In the book The Virgin Way: Everything I Know About Leadership, entrepreneur Richard Branson describes his experience in building the Virgin Group, focusing on aspects like fun, creativity, and the lost art of actually listening. In the following edited excerpt, he tells the story of how Virgin Australia was born from a passionate, yet seemingly irrational business model.
The first thing that has to be recognized is that one cannot train someone to be passionate--it's either in their DNA or it's not. Believe me, I have tried and failed on more than one occasion and it cannot be done so don't waste your time and energy trying to light a fire under flame-resistant people. If that basic, smoldering fire is not innate then no amount of stoking is ever going to ignite it. The exact same principle applies to positive attitudes in people--you don't train attitudes, you have to hire them. It always amuses me when I hear people declaring that someone 'has an attitude' as this is always said with a negative connotation. The fact is that having an attitude is absolutely fine, just as long as it is consistently positive and upbeat, or put in another way--'passionate.'
One of the key elements of what has become known as 'the Virgin way' is giving our people the autonomy, freedom, support and a highly flexible (in everything except quality) brand image that gives them the tools to go out and make amazing things happen. It is this passion-fed formula that has allowed the Virgin Group to launch hundreds of new Virgin companies in scores of very diverse businesses and I have no doubt that it will continue to do so for many years to come.
Over the years the Virgin group of companies has been very fortunate in identifying a steady stream of passionate business leaders. Many come from outside the Virgin family but some are 'homegrown', like Brett Godfrey who started Virgin Blue in Australia. Brett is an Australian who after about five years with Virgin Atlantic moved over to the finance area at Brussels-based Virgin Express, a relatively short-lived European airline we operated in the mid-nineties. I'd never met Brett but started hearing nothing but good reports of his steadying influence on Virgin Express's multiple problems. For a 'numbers guy' he had the reputation of being a really good people person, which was something we desperately needed to unite the staff, having gone through three CEOs in a little over twelve months. With all the uncertainty and constant changes of direction at Virgin Express, inevitably the specter of unions had raised its ugly head; something that at the time had never before happened in Virgin. And it was in fact the union leadership that came to me to suggest that 'the Australian' was by far and away the best candidate for the vacant CEO job. I was a little concerned as to their motives--did they perhaps want Brett because they thought he'd be a pushover?--but we decided to give him a shot and initially slotted him in as acting CEO.
We knew quickly we had made the right choice. Brett soon managed to get the unions onside and in so doing sidestepped a total meltdown and stabilized the situation. Apart from the fact that I have never been a fan of 'acting' roles, it seemed a no-brainer to ask Brett to accept the CEO position on a permanent basis. Normally offering a CEO role is something that generates an excited response but in this instance Brett looked very awkward and almost embarrassed as he responded with, 'Erm, well, sorry, Richard, but I am going to have to say no as my wife and I have decided it's time for us to take our two boys back home to Australia.'
Nobody had anticipated this response so I was shocked and more than a little disappointed, but admired him for putting his young family in front of his career. It was then that, according to Brett, I uttered the words that were to change his life for ever. All I said was, 'Okay and if there's anything you would like to do in Australia be sure and let me know.' To which with a big smile Brett responded, 'Well, actually, Richard, I am glad that you asked as there is one thing I'd very much love to discuss with you!'
It was only then that I learned that Brett had been working diligently for five years on a business plan to start an innovative new domestic airline down under. It seemed he'd been seeking investors for several years and without my knowledge had already pitched it to the Virgin executive team who had rejected it. As I would learn, their rejection of the project was based on a mixture of conventional wisdom and standard accounting and, at a glance, seemed like a very rational decision. Of course, my personal brand of 'wisdom' has seldom been known for its rationality. So much so that one of many things I've been called over the years is 'The ultimate don't-confuse-me-with-the-facts man'--something perhaps spurred by my legendary inability to read complex balance sheets. So when Brett gushed out an excited overview of his Australian airline's business plan, my immediate take on it was more instinctive than by the book--a book that I have never really read.
More importantly, however, what I detected in Brett that day was something that the executive team had clearly overlooked: a passionate belief in the need for and viability of what he was proposing. It was also outrageously reminiscent of the opportunity we'd seized upon fifteen years earlier with Virgin Atlantic--a plan that my colleagues at Virgin Records had unanimously condemned as utterly outlandish! Brett saw a crying need for a new disruptive airline model in the stagnant Australian market and the passion I saw in his eyes when talking about his vision sold me on taking a serious second look at it. Given the nod, it didn't take Brett long to successfully reaffirm some of his business plan's bold projections and we were off to a flyer. Our initial $10 million investment to start what would become Virgin Blue--now rebranded Virgin Australia--turned out to be one of the smartest we have ever made.
Reprinted from The Virgin Way: Everything I Know About Leadership by Richard Branson (Portfolio, 2014).