a result the Virgin Group has a very low rotation of staff. Virgin also focuses on a growing awareness with regards to the planet, our home, to a level that is unique to this company and to its incredibly popular leader.
To lead in a real way, you must know your employees. You must lead by example, and not strangle the company from the top but allow it to flourish from the bottom. You must invest in the people that push your company forward, and foster growth in people themselves as well as the organization as a whole. And most of all, you must do it with passion, vision and communication. Deep, authentic passion, clear vision and great communication skills will build stronger and more trusting relationships with your people, and will engage them; they will generate commitment to a common goal and will deliver far greater financial rewards.
Only then can you consider yourself to be a truly effective leader.
This week’s final sip of inspiration comes from Richard Branson himself:
“A business has to be involving, it has to be fun, and it has to exercise your creative instincts.”