Notes from “The Virgin Way” by Richard Branson

  • Listen intently to everyone who has an opinion to share (whether you accept it or work on it is a different story, but do soak it in).
  • On luck – “you can really work at helping it along”. Being at the right time at the right place is a situation that gets created because you were persevering with something along a planned path.
  • Shepherding a company through its various stages of life is very much akin to raising a kid:
    • Early years – young, naive, anything goes (unstructured). You tumble, make silly mistakes and learn from them.
    • Teenage – know-it-all, cockiness.
    • Adulthood – maturity, smooth operations, but several risks such as getting complacent.
  • Take notes. Note-taking is a great skill complementary to listening.  Richard himself has taken copious notes about everything ever since his first venture (‘The Student’ newsletter). Not only does it help fill gaps in memory, it is also of service during lawsuits.
  • Importance of listening skills:
    • Listen, to the spoken word.
    • Listen, more intently, to the unspoken word. What is left out is often conspicuous.
    • Listen, to the manner of speaking.
      • Body language
      • Facial expressions
      • Subtle innuendos
      • Enunciation of certain words.
  • If you are in management, walk around. NEVER have people *come* to *your* office. You are making your employees way more comfortable if you walk into their workspace rather than having them come to yours.
  • “If only we had the power to see ourselves the way others see us.” Strive for this, to objectively judge yourself the same way someone else would judge you.
    • Look in the mirror every night, ask yourself “how does my customer see me”. Make it a habit.
  • If you have family and friends who are also customers, it is downright foolish not to take full advantage of their outside-in points of view.
  • Richard has favored outsider CEOs for many Virgin companies, to get a fresh perspective.
  • When speaking, a rightly timed pause is every bit as critical and effective as choosing the right words.
  • Avoid the following in your language:
    • Umms, ahhs, “you know”, “like” and other filler words.
    • Double negatives – “not a bad idea”. This is especially important if you are in  a position where people take your opinion seriously, they will read deeply into your statement and double negatives can go either way.
    • Vague statements  – “this is certainly different” (is it different in a good or bad way?)
    • “having said that” – this phrase kills the weight of your statements
    • “OK” – avoid when your opinion is important or critical. Culturally, interpretations of “ok” vary widely.
    • “quite” – quite means “very good” for an American but ranges from “reasonably good” to “barely acceptable” for Brits.
  • On his successes as a leader/manager: “It is the thought that counts.” Richard highly encourages taking your team out to lunch, giving them a surprise day off or at the very least, walking over, shaking their hands and saying a heart-felt thank-you.
  • Leadership is the ability to hide your panic from others” – Lao Tzu.
  • Delegate, not relegate: If you push a problem away to someone else (usually a subordinate), also include the power to really do something about it, along with the problem you pushed.
  • Anyone who wants to make the effort to work on their luck can and will seriously improve it.” (Thanks for the certainty in your statement, Sir Branson!)
    • As a corollary, one must stop creating circumstances (via one’s nature or habits) that lead to one’s bad luck.
  • Great piece on ‘apparent’ luck: The story of Alberto Chang-Rajii, who bought 1% of Google with the $10,000 he had saved up for a second-hand car as a graduate student, after meeting Sergey Brin outside a downtown Palo Alto movie theatre, where both of them heard ‘sold out’ waiting in line.
    • Non-obvious pieces of the ‘luck’ here: He took Sergey out to coffee when both were equally miffed on not getting the movie. He learnt about the project when it was still a research project and bet 10k (huge amount as a grad student). He did not sell through the rocketship rise (and apparently still holds GOOG).
  •  Asking questions instead of assuming the status-quo can’t be changed has tremendous merits. Richard asked why airlines couldn’t give away electronic earpieces to passengers instead of rubber tube ‘headsets’ with horrible sound quality that was the norm with airlines back then. Everyone had just assumed the electronic headphones would be more expensive, but it turns out they were better compared to the cost of cleaning and eventually disposing the rubber tube sets. Suddenly, families and kids wanted their people to travel Virgin on business trips so they could get those headphones.
  • The merits of “excellent and plentiful customer service supplied by real people”, quantified:
    • US avg. retail sales per sq.ft of store area (annual): $341
    • Same stat for second best retailer in the country (Tiffany jewellers): $3017
    • Same stat for the best retailer (no prizes for guessing… Apple): $6059 (double than Tiffany, and 18x the national average)
  • It is no coincidence that the staff at Apple retail stores is plenty (almost one in two people you’ll see at the store will be a retail employee) and diverse. Richard was served by a guy his age with a beard similar to his. Coincidence?
  •  Big dogfights don’t always to the biggest dog. That’s what  you learn from Virgin v/s British Airways.
  • React swiftly, change situations to your advantage.
    • “Virgin Mobile FreeFest”: Virgin Mobile used to hold an annual (paid?) music fest. When swine flu and job layoffs happened in late 2009, they didn’t shut down the festival. Instead they made it WAY more fun AND made the best parts exclusive for people who could provide pink-slips and show they were laid off. They garnered great goodwill by allowing other stressed-out people to have a day of absolute fun and pay homage to pink slips!
  • Sara Blakely of Spanx (someone Richard finds similar to himself): “The smartest thing I ever did was hire for my weaknesses.”
  • Richard’s hiring style – focus on personality rather than what you see on the CV.
  • Google’s ‘Project Oxygen‘ identified 3 key reasons why people leave – they don’t connect with the mission, don’t get along with their coworkers or find their manager bad.
  • Greedily picking up every great practice that is good for the customer or your employees – Richard praises a bunch of companies in the book. It is clear that Virgin has been quick to ape the goodness – Apple for retail and customer service, Hyundai for providing beats-everyone-else-by-far-margins 10 year or 100k miles warranties, Netflix for providing unlimited leave.
  • In praise of Herb Kelleher of Southwest (only airline in the history of aviation to report 40 consecutive years of profits) – “avoiding any and all kind of unnecessary complexity is the cornerstone to Herb’s business philosophy.”
  • Company culture is like coral reef. Takes years and lots of effort to build, and is very quickly and easily destroyed by the wrong actions.
  • Book recommendation: The Happiness Advantage by Shawn Achor. 90% of one’s happiness comes from within, and it makes you more successful (not the other way round). Rewire your brain to be happy – e.g. start each day with a random act of kindness and gratitude for 21 days.
  • Mentors, with experience and wisdom, are key to young businesses. Behind each blockbuster story, you will find one of them. It was Mike Markkula for Apple and Freddie Laker for Virgin Airlines.
  • Be brave, stand for your troops, but don’t needlessly (and foolishly) sacrifice like the troops in Charge of the Light Brigade (old story about an army that rode into a valley knowing that their chances of victory were none and got all 600 of themselves killed).
  • A good employee ‘covers all bases’. When John Caulcutt,who ran a company that helped Virgin with advertising stuff pulled a prank with Richard Branson to cover BA’s Concorde plane model at Heathrow with the Virgin logo, he also booked all available cranes in the city for the day, so BA couldn’t take it off easily!
  • There would be no problem with square pegs and round holes if the pegs department and the holes department were the whole department.” This brilliant line demonstrates why it is important to break down silos and get all stakeholders to work together, be in one room when the decisions are made.
  • Richard Branson ran a *full* marathon at age 60 in 2010!
  • It would be nice to integrate executive decision-making into the Just-In-Time philosophy – not too late to be rushed, and not too early to sit around before it got outdated.
  • Learn ‘the art of orchestrated procrastination’ – this is the ideal middle-ground between the rash ‘screw it, lets do it’ attitude and the ‘paralysis by analysis’ case. Ask yourself, is it a ‘carpe diem’ moment? What happens if you don’t jump in and save the day?
    • Example – Virgin passed over the opportunity to invest in Goldman Sachs’ subprime mortgages via ‘orchestrated procrastination’.
  • Take risks, but do everything you can to protect the downside.
    • When Virgin jumped into the airlines, Richard’s team was skeptical, but their hedge was a deal that would get Boeing to buy back their only 747 if things don’t go well in the first year of operations.
  • Crisis Management: As a leader, show that you care enough to ‘be there’. That is usually all you can do anyways. Richard recalls instances of crises and catastrophes where he tried to get to the spot ASAP and console the affected, and also instances where some prominent leaders missed doing this.
    • 90% of life is just showing up.
    • Step up, gather as much reliable information as is available.
  • “Change your ways or we’ll change our supplier” is a very straight-forward demonstration of how money can talk.
  • “What’s trending out there and how can I reinvent my business to take advantage of it?” Asking this periodically is something Richard claims to have learnt from Tony Fadell.
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