Along with 1500 other people, I crammed into Sydney’s largest breakfast venue at the Sydney Convention Centre about a month ago to hear the man who has been a lifelong personal leadership role model. The poor man had a dreadful flu, but he would NEVER cancel. He just sniffed and smiled and thanked US for turning up!
Richard Branson really burst through my consciousness as a young female leader in 1987-1999, where I was busy shattering the glass ceiling for women and the discrimination ceiling to help the first Black employees (members of the Quality Circles I facilitated) enter the management ranks at South Africa’s only aluminium smelting operation in South Africa (acquired by Billiton in 1989, and merged with BHP about 6 years ago to form BHP-Billiton).
What drew me to Richard? No, it wasn’t his sex appeal or cheeky wide grin, but because he dared to take on the status quo and pioneer a new way of doing something- and with flair and style not seen before in these industries he took on. Virgin Atlantic’s first international destination was Johannesburg- and I never flew anything else after that!
His eccentricity struck a personal chord, as did his warmth, style and accessibility. In his autobiography I read about his dyslexia, and personal struggle with public speaking. Yet as global CEO and sought after celebrity, he totally stares down that fear practically every day! How many of us don’t prefer to run from it or avoid it?
Sir Richard has found a creative approach to deal not only with fear, but avoid all the preparation time that speechmaking requires. He agrees to an interview because he is more comfortable talking with someone, and that translates into a personal, warm and intimate, almost voyeuristic experience for the audience too- something that is much more difficult in speechmaking and only a few ever achieve that.
Back to my breakfast- I ended up at a table so far away from the stage that TV screens had to relay him closer to us. But did that change the electricity in the room? Not a bit. He radiated exactly the same thing as he repeats in this message: Business is nothing but relationships. People are at the heart of that. And I fearlessly left my seat and stood next to a pillar at the front of the room from where I could be up close and personal!
Thanks Sir Richard. I chose to work with people all my life, and help catalyse their magic… for their own sake in the first instance, and then watching the business benefit from that. And it’s the most fun you can have and be paid for it!
Sir Richard can be followed on Twitter as @richardbranson and his blog is at http://www.virgin.com/richard-branson/blog/. Watch the video below about the launch of Virgin Galactic- commercial Spaceflight, then read the fantastic interview below from via english.alrroya.com
While it can be tough to compare companies across industries, also taking into account sizes and circumstances, I do believe that successful businesses have a number of qualities in common. The following questions, submitted by readers of Entrepreneur magazine and American Express OpenForum, sum up two key dilemmas facing many different kinds of businesses.
Q: I am starting my own company and I don’t have much experience in hiring or managing employees. As one of the most renowned entrepreneurs in the world, what kind of approach would you suggest? – Harem El Hennawy, Cairo, Egypt
A: People are one of the most important assets of any business. The Virgin Group would be nothing without the great employees we have attracted over the years. It is often said that the most important factor in real estate investment is “location, location, location.” Well, I believe that a key part of building a successful business is people, people, people.
Virgin has made its name by breaking into new markets and offering great value, superior service, a fresh approach and a bit of fun. It is up to our staff to consistently deliver all those elements to customers, which means that our airlines, for example, get their appealing personality from the cheerfulness – sometimes cheekiness – of the crew. Their confidence in reaching out to customers is in part due to our having selected the right leaders for our businesses.
We spend a lot of time finding the right personalities to run our companies. It can be challenging, since we look for managers who take their roles seriously and lead by example, but who are also willing to see the lighter side of life. They tend to be focused yet also good listeners, inventive yet organized, determined yet ready to enjoy themselves.
Try to avoid hiring status seekers, as they tend to distance themselves from their employees. Look for people who care passionately about the company and not simply their status within it. In my experience, they must want to build a business that all its employees can all be proud of – one that will look after its staffers and customers alike.
Of course, you can’t get it right every time. When you do make the wrong management decision, it’s vital to act decisively. As the saying goes, “Rot starts at the top.”
How will you know when things are going wrong? In the early days at Virgin, I would give out my phone number to all our music company staffers and tell them to call me whenever they felt we were doing something really wrong. This was key to our development as a business, both because it helped me to identify problems early on and, more importantly, because it let the employees know that management was ready to listen to them.
Fostering this kind of dialogue is essential if you want to build a company that will grow and thrive. Your staff will feel more valued and committed if they really believe you are listening to them, and you will benefit from hearing a lot of great ideas from the people on the front lines.
Q: I’ve read your books and clearly you are not afraid to take risks. What qualities must a person have in order to be successful in business – and can they be learned? – Elena Gorchakova, Russia
A: It’s important to distinguish between the public profile of risk-taking and daring that we have cultivated for the Virgin brand and my personal approach to business risk. I have always tried to grab attention for Virgin and our companies by performing stunts and holding flamboyant launches; but I am also careful not to risk too much on any one business or investment.
I believe an aspiring entrepreneur needs to be confident, take risks and challenge the status quo – but also protect the downside. This means you don’t bet the farm on every move.
That said, we have come close a few times. In the early 1980s, our music business was hit by the recession and we tumbled into the red. A few years later, the combination of British Airways’ dirty tricks campaign and the start of the Persian Gulf War forced us to sell Virgin Records to bail out the airline. On each occasion we took a calculated risk to expand our businesses out of trouble, and it paid off.
Q: Can you develop good judgment when it comes to risk and reward?
Yes, I believe that’s a skill you can learn on the job, but sooner or later you have to take the biggest risk of all: running a company according to your own judgment. A big part of being an entrepreneur is simply giving new ideas a go, but it is also about accepting failure and learning from mistakes – picking yourself up, dusting yourself off and trying all over again with a smile on your face!
Distributed by The New York Times Syndicate