Richard Branson – Flexibility is the Key

 First published on 27 Feb as a guest on US ‘Switch and Shift – Future of Leadership‘ series:

Thirty years ago, I first met Richard Branson, the founder of Virgin Records. His reputation was reclusive, perhaps even aloof. People knew about him, but they didn’t know about him if you follow.

I had directions on how to find his houseboat moored on a canal behind some trees in North London. It was a cold, still day as the partly hidden old gate creaked open onto the toe-path. I found the houseboat. I looked through the window. A pretty young lady was feeding a baby, holding it gently to her breast. Young as I was, I had never seen this before. She looked up, smiled and pointed to a rickety ladder and upwards.

Branson was sitting behind an equally rickety table, wearing a thick white jersey, with his arms crossed across his chest. He rocked slowly back and forth as he looked up and smiled. In front of him on the table was a large sheet of paper covered in scribbles and squiggles.

When I spoke, he looked at me with piercing eyes, still rocking back and forth. Sometimes he scribbled or doodled on the pad in front of him. There were moments of awkward silence. His responses were short but careful.

The meeting was about a magazine called Event which he had launched because the journalists at Time Out were on strike and he saw an opportunity. But –  and this was why he wanted to see me – Time Out was now back in circulation and Event was not holding on to the once orphaned Time Out readers.

Hidden behind these trees, on the toe-path of this story are three lessons in leadership that have helped Branson in his success:

1. He kept himself out of the office. He was completely alone on the top deck of his family houseboat in the canal at Little Venice. Sure, Virgin Records was around the corner. But Branson wasn’t. He kept a distance from the day-to-day.

2. He could spot an opportunity and move quickly to make it happen. With no top-heavy management structure and no massive overheads, he could take quick decisions and move faster than the competition.

3. He was prepared to move into new areas, moving with the market and the times. The sector has not mattered, just what he can bring to it. He is flexible.

This has been a defining characteristic of his career. Many of his products have failed including, as far as I know, Virgin Vodka, Virgin Cola, Virgin Vie, Virgin Bride and Virgin Others. Importantly, as with Event, he has known when to get out, as well as when to jump in. How many businesses are stuck in their business sector and model? Not Branson. He is flexible.

When he launched Virgin Atlantic, Branson could not compete with the promotional budgets of British Airways. For the sake of the business, the previously remote and socially uneasy Branson had to create his own PR stunts. Branson, himself, had to become the story. Even with his own persona, he was prepared to be flexible.

So where is he now?

With Virgin Atlantic financially strong enough to create its own marketing budgets (including a much-heralded 25th Birthday commercial with not a Branson in sight) Branson is more relaxed, more worldly in his perspectives.

With typical irreverence, he has written a book called ‘Screw Business as Usual‘. He has founded the not-for-profit Virgin Unite.

He says ‘we must put the planet before profit‘.

Having followed him since witnessing his lady feeding their baby thirty years ago, I reckon if Richard Branson is in this space then, surely, it is a good place to be.

About Hugh Salmon

Business leader. Adman. Writer.
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