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The Virgin Way: Richard Branson's Leadership

Tuesday, September 30, 2014
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While Richard Branson’s new book, The Virgin Way, is “about listening, learning, laughing, and leading,” applying the BRAVE leadership framework to the book’s 10 summary ideas yields some notions that may help your training and development efforts.

Environment/where to play: Listen out there

Listen, take lots of notes, and keep setting new challenges. Branson writes: “One of the keys to ‘the way’ we do things is nothing more complex than listening—listening intently to everyone.” Ask “why” with a “wide-angled lens.” For example, Virgin expanded the field of play for Upper Class airline travel to include airport limo connections and superior airport lounges. 

Turn off that laptop and smartphone and get your derrière out there (part 1). Branson has never had an office in the office. He never summons people to “come unto me.” Instead he stops people where they work and asks them questions about the good things they are doing to learn and encourage. 

Application: Explicitly train people on how to listen

Values/what matters and why: Do good that you love

Make a positive difference and do some good. In line with Shawn Achor’s findings in The Happiness Advantage that “when we are more positive our brains are more engaged, more energized, creative, motivated, healthier, resilient, and productive,” Branson founded Virgin “to make people’s lives better.” 

Do what you love and have a couch in the kitchen. Businesses have the opportunity and the responsibility to do good things in their communities. They have to create and “creators are never satisfied: they believe they can always do better.” 

Application: Invest in developing individuals’ strengths, as well as opportunities for development.

Attitude/how to win: Turn dreams to actions grounded in beliefs

Follow your dreams and just do it. Branson told PrimeGenesis partner Roger Neill that “the difference between me and many others is that I write down all my ideas—and then make them happen.” He’s convinced that “everything that’s really worthwhile in life involves some degree of risk.” So he loves being the underdog, finding holes in the way the “big dogs” do things and then beating them by changing the game. 

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Believe in your ideas and be the best. This passion for being the best is why Virgin Air traded its “typical” earphones for high-quality digital earphones that each passenger could keep—why Branson values capability over expertise and why culture is so important to Virgin. You can’t be the best as an individual. You have to be the best as a team. 

Application: Have an integrated system-wide development plan that builds an organizational competitive advantage.

Relationships/how to connect: Communicate to build your team

Communicate, collaborate, and communicate some more. Relationships are about personal connections fueled by communication. As Branson puts it, “great leaders are…simplifiers…that can communicate…in terms that are universally understood.” This is why Steve Jobs focused Apple’s new headquarters on a central piazza—to enable random interactions, collaboration, and communication. 

Have fun and look after your team. The core of Virgin’s magic is “a youthful joie de vivre and great people skills, combined with a relentless focus on great service and succeeding, (and a) never-failing sense of humor.” This creates a culture in which employees feel “valued, empowered and trusted” so they can “go out and make amazing things happen.” 

Application: As trainers, take the time to connect with your audience/customers before trying to train them.

Behaviors/what impact: Delegate and follow through

Turn off that laptop and smartphone and get your derrière out there (part 2). When a Virgin train had an accident, Branson dropped everything to be in the hospital with those injured. He didn’t wait until the dust had settled, the analyses were done and he could answer questions. It’s not about answering questions. It’s about showing up. 

Don’t give up. Roman philosopher Seneca said, “Luck is what happens when preparation meets opportunity.” Branson has adds a dose of persistence to that. Witness his persistence in pushing back on the UK government when it miscalculated a rival’s bid for a rail franchise. Not surprisingly, Branson has a history of what Jim Collins describes as “return on luck.” 

Delegate and spend more time with your family. Leadership is not about you. It’s about inspiring and enabling others to do their absolute best together to realize a meaningful and rewarding shared purpose. Be BRAVE. Delegate, and spend more time with your family. 

Application: Follow through on your training and development to ensure it has the desired impact.

About the Author

George Bradt has a unique perspective on transformational leadership based on his experience as a business leader, consultant, and journalist. He progressed through sales, marketing, and general management roles around the world at companies including Unilever, Procter & Gamble, Coca-Cola, and J.D. Power’s Power Information Network spin-off as chief executive. Now he is a principal of CEO Connection and managing director of the executive onboarding group PrimeGenesis.

George is a graduate of Harvard and Wharton (MBA), co-author of four books on onboarding, including The New Leader’s 100-Day Action Plan, and co-author of a weekly column on Forbes.com, The New Leader’s Playbook.

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