"What routinely fools a Goliath is when, instead of going after their market share, someone instead goes out to create a whole new niche market right under their imperious nose."
Serial entrepreneur Richard Branson has certainly mastered the craft of finding niche markets. From his first venture at the age of 16 with Student magazine to the creation of Virgin Records, Virgin Airlines, Virgin Mobile, and more, Branson admits he couldn’t have seen the billion-dollar success he sees today without enlisting the help of others. “Hire your weaknesses” he encourages in The Virgin Way – Everything I Know About Leadership, after all, an individual who plans to take on the world cannot possibly do it on his own. Through vibrant storytelling, personal accounts of success and failure, and punchy, to-the-point chapters, in 381 pages Branson reveals his core leadership values, his “Screw It, Let’s Do It” approach to business, and his utmost and utter respect for the people who have helped him (and continue to help him) along the way. Branson’s focus on relationship-building, community involvement, corporate culture, and of course having lots of fun, is refreshing – these are authentic aspects of business building that we don’t often hear the big wigs placing importance on, though they have been Branson’s core values from the beginning.
Don’t complain, invent
"Sometimes, rather than sitting back and complaining about lousy service, it really pays to get out there and find a way to improve upon it by reinventing it yourself."
Branson’s philosophy is to never settle for mediocre. Without having any knowledge of the aviation business, he recognized there was a gap in service levels of some of the world’s biggest airlines. Rather than complaining about the inevitable, Branson saw an opportunity to create change. This optimistic and possibility-filled outlook has brought him to the forefront of some major successes, but also some failures (cue Virgin Cola and a condom business). With a ‘can’t win ‘em all’ attitude, Branson admits his short-sightedness in his failures and focuses on where his thirst for invention, or rather re-invention, has benefited not just him, but large communities of people.
So how exactly does one manage such a vast group of diverse businesses? It’s all in the GEMs.
Get the right people enrolled
"Going it alone is an admirable but foolhardy and highly flawed approach to taking on the world."
Whether it’s employees, business partners, or mentors, Branson’s stance on extraordinary success is that it does not come to individuals alone. In his 40+ years in business, Branson has discovered that great leaders can show up at any place at any time, so he encourages his readers to always be prepared.
“You can never tell where your next leaders are going to come from,” he explains. “We find great leaders everywhere: some working hard inside our companies, others working for large competitors, or sometimes they just walk in on us right out of the blue.”
Titles and position in a hierarchy are no indicator of an individual’s innovation and leadership abilities, so place less importance on those details and more on getting to know the people around you. Seek mentors who have done the kind of work you are looking to do, people who have succeeded but also people who have failed – their stories will be enlightening and quite insightful. How else would he have managed to create a completely new airline that is now a big player in the world’s aviation game?
Learn to delegate. Admit where you have weaknesses and find the people who will fill the gaps for you. The next step is very important: allow the people you enroll to take control and accountability for their roles. Once you have the people in place, it’s the culture you create that will support your outrageous visions, and empower your people to help you reach your goals.
Create an entrepreneur culture
"No matter how visionary, brilliant and far-reaching a leader’s strategy might be, it can, and frequently does, all go for naught if it is not fully supported by a healthy and spirited corporate culture."
If you haven’t picked up on it already, Branson is not one to place importance on corporate hierarchies, titles, or silos. He truly views the role of leader as that of an enabler – an individual who provides what is needed for work to get done, supports ideas, and listens from the bottom up. In this sense, leaders create “interpreneurs” who take on their roles as if they owned the company themselves.
“Incredible results can flow from vision and leadership coming together in one inspired individual with the assistance of an army of equally inspired followers,” Branson writes.
Creating this sort of culture, Branson says, involves checking egos at the door, being open-minded, and letting go of control. It also involves creating a space for employees to feel comfortable expressing themselves, with no fear of judgment or punishment. Had Branson not created this culture of acceptance amongst his various Boards and business partners, few of the companies that make up the Virgin Group would exist today.
The Virgin Way puts an edgy, in-your-face lens on entrepreneurship and the fundamental role of a leader. Branson’s storytelling makes his philosophies relatable, and puts a spotlight on the beauty of being an authentic, no BS leader. I have to admit, there are some tangents in the book that made the read feel a lot longer than it should have, but at the end of it all, Branson’s quirky, unreasonable, and purely optimistic approach leaves the reader encouraged to “screw it,” and just “do it.” After all, anything is possible, isn’t it?