Sir Richard Branson Interview on Leadership Posted In: Business Start-up and Growth, CFO / FD, Project Management 5 Jul 2011

I was at the three day National Achievers Congress over July 2nd-4th.  There were 15+ speakers over the three days, Tony Robbins opened with a 4 hour extravaganza and it closed with Sir Richard Branson being interviewed by Michael Burke.

Sir Richard came onto the stage accompanied by two Virgin trolley dolleys to add to the pazazz of the occasion.  He was greeted by the 7000 strong crowd like a rock star, or I guess more fittingly, like one of the nations “sweethearts”.  I couldn’t imagine Cheryl Cole or Stephen Fry being greeted with any more enthusiasm.

As he reached the stage there were scores of adoring fans (do I still call them fans for a man that runs a £2bn corporation?) reaching out to touch him.  He took the time to make a quick circuit at the front of the stage and shake hands with as many people as he could while Mr Burke waited to start the questions.

With Lord Sugar the day before running rings around Michael Burke as interviewer it was soon apparent that Sir Richard would be a much more willing participant.  He understood his audience were keen to squeeze out any learning they could and he repeatedly dropped nuggets of advice on what a leader should do, how they should act and what has the best effect on your staff.

We were reminded of his early days starting a student magazine and indeed long before that as a 6 or 7 year old when his Mum stopped the car on the way to his Grandmother and invited young Richard to make the last 2 miles on his own. 

Sir Richard was clearly independent from a very young age and he has gone on to be the leading light of British entrepreneurial success.  His Virgin group now spans multiple industries and over 300 companies. 

 It was very interesting to hear that before the first Gulf war, which he strongly felt was wrong,  Sir Richard phoned Nelson Mandela and convinced him and Kofi Annan to visit Saddam Hussein to encourage Saddam to leave the country and save his people from a devastating war.  The bombings started the day before their plane was due to leave.  Subsequently The Elders were formed, a panel of 12 wise heads that can be dispatched to help stop other international conflicts.

These were the nuggets of business leadership I noted from Sir Richard during his interview:

  • Don’t gossip about people; walk away from others that are.
  • If you fall out with someone, invite them to lunch some time later to make amends.  Especially if they were in the wrong. (Sir Richard did just that with the Chairmen of BA six months after Virgins legal victory for BAs “dirty tricks”)
  • You can, in some cases, start a business with no money at all.  (For his magazine as an example he established advertising pledges before incurring costs).
  • Defend the downside.  Assess what’s the worse that can happen.
  • Be open with your staff – after 9/11 Virgin Atlantic had to make a number of staff redundant.  All employees were promised that they would be the first to be hired, when the hiring started again.  That’s precisely what happened; most staff were brought back into the fold.
  • In the first few years of building a company from scratch, with no financing, the key word is survival!
  • To go from an average company to an exceptional company, you must get the small details right.
  • To be a good leader, you must be a good listener.
  • A good leader will promote staff substantially above what is normally considered possible.  From reception to running operations for example.
  • If a company is flexible with its staff, they will be more productive.
  • Don’t do it, unless you can be the best.
  • Successful business leaders must remember they are remarkably fortunate.
  • SCREW IT, DO IT ANYWAY!