The serial entrepreneur reflects on lessons learned during his long and varied career.
Richard Branson leads a charmed life. Today, the founder of the Virgin Group travels the globe, running his multibillion-dollar empire from his numerous homes and hotel properties.
“I’ve been fortunate,” Branson said onstage Tuesday at the Tribeca Film Festival’s Imagination Day in New York City.
Undeniably. But this good fortune didn’t happen by accident. While Branson credits his business success to an innate “screw it, let’s do it” attitude — “my greatest fear,” he said, “is saying ‘no’ to something” — recklessness alone doesn’t build a global brand.
Most people can take risks. What’s made Branson the bonafide face of entrepreneurship is the ability to try something and, whether it’s a success (as with Virgin Atlantic and Virgin Records) or failure (Virgin Cola), dissect the experience for lessons to use in his next venture.
The through line so far? “I learned very early on in life that business is simply coming up with an idea that makes other people’s lives better,” he said. “Some of the best businesses come out of initial frustration with the way other people are dealing with you.” Virgin Atlantic was famously born on a whim back in 1984. When British Airways cancelled Branson’s flight to the British Virgin Islands, he rented a plane to fly there himself, filling it up with fellow disgruntled passengers. “The rest,” he said, “is history.”
While Branson dedicated most of his conversation to general reflections on life and career, he also shared a few concrete pointers he’s picked up along the way. Here’s his case for why entrepreneurs and business leaders should:
Travel. Particularly for young entrepreneurs, it’s important to visit other countries and experience other ways of life, Branson said. “See what’s happening in France, see what’s happening in England, see what’s happening in China.” If nothing else, the exposure to different strategies to everyday problems may get the creative juices flowing. “If you can’t come up with a great idea yourself, you’ll find there are other great ideas out there.”
Take notes. Steve Jobs’ legacy may have popularized a style of leadership based on the manipulation of weaknesses, but Branson takes the opposite approach. For him, a leader is someone “who will praise and not criticize” in order to “draw out the best in people.” Along the same lines, his version of leadership is based on the ability listen more than they talk.
On a practical level, this means taking notes. Because in this regard at least, Branson is a realist: “If you don’t write things down, how are you going to remember half the things the person told you?”
Hire from within. There are undeniable benefits to hiring an outside candidate as chief executive of a company. An external hire often comes with fresh perspectives and the ability to drive needed change, which helps explain why the practice at large public companies is on the rise.
Still, Branson tries to avoid it whenever possible. “We don’t often go outside,” he says. Yes, selecting from a company’s existing talent pool means that some boxes remain unchecked, but it also means you’re never exposed to a candidate with glaring, unforeseen weaknesses. Perhaps more importantly, it’s a morale play.
“The whole company will be pleased that you employ from within; they all have the chance to one day get the top job.”
Let employees work from home. When Yahoo controversially scrapped its work from home policy in 2013, it argued that requiring employees to come into the office each day would boost productivity and engagement. While the merits of this strategy are still up for debate, one thing is clear: Branson is on the opposite side of the issue.
On top of its existing work from home policy, in 2014 the Virgin Group adopted an unlimited leave policy. The overall aim is to provide “lots and lots of flexibility,” particularly for new parents.
Branson knows the importance of flexible schedules firsthand. Throughout his career, his policy has been to work from home — or homes, more accurately — whenever possible. By doing so, “the kids have literally grown up crawling at my feet.” He’s taken meetings while changing a nappy, and wants his employees to have the freedom to do the same.