"With a lot of things in life, there is a point where we have to let go and appreciate the fact that we had this ride at all."
That's how Richard Branson begins his remarkable open letter to Virgin America, a company his Virgin Group founded in 2004. In the years it's operated, Virgin America has won several "best airline" awards and developed an extremely loyal and enthusiastic following--so much so that last year Alaska Airlines agreed to pay $2.6 billion to purchase the airline ($4 billion including debt and aircraft leases).
"I would be lying if I didn't admit sadness that our wonderful airline is merging with another," admitted Branson in a blog post when the company was sold last year. "Because I'm not American, the U.S. Department of Transportation stipulated I take some of my shares in Virgin America as non-voting shares, reducing my influence over any takeover. So there was sadly nothing I could do to stop it."
Now, it seems Branson's worst fears have come true, as Alaska Airlines announced it has decided to retire the Virgin America brand. Comparing this to the fateful day many years ago when Virgin Records was sold, Branson said that "many tears" have been shed.
What made Branson's letter to Virgin America so extra special?
Here are just two major highlights:
He sings praises to his people.
By evoking memories of all they've accomplished together, Branson's message reads more like a love letter than something you'd get from your employer.
Notice how he focuses on his people and their accomplishments (italics mine):
- "It was a long and hard journey but in the end you are the best consumer airline in America."
- "You invented concepts like 'moodlighting' and 'on-demand food,' you reinvented cabin amenities from seat-to-seat chat to Netflix in the sky."
- "You proved it is possible to run a business with a strategy that does not rely on low fares and a dominant position alone: you attracted premium flyers with a fun and beautiful guest experience."
- "You created the world's most loved safety video."
- "You proved that it is possible to create a business with a terrific culture and a brand that people love."
- "You let Teammates think differently, and invested a lot of time and money into lifting your Teammates up with extraordinary training."
- "And you were worth every minute, every penny (there were many!), every battle."
- "Throughout it all, you aimed to make flying good again--and you did."
I've said it before, and I'll say it again:
Nothing encourages employees to give their best like sincere, specific praise.
It's not just the encouraging and motivating tone, despite what would otherwise be a sad day. It's not just the point-by-point list of accomplishments. And it's not just that Branson focuses on his people, instead of himself.
It's not just one of these things; it's all of them.
Of course, you shouldn't wait for a poignant moment to reach out to your people. Take some time today to write a personal note of appreciation. Or even better, take a few minutes to go visit them personally. Tell them exactly what they do that you so value, and why.
In doing so, you'll give them the acknowledgment that they desperately crave--and help build a positive culture where people thrive.
He points to the future.
But wait, you say. These people aren't even Branson's employees anymore!
Exactly. But great leaders know to give credit where credit is due. They know this builds solid relationships based on trust, keeps the door open for future partnerships, and benefits everyone in the end.
Just check out these gems from Branson:
To each of your brilliant Teammates, I know that you will continue to do great things, whether you stay on with Alaska or pursue a different path. Build a business that puts its people first. Work with partners who share your same progressive and inclusive values. Focus on delivering a great customer experience, and success will come. Make business a force for good.
Stay positive; attitude is everything.
Then, he concludes with this:
George Harrison once said, 'All Things Must Pass.' This was the ride and love of a lifetime. I feel very lucky to have been on it with all of you. I'm told some people at Virgin America are calling today 'the day the music died.' It is a sad (and some would say baffling) day. But I'd like to assure them that the music never dies.
Now that's what I call an inspiring employer--the kind people will actually follow.
Interestingly, the famous founder also told reporters last year that "If Alaska decides to drop the brand...we'll start again and Virgin America will very much [be] back here."
Will Virgin America really make a comeback?
One thing's for sure: Whatever an employer like this decides to build, people will be lining up to join the effort.
(You can read Branson's full letter to Virgin America here.)