Today’s Brilliance is a bit different from other days. I had the honor of spending a few hours with Sir Richard Branson at his home on Necker Island, in the British Virgin Islands.
As I walked into his home, I found him lying in a hammock in an alcove of the great room, open to the warm tropical breezes, overlooking the multi-colored turquoise Caribbean Sea. Bliss.
Barefoot and dressed in swim shorts and a tee shirt, he looked more like a Jimmy Buffett fan rather than the founder of the Virgin Group, best known as the only person in the world to have created eight separate billion-dollar companies from scratch, each in a different sector.
Since my return, the number one question I’ve been asked is, “What did you learn from Richard Branson?” I hope you enjoy it.
The Top 10 Things I’ve Learned From Richard Branson
1) The Most Important Thing in Life is Family
Our relationship with our spouse, children and parents is the most important thing in life. Richard was part of a close-knit family, raised in the countryside of England. From a small boy he was strongly influenced by his parents, who still remain an integral part of his life today.
When I asked Richard about the influence of his mother, he smiled and said his mother was and still is “impossible to keep up with”. When Richard was a small boy, his mother was determined that he should stand on his own two feet. At 4 years of age, she put him out of the car and told him to find his own way to his Grandmother’s house. Still a memorable event for Richard, he attributes his mother’s determination that he should find his own way in life as a great part of his success.
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.
“What you’re really doing is bringing up your children to continue onwards after you. It’s finding the time to be really close to your children. Finding the time to be sure they have 100% love and commitment from a father or a mother.”
In business, unlike many who may just say the words for good PR, Richard believes that running a company is also like a family. “For the people who work with Virgin – it is their home.” And just as he’s created a happy, close multi-generational family, he has done the same thing with his global business family.
2) Live Life As An Adventure and Have FUN!
Life is not meant to be lived as a spectator sport. Whether in our personal life or business ventures, life is meant to be lived as an adventure and, equally as important, we’re meant to have FUN!
No one epitomizes this more than Sir Richard Branson. While he may not be the best businessman or the wealthiest person in the world, he certainly would rank on the short list of those having the most fun. Even George Clooney said he’d trade places with Richard Branson because Richard has so much fun!
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 times (so far) and loves testing himself through “the great adventure of life” to see what he and others are capable of.
In business, he does the same thing. He’s enjoyed being crazy – living life to its fullest, believing that time is valuable and not wanting to waste a minute. In both his personal/adventurous life as well as in business, 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.”
Richard has a genuine love of people and loves learning from people. “I love surrounding myself with leaders who are great with people, who care about the person cleaning the floor or the switchboard operator as they would their fellow directors.”
4) Follow Your Heart
Many wonder what makes a man like Richard Branson tick. What makes him so much more successful than others? After all, he doesn’t have an impressive degree or lots of letters after his name. 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”.
My favorite thing that Richard said was this – “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 principal interest has got to be creating something that will really make a difference to people’s lives.”
5) Don’t Forget the Humor
Humor is an important part of success and makes life much more enjoyable. Richard shared several examples where he used humor in business, with astounding results.
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 tools 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”. 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 he continues to defy conventional wisdom, pushing the envelope, thinking outside the box, playfully teasing the big guys, saying exactly what he thinks and doing 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.
Is he crazy? Perhaps. But if so, it’s most definitely “good crazy”. As Richard says, “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’!”
Richard makes it look easy – Just say “Yes” and then be the best at what you do. “The best never fails. The best airline, night club, hotel, etc. never fails. The key is – get out there, do it with panache and style but create the best!”
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.
And although he technically “failed”, still, he has no regrets. “I crossed the Himalayas, had incredible adventures – and survived to come back to Necker to be with the family. That’s helped me understand that there are more important things than being first.”
“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
Richard is no different than many successful people I’ve met who attribute their success to having a desire to make a difference in the world. Whether in business, personal or philanthropic challenges, he has a way of looking at a particular 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 his 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. The reason I think we’ve strayed (from one sector to another) is that I love learning about life. I see things in life that aren’t being done quite right, where we could go in and make a difference.”
In philanthropy: At this point in his life, Richard is using his entrepreneurial talents for a 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.”
(Virgin Unite’s overhead is covered by Sir Richard Branson and the Virgin Group, meaning that 100% of donations received go directly to the frontline where they are needed most.)
But he doesn’t stop there. In a conversation between Richard and musician Peter Gabriel a few years ago, they wondered… in an increasingly interdependent world – a global village – could a small, dedicated group of independent elders help to resolve global problems and ease human suffering?
From that, a group of 12 Elders was brought together from all corners of the globe. Nelson Mandela announced their formation in July 2007, stating, “The Elders can speak freely and boldly, working both publicly and behind the scenes. They will reach out to those who most need their help. They will support courage where there is fear, foster agreement where there is conflict and inspire hope where there is despair.”
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 gotta 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+ feet 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.”
He’s been around the world in a hot air balloon, soon he’ll blast off into space and then probe never-explored depths of our planet. One thing is for certain: Richard Branson doesn’t live a boring life. He takes action on his ideas and brings his dreams to life and most importantly believes that we all have the ability to act on our dreams.
He summed up his philosophy perfectly when he said, “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 pretenses. In fact, he even seemed a bit shy, which was quite endearing.
My take away from this is simple – We are all the same. If 99.9% of our DNA is alike, we’re much more alike than different.
When I asked Richard about the temptation to believe all the stories written about him, he smiled and proudly shared that his wife keeps him grounded. After more than 30 years together, he still credits her with being the loving, grounding force in his life that helps him stay on track.
He ended with, “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.