Sir Richard Branson has modeled an unconventional leadership approach that has attracted a cult-like following, as evidenced by some of his best-sellers -- Like a Virgin: Secrets They Won't Teach You at Business School and, of course, Screw Business As Usual.
While his most valuable lessons are too numerous to list for one article, three really stand out for me (cited below). They have to do with understanding the human experience at work -- that there are certain traits people are innately wired to receive by their leaders in order to feel valued as workers and human beings.
Richard Branson understands that when his employees' needs are met on a human level, it ultimately impacts his businesses to a greater degree.
He should know. These are his principles for success, and they've obviously worked for him. According to Forbes, he is now worth over 5 billion US dollars.
1. Communicate with your ears.
How often we think of communication as "telling more," giving more directions, and sharing more of our point of view when all our most valued employees want is to be heard.
For Branson, the best of leaders instinctively understand that communication is a two-way street. Here's Branson:
"Being a good listener is absolutely critical to being a good leader; you have to listen to the people on the front line. That's a very Virgin trait. Listening enables us to learn from each other, from the marketplace, and from the mistake that must be made in order to get anywhere that is original and disruptive.
An exceptional company is the one that gets all the little details right. And the people out on the front line, they know when things are not going right, and they know when things need to be improved. And if you listen to them, you can soon improve all those niggly things which turn an average company into an exceptional company,"
2. Accept that failure is the foundation for success.
At Virgin, they encourage and even celebrate failure. There's an underlying theme there that, without trying something new and failing, it's virtually impossible to innovate and grow.
And Branson has certainly failed over the years. Remember Virgin Cola? Or even Virgin Brides (with Branson donning a wedding gown for publicity?) How about Virgin Pulse and Virgin Digital -- which couldn't stand up to Apple's iPod and iTunes? Branson has horrifically failed with the best of them.
Here's Branson on failing for success:
"We've never been 100% sure that any of the businesses we've started at Virgin were going to be successful. But over 45 years, we've always stood by our motto: 'Screw it, let's do it.' Do not be embarrassed by your failures, learn from them and start again. Making mistakes and experiencing setbacks is part of the DNA of every successful entrepreneur, and I am no exception.
3. Put your employees first, even ahead of your customers.
Branson says, "If you take care of your employees, your employees will take care of your customers, and your customers will take care of your shareholders."
That's the culture Virgin has built over the years -- it starts and ends with having an employee-first mindset. If managers engage their employees, they'll become more loyal and produce better work, which leads to a better customer experience and, at the end of the road, more profits.
Here's what Branson said in an interview with Inc.'s editor in chief, Eric Schurenberg:
"If the person who works at your company is 100% proud of the job they're doing, if you give them the tools to do a good job, they're proud of the brand, if they were looked after, if they're treated well, then they're gonna be smiling, they're gonna be happy and therefore the customer will have a nice experience. If the person who's working for your company is not given the right tools, is not looked after, is not appreciated, they're not gonna do things with a smile and therefore the customer will be treated in a way where often they won't want to come back for more. So, my philosophy has always been, if you can put staff first, your customer second and shareholders third, effectively, in the end, the shareholders do well, the customers do better, and yourself are happy."