Bozen – Richard Branson has been in the news recently – in tragic circumstances unfortunately, as his Virgin Galactic craft ran into difficulties on a test flight and one of the two pilots died. However, fixed remains his ambition to achieve his goal of organising flights, commercial ones at that, into outer space. The tragic incident came not long after the publication of his book ‘The Virgin Way’.
One might expect that being the entrepreneur he is many books on leadership and how to achieve success had been written by Branson. However, when one realises that the man is dyslexic and has never himself read a book on management the level of interest rises. Certainly a good read of his first such book engages the reader in a few home truths and an incontro or two with a few golden nuggets of advice. Now any entrepreneur will tell you that it is important to be different and stand out from the crowd, and when one thinks of brand association with the owner of a company it is surely Branson’s name which comes first to mind. This is emphatically endorsed by his insistence on taking the Galactic mission forward and that he and at least one of his children shall be on the first commercial flight into space, accompanied we may add by a list of Hollywood names. Let’s hope for an Oscar style performance when the day actually comes.
Now back to the book and a more analytical view of it. Appeal is all in the world of marketing and the book’s cover in a virgin white dress is pretty striking and of course features a pensive and happy pose of the author himself. It is of no small weight that the layout of the pages is also inviting with well-spaced lines and a highly readable font – no small matters when considering whether one wishes to read a book or not, as all too often the reader is turned off by some dire and weird selection of character and lay-out.
As one might expect Branson has little time for standard theories of business development and throughout it is his instinctive and fun nature which comes to the fore. Remembering that he left school early and never attended anything resembling a management school his emphasis throughout is on personal conviction, excitement, and a little word called ‘fun’. A highly irresponsible approach the theorists and the purists would say but his trick is to get other people involved and to believe in and share the dream – hence the title of the book. One example to highlight his philosophy is his fairly scathing criticism of mission statements, which for the large part he regards as pompous indulgences to no real effect. He prefers the one-liners which call the troops to the frontline and are simple and inspirational statements – and the type which are likely to stay with you through your life. Two he quotes go back to his early life and as they were in Latin they had to be explained by his Dad and his teacher. They are ‘Per Ardua ad Astra’ and ‘Persto et Praesto. It is easy to see where he has taken his philosophy, belief, and determination from!
Of course one does not build an empire on enthusiasm alone so what are the underlying traits which have accompanied this self-confessed wanderer on his way? In simple and self-effacing terms he puts the secret down to uncomplicated abilities such as how to listen, how to stimulate others, how to laugh, and how to have fun. This it seems is The Virgin Way and worthy surely of greater investigation!
As far as listening goes, Branson also exposes that “listen is an anagram of silent” and that people rather than being silent and listening effectively are all too concerned with getting their own preconceived view across. Enough said!? The man is an habitual note-taker and says this is just a common sense device to take in maximum input from things which have been said and thoughts which result. Simple! He points out that it is often the top executives are too proud to take notes as it seems a somewhat degrading activity, whereas he points out that it is just an effective way of keeping thoughts and ideas in place. To lighten the mood but to emphasise the point he says that one of his abiding memories of John Wayne western films is the line ‘Big Jake, you are short on ears and long on mouth’. So in conclusion it can be said that in the world of Branson, where you would expect high-tech to be the order of the day his most valuable device is a scruffy notebook in which he scribbles away – and he keeps them for future reference. There comes to mind the oft told story of a dream being the stuff of an award winning novel but how often does the dreamer have the nous to wake up and write down the plot?
Branson’s learning difficulties gave him a distinctive advantage when starting up in business. Yes, the sentence is correct although it seems a strange utterance. The fact is that, although admitting that you have to do everything at the outset, he quickly realised that he was no good at numbers and keeping financial records so an early appointment was a must. ‘Hire your weaknesses’ is a nice way of putting the importance of delegation so that you can focus on what you are good at and a realization of such goes a long way. Relying on others is critical to the Virgin corporate culture, and this is apparent in the hiring process itself for the Virgin boss places great importance on being involved in decisions as to leadership roles and it is essential that these critical positions are filled with persons who share the company vision. ‘Character is higher than intelligence’ is a nice way of putting it. Similarly, hiring from within is a feature of the Virgin philosophy and valuing the contribution of team members. And there is more besides for once you have hired personnel who prove of value the next question is how you keep them, and Branson refers to recent Google research evidencing that the main reasons quoted by employees in not wishing to stay in a company are
Not feeling any connection with the company’s culture
Not getting along with or having respect for co-workers
Thinking that their boss is terrible
It would be difficult not to label the author a fun person for he has embarked on a number of pranks and publicity stunts which any more sterile type person would run away from. Fun and happiness are essential components of Branson’s make-up and as he puts it ‘Life is not a dress rehearsal’. Party-time was certainly an influential element in the early days of the empire building and still today it would seem that the company culture encourages the full involvement of employees and their families in what can only be termed extra curricula activities. A flick through the ‘fun’ chapters of the book will make interesting reading. Passion comes from happiness as passion breeds happiness and these are two essential elements of the blonde Englishman’s success. Of course there have been failures and pretty big ones at that – take a look at the stories of virgin cola and Virgin Clothing. Despite setbacks he seems to have the blessed quality of not taking himself too seriously and bouncing back whatever the dilemma might be. Foolish or resilient the schoolteacher might say.
If you ask me what other elements there are to his undoubted overall success story, I having seen him live on two presentation shows and countless TV programmes (but never having been invited to his Caribbean island of Necker, it is apparently the most beautiful place in the world – what more would one expect from Branson), it is that he comes across as very unassuming, enthusiastic in all he does and is one of those characters who seem to have an infectious impact on others. He does not shy away from doing big things in a different way and the chapters of the book are themselves entitled in a non-traditional manner. What for example will the chapters ‘K-I-S-S and Tell’ and ‘Big Dogfights’ be about?
A conclusion to a crit is always needed, although as yet it is not sure where Branson’s thirst for life, business, and adventure will take him to – he hopes to the stars. For my part I cannot deny that the book is a continual revelation of home truths for business and life itself, one of those ‘non putterdowners’ which keep you awake long into the night, has more than its fair share of tips to pick up and make use of, and is without doubt a really enjoyable read – so enjoyable in fact that you might forget to take notes – and that would not please Richard very much! The author: Geoff Barclay spends much time in South Tyrol for business and pleasure and his ‚Brain International Ltd‘ assists individuals, companies and organisations in their internationalisation process - via market entry and business development support and a range of services embracing training, translations, and language immersion abroad – all intended to better equip the interested party looking to expand horizons.
weird: seltsam, eigenartig
to come to the fore: hervortreten
to scathe: verletzen, vernichten
pompous: wichtigtuerisch, pompös
indulgence: Schwäche, Duldsamkeit
per ardua ad astra: lat., durch Widrigkeiten zu den Sternen
persto: lat., fest stehen (bleiben)
underlying: zugrunde-, darunterliegend
trait: Eigenschaft, Merkmal
to take in: zu sich nehmen, begreifen
scruffy: schlampig, verlottert
oft (arch.): oft
nous: Verstand, Grips
at the outset: zu Beginn
to go a long way: weit reichen
stunt: Kunststück, Stunt
rehearsal: Probe, Anprobe
flick: Schnipser, Streifen
unassuming: nicht anmaßend, unprätentiös