The Virgin Way Book Summary

virgin-way-richard-branson

The Virgin Way by Richard Branson
Everything I Know About Leadership

My Thoughts

Richard has some great thoughts about passion, note-taking, listening, leadership, hiring, and delegating. I especially recommend reading if you are looking for advice on these topics.

My Favorite Quotes

  • If you don’t enjoy what you are doing, and the people with whom you are doing it, there is no possible way that you are ever going to do it as well as something that you do enjoy.
  • These are the good old days you will be thinking back on 20 years from now. Why not move heaven and earth to enjoy them now?
  • Listening is one of the most important skills for any teacher, parent, leader, or anyone with a pulse.
  • Great leaders are almost always great simplifiers.
  • The art of distilling one’s thoughts into as few words as possible is something that takes practice and time.
  • I am sorry this letter is so long, I didn’t have time to make it shorter. -French Mathematician, Blaise Pascal
  • Your title says nothing about the level of respect you deserve.
  • A boss that works 12 hour days is usually a sign that the boss is not managing their time well.
  • Hire for attitude; train for skill.
  • It is terribly sad that so many people are not the least bit passionate about what they are doing with their lives.
  • If you care passionately enough, you can take any facet of the human experience and improve on it.
  • With a little thought, everything in life can always be improved.
  • You are either 100% behind the quest for excellence 100% of the time, or you aren’t really a player.
  • A lot of people have gone further than they thought they could because someone else thought they could. -Zig Ziglar
  • A challenge not shared is often a missed opportunity.
  • People who have the courage to spend their time working on things they love are usually the ones enjoying life the most.

Key Questions

  • Why risk wasting any of your limited time on this earth doing stuff that doesn’t light your fire?
  • If you get the job, what are the first things you are going to change around here, and why?
  • I’m not sure, what do you think?
  • Why don’t we look at how we can do it differently and be the first ones to make it work?
  • What does it take to have a healthy level of engagement in an organization?

Introduction

Richard’s one paramount philosophy. If a new project or business opportunity doesn’t excite him and get his entrepreneurial and innovative juices flowing, if it is not something that he feels he can make a difference while having a lot of seriously creative fun, then he would far rather pass on it and move along to something else that does excite him.

If you don’t enjoy what you are doing, and the people with whom you are doing it, there is no possible way that you are ever going to do it as well as something that you do enjoy.

Why risk wasting any of your limited time on this earth doing stuff that doesn’t light your fire?

It’s amazing how many people appear to live their lives always looking in the rear-view mirror or talking about how things are going to be different in the future. What about today?

These are the good old days you will be thinking back on 20 years from now. Why not move heaven and earth to enjoy them now?

Live as if you would die tomorrow; learn as if you will live forever. -Gandhi

We all have the ability to pause, take stock, and say “Sorry, but I’m really not happy with this, so I’m out of here.”

The reason Richard has so many companies is that he has repeatedly dug his heels in and refused to spend his time on things he recognized as just not right for him.

Availing yourself of the best education you can get is imperative, particularly in today’s commercial world.

Richard has spent the majority of his life with a thirst for learning about new things, businesses, people and cultures.
His learning process has involved experiencing these things first hand, as opposed to reading about them in books or third hand.
This is his explanation and paradox relating to when he dropped out of a prestigious school at age 16.

Listening is one of the most important skills for any teacher, parent, leader, or anyone with a pulse.
The “Virgin Way” has evolved since day one.
One of the keys to the Virgin Way is listening. Listening intently to everyone who has an opinion to share. Not just the self-professed experts.
It’s about learning from each other and the marketplace.
Learning from mistakes that must be made to get anywhere that is original and disruptive.
It is about having FUN while doing it.
Having serious fun is at the core of the Virgin Way.
Being passionately engaged and enjoying every minute of what you do, is an attitudinal thing. A spark that cannot be mandated, trained, put in a job description or an employee manual. It’s something that is either in a person’s DNA or not, and as such has to come from within.
If you are someone who believes in going your own way and having a lot of fun doing it, then you are already on the right track.
Do a lot more listening than talking.
Don’t be afraid to wear your passion on your sleeve for all to see.
When in doubt, trust your instincts.

Keys to The Virgin Way

  • Listening
  • Learning from mistakes
  • Laugh/Love (Having FUN)
  • Lead

Four parts of the book

  • Part 1 – Listen
  • Part 2 – Learn
  • Part 3 – Love
  • Part 4 – Lead

Part One: Listen

Chapter 1: Old Blocks and Young Chips

There is tremendous upside to a conciliatory approach to life and business.
You are guaranteed to miss every shot you don’t take.

Chapter 2: The Dying Art of Listening

Listen, it makes you sound smarter.
Richard developed a lifetime habit of capturing his thoughts, observations and just about anything of interest someone said or did in his hardbacked lined notebooks.
He has 100s of notebooks from 40 years of business.
Listening is a wonderful skill.
Acquiring the habit of note taking is a wonderful complimentary skill to that of listening.
Many people misguidedly see listening as a weakness.
Has dyslexia.
Richard has learned to take copious notes. He always has an old-fashioned notebook with him.
Since his children were little, Richard has kept notes of the funny things his children say.
There are tremendous benefits to listening combined with notetaking.
Say less, contribute more.
You will be amazed at the immediate benefits if you talk less and listen more.
A skilled listener will not only hear what is said but will also hear what has not been said.
Listening does not go unnoticed.
Ask employees their opinions and then listen.
People will appreciate you when you listen.
Virgin has a corporate culture of fun and freedom of expression.
Virgin does not have an employee handbook that reads like a corporate penal code.

Employee list of virgin way leadership principles

Common themes of virgin leadership
Listening
Accessibility

Make the commitment every week to spend some quality time with your most important assets, your people.
Visit employees in their office and talk with them.
Richard does not keep an office, he prefers to be out and spending time with people.

Chapter 3: Mirror Mirror

How do you look to your customers?
If only we had the power to see ourselves in the same way that others see us.
Leaders should own up to and accept responsibility for their mistakes, then act to quickly fix them and move on.
The customer is always relevant.
Solicit advice from your family and friends.

Every business leader should spend time as a customer of their own company from time to time.
Try calling your own company and see how long it takes to talk to a real person. Have a complaint ready they can easily solve and see how they do.
Try calling and trying to get through to yourself, see how you are treated.

Richard is one of the biggest constructive critics of the Virgin companies.
He is often accused of nitpicking. He is always looking for ways the company can improve.

See yourself as your competition sees you.

One of the favorite questions he likes to ask candidates for a replacement in leadership is: if you get the job, what are the first things you are going to change around here, and why?

Chapter 4: K-I-S-S and Tell

Simplicity wins every time.
Keep it simple stupid.
Great leaders are almost always great simplifiers. They can cut through argument, debate, and doubt to offer a solution everybody can understand.
Great leaders are not just simplifiers, but they can communicate to their entire audience in terms that are universally understood.
Developing the art of simple, clear speech is something from which we can all benefit.
Short and snappy wins every time. (When speaking)
Say what you mean and mean what you say, in as few words as possible.
The art of distilling one’s thoughts into as few words as possible is something that takes practice and time.
I am sorry this letter is so long, I didn’t have time to make it shorter. -French Mathematician, Blaise Pascal
Examples of people who like to talk at great length without saying anything.
Try to condense your point to the length of a tweet.
Any email longer than a few hundred words is not going to keep anyone’s attention.

Thoughts on public speaking and the use of teleprompters. Always have a printed copy of your presentation in case something goes wrong.
Winston Churchill claimed he spent 60 minutes of preparation for every one minute of a public speech.
It is difficult to speak and keep people’s attention for more than 25 minutes.
30 minutes is stretching the attention span of any audience.

Avoid using verbal fillers as much as possible.
List of words and phrases to avoid.
Instead of “no comment” say “I’m really sorry but until we gather all the facts, we are not in a position to issue a statement.”

Little words that go a long way.
Words and phrases to use as often as possible.
I’m not sure, what do you think?
Be strong enough to admit you don’t have all the answers.
If your people know their opinion will be asked, they will pay more attention.
Please and thank you.
People take a lot of satisfaction from knowing that they are doing a good job and that their efforts are appreciated.
A handwritten note really stands out in this day and age.

Chapter 5: Burn Down the Mission

If your mission statement is going to be terrible and uninspiring, it is probably better not to have one.
Richard’s favorite mission statements.
Through adversity to the stars. Royal Air Force
I stand firm and I stand first.

A short story (six words) by Hemingway. “For sale, baby shoes, never used.”
Try to reduce your mission statement to 10 words.
Keeping it short goes a long way.

Link to Virgin Group’s purpose statement.

Criminal neglect. UK Warwickshire Police mission statement of 1,200 pages and doesn’t mention the word crime.

Pet peeve of mission statements being totally interchangeable between companies.

The primary role of a mission statement.
Explain the core purpose of the company and outlining expectations for internal and external customers.

Why would anyone try only to meet customer expectations rather than try to exceed them?

See this section of chapter 5 for Richard Branson’s list of Virgin Active “Thou Shalt” and “Thou Shalt Not” rules.

Richard references a document called the Manifesto of Virgin Mega by Ron Faris.
[I did not find a copy online, if you know where it is available please let me know so I can link here.]

If you must have a mission statement, keep it real, unique and concise.

Part 2 – Learn

Chapter 6: Defining Leadership

Leadership is the ability to hide your panic from others. -Lau Tzu

The answer is yes, now what is the question?

Your title says nothing about the level of respect you deserve.
Titles have no true bearing on anyone’s ability to lead.

Management is more about maintaining processes and systems than changing them.
Strong leaders must have vision, creativity and the ability to influence others to follow them.
Good leadership is all about taking the venture forward and finding viable new avenues where the business can evolve and prosper.
Poor leadership tends to be static and much more about protecting the status quo and resting on laurels.

To stand still today is to go backward, and quickly.
Outstanding leadership comes in a wide range of very different packages.

Poor leadership usually displays a lot of common denominators:

  • An aversion to facing confrontation.
  • Common avoidance techniques
  • They ignore the issue hoping it will somehow solve itself.
  • Failing to confront a problem in the early stages will usually cause it to spread and do more damage.
  • Having a hatchet man is another avoidance technique.

Delegation vs Relegation
Delegation = handing over responsibility and authority.
Relegation = pushing a problem away, without including the power to do anything about (it except, perhaps, to shoulder the blame).
Common to poor leaders is the inability to understand the difference between these two ways of working.

Illustration of Kodak crumbling due to lack of leadership.

Leaders often add more value by to the overall picture by not trying to manage it.

An entrepreneurial eye can bring a spirit of inquisitiveness that recognizes gaps that can be filled with new products and services.

Maintain a childlike curiosity.
Richard constantly asks why. “Why?” is his favorite question.

Why don’t we look at how we can do it differently and be the first ones to make it work?

Entrepreneurs need to know when to step out of a business and also when to step back in. Examples Steve Jobs, Larry Paige, Charles Schulz.

Chapter 7: What Chance Luck?

Fortune favors the bold.
Those people and businesses that are usually considered lucky are usually the ones that are prepared to take the greatest risks and fall flat on their faces. The “play it safe” people are usually the ones who never seem to get lucky.

The harder I practice, the luckier I get. -Gary Player

Story of investor Tony meeting Sergei Brinn in line at the movies at Stanford and investing $10k for 1% of Google.
A counterpoint story is Ronald Wayne, co-founder of Apple and sold his 10% share for $800.

Work on improving your luck: never be afraid to talk to strangers.

Luck is what happens when preparation meets opportunity. -Seneca

Chapter 8: Typically Atypical

An aversion to the average.
Catering to the average means everyone on either end is being neglected.
Example of hats that are one size fits all; they don’t work for large or small heads.

Make sure you are seizing every opportunity, big or small, to do things better.

Example: Virgin Atlantic found it was cheaper to give away in-flight headsets after the flight instead of re-using them.

Richard has always refused to rank anything as a perfect ten. There is always room for improvement.

There is nothing remotely average about an Apple Store.
Sales per square foot.
Apple tripled it’s in-store staff from 37 in 2007 to 117 in 2012.

Chapter 9: Big Dogfights

What’s big about small?
You always know it’s working when your opponents cry foul.
Value for money.
Great customer service.

Thinking differently doesn’t necessarily cost any more; it just takes a commitment to not doing more of the same.
Focus on serving customers more than shareholders.
Learn to look after your staff first and the rest will follow.

Richard has always seen business as a group of people trying to improve other people’s lives.

Chapter 10: Innovation is Nothing New

Bumblebees are not supposed to be able to fly; scientists cannot figure out how they fly.

“This works in practice but not in theory.”

Give customers something well outside the realm of their realistic expectations.

Virgin money.
Virgin money lounges.
EBO = everybody better off

Illustration of the founding of Spanx.

Chapter 11: Hiring ’em and Keeping ’em

Why hiring should be your #1 priority.
Become immersed in the hiring process.
Do not delegate this.
Hire people with whom you feel 100% comfortable.
Richard personally signs off on all leadership hires.
At Google, Sergey and Larry have the final say on all leadership hires.

You have got to delegate your duties if you want your business to survive and grow.
Hire your weaknesses.
Become comfortable with the art of delegation.

Richard’s tips for identifying great people and building your team.

Characters and Cultures
Character is higher than intellect. -Ralph Waldo Emerson
An interview is a game of figuring out whether or not the character of the candidate will be a good fit with the culture of the company.
Ask a few employees that will be working with them to attend the interview and ask questions.
Look for someone with a sense of humor who is fun, friendly and caring. That is a person who likely understands teamwork and will help others.
Break the ice by asking them to tell you a joke.

A CV is just a piece of paper.
Ask a candidate what they did not include on their CV.
Look for a healthy mix of experience and novel thinking.
A smart and curious outsider might have more fresh and objective solutions.

Ask pointed questions.
What are you looking for?
Why should we hire you?
Can you give them what they are looking for?

Personality fit may be the most important thing to consider when hiring.
When interviewing check for personality fit first. Try to loosen them up. Find common ground.
After checking personality fit, ask questions about their accomplishments.
Example if interviewing a marketer who says they ran a hugely successful campaign. Ask what was the strategy behind it and why was it successful. Then ask about ones they were unsuccessful and why, or ones that never made it off the ground.

Quantity often conflicts with quality.

Ask internal candidates to look at the job spec. Ask them if they think it looks right and if that is the type of person needed to do the job.

It is always worth being patient.
A hasty hiring is seldom a good one.
The wrong person thrust into your team can be very damaging.

How to Keep Them

Richard references a Google study on management called Project Oxygen. Which contains a list of 10 behaviors of Google’s best managers.

Three reasons people leave jobs.

  1. Didn’t feel enough of a connection to the company’s mission. And/or their individual contribution was not considered important.
  2. They didn’t get along with or respect their co-workers.
  3. They thought they had a terrible boss.

Busy does not necessarily mean engaged. Make sure you understand the difference.
Many an employee has mastered the art of appearing to be perpetually busy. This is no measure of productivity or engagement.
Employees who consistently work 12 hour days are usually mimicking the boss.
A boss that works 12 hour days is usually a sign that the boss is not managing their time well.

It’s not the hours you put in that matters; it’s what you put into the hours.

What does it take to have a healthy level of engagement in an organization?
Strong leadership.
Developing a culture in which employees feel valued, empowered and trusted.
This takes time and work and requires a lot of listening and dialogue.
Express interest in your employees’ interests, goals, and objectives and let them air their opinions.

Make the policy no policy.
Netflix eliminated tracking of vacation policy.
Read more about Netflix culture here. [this is excellent]
Virgin adopted this policy.

Train your people well enough that they can leave; treat them well enough that they don’t want to.

Part 3 – Love

Chapter 12: Culturing the Culture

It takes time and work.

Culture eats strategy for breakfast. -Peter Drucker
Virgin has a people first culture.

Hire for attitude; train for skill. The motto of Southwest Airlines.
We tell our people don’t worry about profit; think about customer service. Profit is a byproduct of good customer service, it is not an end in and of itself. Herb Kelleher, founder of Southwest Airlines.

Avoiding any and all unnecessary complexity is the cornerstone of Herb’s philosophy.
Example: American Airlines has 12+ aircraft types, Southwest has one.

Test “we” vs “they.”
Listen which word employees use when speaking. Use of we is a sign of a healthy culture, us or they or them is a sign of an unhealthy culture.

Everything begins and ends with our people.
Too much focus on profits and growth; and too little attention to nurturing your people and culturing the culture. If you do this, there is a very serious risk someone will soon be eating your lunch.

Chapter 13: The Fruits of Passion

Beyond definition.
It is terribly sad that so many people are not the least bit passionate about what they are doing with their lives. These are the “I’m so glad it’s Friday!” people.

People focused on making a living instead of making every living moment count.

Give internal and external customers a better work environment or customer service experience than they can find anywhere else.

If you care passionately enough, you can take any facet of the human experience and improve on it.
Passion is the secret sauce of virgin brands.

You are either 100% behind the quest for excellence 100% of the time, or you aren’t really a player.

You cannot train someone to be passionate.
Don’t waste time and energy trying to light a fire under flame resistant people.

Same with positive attitudes. Don’t try to train a good attitude, hire attitude.

Give people autonomy, freedom, and support.

Passion Knows Passion
Passionate leaders have the ability to recognize raw passion in others when they see it.

Chapter 14: The Party Line

Fancy dress and April fools.
Everything worthwhile in life usually involves some degree of risk.

Virgin companies throw big company parties.
They had as many as 60,000 people at the last mega-party held before they got too big.
Company parties have been an essential part of the virgin way.

Happiness fuels success; not success fueling happiness.
Book: The Happiness Advantage.
When we are more positive our brains are more engaged, energized, creative, motivated, healthier, resilient, and productive.
90% of happiness is generated from within.

In the 1990s Richard played an April-fools joke with a magazine article about a music box with all digital songs for download. Steve Jobs told him that idea inspired him. May have been the early seeds for iTunes.

Fun is good for the general wellbeing of the individual and their businesses.

Part 4 – Lead

Chapter 15: Leaders of the Future

New skills for a new world.

Richard started the Branson Centre of Entrepreneurship.

US Junior Achievement has a program called Be Entrepreneurial. A seven-part program for students to teach them how to be an entrepreneur.

Mentors

A lot of people have gone further than they thought they could because someone else thought they could. -Zig Ziglar

Going it alone is an admirable but foolhardy and highly-flawed approach to taking on the world.

Steve Job’s mentor was former Intel manager Mike Markkula. Also an early investor of Apple.

Larry Paige and Sergey had Eric Schmidt.

Rent a mentor.
If you see someone you admire; be bold and go for it.
An ideal mentor will have achieved what you want to achieve and is someone you could see yourself hanging out with. -Phil Drolet at Entrepreneur.com
Look for opportunities to mentor others.
A good mentor can be an amazingly telling mirror.

Chapter 16: Being There

Driving the chariot.
Leaders engaging with the competition.
Leading from the front lines.

Find ways to get noticed and generate a lot of free ink (marketing).

Chapter 17: Collaboration is the Key

Few, if any, entrepreneurs ever brought an idea to life without a lot of help.

Brands collaborating.
Example Nike and Apple.

Collaboration within your own company.
Eliminating the silo effect.
Involve anyone that can give valuable input.

A challenge not shared is often a missed opportunity.
Creativity comes from spontaneous meetings and random discussions. -Steve Jobs

Chapter 18: Decisions, Decisions

Putting the pro in procrastination.
Just-in-time (JIT) production.

Three personality types of decision makers:

  1. “Screw it, do I really have to decide?” The serial procrastinator.
  2. “Screw it, we’ll do it today!” Makes decisions immediately. Makes quick Instinct based decisions.
  3. “Screw it, let’s think some more about it.” The art of orchestrated procrastination. If you have time to decide, make the time work for you.

The art of the decision.
Making smart, informed decisions is why leaders get paid the big bucks.

A few general rules Richard uses in decision making.

  • Do not allow your first reaction to influence your ability to objectively weigh the pros and cons.
  • Just because no significant cons are presented does not mean they don’t exist. Work hard to uncover hidden cons.
  • Avoid making decisions in isolation. The decision stream.
  • Do everything you can to protect the downside.
  • Use orchestrated procrastination when you can.

Chapter 19: Good Business

Story Walmart cost savings (millions annually) in replacing standard light bulbs with CFL bulbs.

Lessons learned from this:

  • The law of large numbers.
  • One small action multiplies many times can have an astounding impact.
  • It takes lots of little things to make big things.
  • Walmart’s clout demonstrates the ability of private enterprise and big businesses in particular to move mountains. Walmart influenced GE as it’s largest purchaser of light bulbs.
  • Companies that commit to doing good for the planet almost always find it to be good for business.
  • GE launch of eco-magination program.

Epilogue

Start it up. Designing designers.
With a little thought, everything in life can always be improved.
This is what sets great leaders and entrepreneurs apart.
Steve Jobs.
Tony Fidel and Nest.
You must look cool and do cool. This gives people a rational and irrational (emotional) reasons to invest in a brand.
Everyone in the company should care about how a product works, looks, and feels.

Best advice for leaders and entrepreneurs with either a new business or a new product: Just start it. You are guaranteed to miss every shot you don’t take.

Afterword

Richard’s Top Ten

  1. Follow your dreams and just do it. People who have the courage to spend their time working on things they love are usually the ones enjoying life the most.
  2. Make a positive difference and do some good. If you aren’t making a positive difference in other people’s lives, you shouldn’t be in business.
  3. Believe in your ideas and be the best.
  4. Have fun and look after your team.
  5. Don’t give up.
  6. Listen, take lots of notes, and keep setting new challenges.
  7. Delegate, and spend more time with your family.
  8. Turn off that laptop and iPhone and get out there!
  9. Communicate, collaborate, and communicate some more.
  10. Do what you love and have a couch in the kitchen.

Related Book Summaries

Hope you enjoyed this and got value from my notes.
This is the 23 book read in my 2019 reading list.
Here is a list of my book summaries.

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