Richard Branson: lessons in business from a superstar entrepreneur

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Superstar entrepreneur and Virgin Group founder, Sir Richard Branson regaled attendees at last week’s World Business Forum in Sydney with tales from his storied career, including lessons learned. But it was a symbolic act early in the proceedings that seemed to perfectly sum up Branson’s business and life philosophy.  

Appearing on stage to meet with session facilitator Alex Christou, Branson gleefully pulled a pair of scissors from his jacket when he spied Christou’s neck tie. “Not another one of these tie jobs,” Branson chided Christou, before advancing on the helpless facilitator and using his scissors to liberate him from the noose around his neck, much to the audience’s amusement.

Christou, director of corporate relations & partnerships at Melbourne Business School, briefly lamented the loss of his tie (“It was a good tie”) but he took the gesture with good humour, quickly engaging the affable entrepreneur in a lively discussion full of useful business advice and insights.

Delegate and promote from within

“Early on in life, I had to learn the art of delegation. If you don’t delegate, you’re not going to become a true entrepreneur, you’re going to become a manager of the first company you set up. I would recommend that, if you are going to have a decent life, try to put [yourself] out of business. I don’t mean that literally; I mean find someone who, if possible, is better than yourself at running it on a day to day basis – and maybe even retreat from the building because people always want to deal with the top person in the building – and then you can think about the bigger picture…and not get bogged down with the minutiae of running a company. If you can, find the time to pick the right person. Often they are right under your nose. I think too often, people go and get the so-called experts from outside but right within their own company there could well be someone that if you give them the chance, would really excel. Try to promote from within when you can.”

Businesses born of frustration

“Any time I’ve felt something’s not being done well I just say ‘let’s give it a go, let’s see if we can tilt this sector or that sector’. It’s been the most fascinating university education I never had.

“I’ve come across situations where, out of frustration, I’ve thought, ‘damn it, let’s see if we can put this right.’ The best businesses come out of frustration.”

Treat your workers as family

“At Virgin Group, for the last three years, we’ve told people ‘you can have as much time off, whenever you want, paid – just get your work done. You don’t have to tell us when you need time off. If you go off for a month, that’s okay. If you go off for two weeks, that’s okay. If there’s a funeral, if there’s a birthday party, you don’t have to ask.’ We’re experimenting with treating everybody as you’d expect to be treated at your family home. People haven’t misused or abused it because they’ve felt they’ve been treated like adults. It seems to have worked really well. It won’t work in every company…but in offices, that’s something I think can be made to work.”

Good leaders love people

“To be a really good leader, I think you have to love people. I get out there and really try to listen to people, immerse myself. You’ve just got to listen. Listen, listen, listen and you’ll be able to get things right.

“The best advice my mother ever gave me was if I ever said something unpleasant about somebody or gossiped, she would send me straight to the mirror and make me look at it for ten minutes, basically just to argue that it reflects so badly on yourself. The power of a good leader is to always look for the best in people.

“[I look for leaders] who love people and who look for the best in people, who are good at praising people and motivating people, and working really hard to try to make their particular company the happiest Virgin company in the world and the most productive as a result.”

Just get out there and do it

“As an entrepreneur, the best way of learning something is just to get out there and do it. Go for it, fall over and pick yourself up. Go for it, fall over and in the end you’ll end up walking and you’ll have a successful venture.”

Solving the world’s problems

“I think business people can see the problems in this world with much greater clarity, sometimes, than the social sector and the politicians. At the very least, they can help the social sector and the politicians to sort out some of the problems in the world. If we can get every single business person in this world to adopt a problem… If you’re a small business, find out in your local community who’s suffering, who needs to be helped and make a difference in your local community. If you’re a slightly bigger business, make a difference nationally. If you’re a bigger business still, make a difference in the world.”

Final words of wisdom

“I’m a great believer in working hard and playing hard.” – Branson on his work ethic.

“Protecting the downside of any deal is critical.” – Branson on risk management in the context of launching Virgin Atlantic.

“Sometime you need to take the mickey out of your bigger competitors.”- Branson on his BA can’t get it up!! stunt.

“Over the years, I’ve learnt that using yourself you can get your brand on the map.” – Branson on entrepreneurs being their own brand ambassador.

“Design is incredibly important but a lot of companies don’t spend enough effort on it. It’s tough enough to build a spaceship and go to space but if you’re going to get there, you might as well make sure you’re travelling on something that really makes you feel good and look good.” – Branson on Virgin Galactic.