A few weeks ago I had the honor of spending a few hours with Sir Richard Branson at his home on Necker Island, in the British Virgin Islands. Since my return, the number one question I've been asked is, "What Did You Learn From Richard Branson?" Here's my answer...
1) The Most Important Thing in Life is Family
Our relationship with our spouse, children and parents is the most important thing in life. As a part of a close-knit family from the countryside of England, Richard was strongly influenced by his parents, who still remain an integral part of his life today.
Richard and Joan, his wife of 32 years, remain happily married and very close to their adult children. Although his children "have had it a bit easier than he did", Richard and Joan have instilled a sense of responsibility, while surrounding them with closeness and love.
2) Live Life As An Adventure and Have FUN!
No one epitomizes FUN more than Sir Richard Branson. Perhaps best known for his record-breaking adventures, Richard who was raised without television, has always had to be out there doing things rather than watching them. He's been rescued from the sea by helicopter six time (so far) and loves testing himself through "the great adventure of life" to see what he and others are capable of.
Pushing the limits has become his way of life and he has fun doing it. "The fact that I have a lot of fun doing what I'm doing, means that the 60-70,000 people that work for Virgin, enjoy what they're doing and they're proud of what they're doing and they know they can do it with a smile."
3) Always Look For the Best in People
Richard has created his Virgin team of people by always looking for the best in people. Again, this goes back to his upbringing. "If I ever said a negative word about anybody I was sent to look in the mirror for 10 minutes. That soon stopped me from saying negative things about people. As a leader I think it's critical that you're always looking for the best in people. Don't say anything bad behind someone's back and you certainly don't say anything bad to anyone (directly)- they know when they need to pull their socks up a bit."
4) Follow Your Heart
As a middle-class British kid with dyslexia who nearly flunked out of one school and was expelled from another, he left school at 16 years of age, with the goal of building a national magazine to protest the Vietnam war. As Richard says, he was just following his heart and "doing what young people do".
"Interestingly, it sounds strange, but I've never been interested in business. I've just been interested in creating things that I could be proud of. The bi-product of creating things is that you have to pay the bills, so somebody has to add up the numbers at the end of the year to be sure that the bills are being paid, but a good entrepreneur isn't really thinking about pounds, shillings, pence or dollars. They're trying to create this beautiful picture- something which people love- something which will make a difference in their lives and something that they can be proud of. The end result can be that the bills get paid and you build a billion dollar business. But if you think, 'How am I going to make a billion dollars', you'll never be successful. Your principle interest has got to be creating something that will really make a difference to people's lives."
5) Don't Forget the Humor
When he discovered that passengers were stealing the salt and pepper shakers from the Virgin flights, he turned this into a marketing tool by adding "Pinched from Virgin Atlantic" to the bottom of the salt and pepper shakers. Now these "pinched" shakers are conversational marketing tool scattered through homes around the world. (I have a set!)
But perhaps the best-known use of humor came at the expense of Virgin Atlantic's arch rival, British Airways. When BA experienced problems that led to the initial failure to erect the British Airways Millennium Wheel, Branson dispatched a Virgin airship, complete with a Press Association photographer, to fly past the wheel, with a banner simply proclaiming 'BA can't get it up!'. Virgin's use of humor upstaged BA's massive publicity for a mere fraction of the cost.
Richard isn't afraid to bare his assets either. For the launch of Virgin Mobile, he was lowered into Times Square by crane, wearing nothing more than a cell phone to cover his 'private parts'. However, when I asked him about this event, Richard was quick to point out that, "I did have quite a big cell phone, in fact, a very big cell phone" as he flashed his killer smile. ☺
6) Saying "YES" is a Lot More Fun Than Saying "NO"
Richard Branson remains a corporate iconoclast, yet continues to defy conventional wisdom, pushes the envelope, thinks outside the box, playfully teases the big guys, says exactly what he thinks and does exactly what he wants to do. He'll say "Yes" to almost anything, once. He lives by his "Screw it, let's do it!" attitude every day.
"Saying 'YES' in life is a lot more fun than saying no. The nickname I have at the head office is 'Dr. YES'. In fact, I have a board of directors who are there just to try to stop me saying 'YES' to everything, because I just can't resist new challenges. It's just more fun to say 'YES'!"
7) Failure is Nothing More Than Another Way to Learn
Many never say "Yes" or take the first step because of fear of failure. According to Richard, "There's no way that you can create a lot of successful businesses and not have failures on the way. If you're afraid of failure, you're not going to create anything."
Eight times Richard tried to be the first to fly around the world in a balloon. And although he wasn't the first to circumnavigate the globe, he was the first to cross the Atlantic and the first to cross the Pacific.
"I think anyone can do what they want to do if they try to do it and if they give it their best shot. They won't necessarily succeed and they may well fall flat on their face but they'll have a lot of fun trying. Just be the best at what they can do and not worry about failure. I've actually learned more from people who've tried and failed than necessarily from people who've tried and been successful. We can learn a lot from people who have tried and failed, because you can also learn the mistakes they made and how to avoid them. If you've failed, just pick yourself up and start again the next day and learn from the experience. Be bold and be brave."
8) Go Make a Difference in the World
Whether in business, personal or philanthropic challenges, Richard has a way of looking at a situation and seeing how it can be done differently. "We can use our entrepreneurial skills to look at the seemingly intractable problems in the world and then see whether we can make a difference."
In business: "Virgin looks after your needs throughout your life. Virgin goes against the normal business philosophy of going after one segment and focusing there. Rather, Virgin finds areas that 'need to be shaken up a bit' and does just that, improving life in various sectors. I see things in life that aren't being done quite right, where we could go in and make a difference."
In philanthropy: Richard is using his entrepreneurial skills for philanthropic good to make an even bigger difference through his foundation, Virgin Unite. "We unite people to tackle tough social and environmental problems in an entrepreneurial way. Our aim is to help revolutionize the way businesses and the social sector work together - driving business as a force for good."
9) Dream Big!
For a man who has built eight different billion-dollar companies, Richard Branson knows how to think BIG. From a magazine to a record label, to an airline to a telecom giant, one has to wonder what's next for Richard Branson.
Virgin Galactic will unveil their space ship on December 7th, 2009, with rides into space coming soon. "I'm inquisitive. It's such fun to think, okay, I enjoyed seeing other people go to the moon, and it doesn't look like NASA is going to let us go to the moon, so maybe we should try to get a spaceship company set up ourselves." You've got to love the mind and spirit of Richard Branson!
In addition to exploring miles above the world, Richard shared with us his passion for his next venture, Virgin Oceanic. He plans to build a submarine that can probe the depth of the 28,000+ deep Puerto Rican trench, located just 10 miles east of Necker Island. "This is a tremendous challenge that no one has done yet, but in 2-3 years time we hope to be exploring the depths of the oceans."
Richard Branson doesn't live a boring life. "A critical thing is not to waste a minute of life. Throw yourself whole-heartedly into it. I think that if you can positively have made a difference to other people's lives when you actually end up on your deathbed, you can most likely be at peace with yourself. Don't waste a minute and try to make a positive difference in as many other people's lives as possible."
10) Be Humble and Stay Grounded
In the midst of extreme wealth, privilege and enormous success, what struck me most about Richard Branson was his air of humility. He is a very down-to-earth guy with no pretense who credits his wife of more than 30 years for being the loving, grounding force in his life.
"In the end of the day if anyone gets too big for their shoes I think it's good to just picture them sitting on the loo and you realize they're just the same as all of us. That can bring people down to earth with a bump."
Sounds like a blueprint for a life well-lived. Thank you Sir Richard. ☺