Sir Richard Branson
Footsteps of a great leader.
"Lavish praise on people and people will flourish; criticize people and they'll shrivel up."
Had the Virgin Group invited applicants for its top most leadership position, the least they could have gone for would probably have been an MBA. But even should they have stooped lower to a first degree, still, Sir Richard Branson, the group's founder and CEO, would not have qualified. Not with his below average performance in school and his subsequent dropping out at the age of 17.
In spite of this, Branson has been described as one of the most exciting and personable businessmen alive. His massive achievements in business only amount to what dreams are made of: immense wealth, fame, and acknowledgment, all coming along with an easy smile and personality. This is the sunny side of him that shone during his recent visit to announce the entry of Virgin Atlantic into Kenyan skies.
Unlike Bill Gates and his contemporaries in the ranks of the rich, Branson never had the opportunity to study at Harvard, neither was he born to a wealthy family of lawyers and doctors. Like most Kenyan entrepreneurs, Branson was brought up by humble parents and did not attend expensive schools. He studied at Stowe and developed his leadership skills through experience in the school of life.
At the age of 17, and perhaps realising his special needs in school, Branson began a Students' Advisory Centre in Britain. All he longed to be then was an editor, only to realise that if Student, a successful magazine he had started, was to survive; he had no option but to turn into an entrepreneur.
One of the most important tests of leadership is the nature and magnitude of challenges that one has to overcome at a personal level. This is usually measured by the insightfulness and strength of decisions that one makes and how well he executes them.
Branson's test was poor academic performance, and his insightful decision was to walk away from school. As it was later discovered, he suffered from dyslexia, a health condition that makes learning in class difficult. With the embarrassment that comes with failing exams, Branson figured that his destiny and dignity perhaps lay in doing something else other than reading.
Admitting to having a personal weakness is one thing that most leaders would rather not do, more so if it threatens to portray them as lesser intellectuals. But this was not so with Branson. In an October 2005 interview with a journalist in Miami, Branson admitted to his academic challenge: "I think I'm mildly dyslexic ... I would just literally look at sheets of questions, math questions or whatever, and just could not fathom what was going on, and so at quite a young age decided, you know, to put school behind me and leave."
Such unpretentious and honest admissions not only endear a leader to his people, but also set the stage upon which more trusting relationships can be built. And looking at what Branson has achieved so far in life, currently ranked the fifth richest Briton, shows the strength there can be in humility. But perhaps what comes out most strongly in Branson's life is the much he believes in himself, in his dreams and vision, and the extent to which he can go to achieve them.
As Steve Jobs, co-founder and CEO of Apple Inc., makers of Macintosh computers, says this of his dropping out of Reed College: "You have to trust in something - your gut, destiny, life, karma, whatever." There can never be winning without this kind of will power, and as Jobs testifies: "This approach has never let me down, and it has made all the difference in my life."
Only three years after quitting school, Branson, then aged 20, founded Virgin as a mail order record outlet. Later, he opened a recording studio along Oxford Street in London, where he worked with Mike Oldfield in his debut project titled "Tubular Bells", and The Sex Pistols. As time went by, Branson signed many renown superstars at his Virgin record, among them Phil Collins, The Rolling Stones and Janet Jackson, turning the Virgin Music Group into a force to reckon with. In 1992, Branson sold this division to Thorn EMI of USA for $1 billion (about Ksh. 70 billion by current exchange rates).
Branson speaks for his people and has a voracious craving for competition. As the head of his vast business empire, he believes in growth through offering better service at a better price. During his recent visit to Kenya, he announced that his airline, Virgin Atlantic, hopes to capture 25 per cent of Kenya Airways' stronghold: the Nairobi - Heathrow route, in one year. And what strategy does he have up his sleeves? "Offering better services at a more affordable price".
However, Kenya will not be his first experience with competition. In 1984, Branson did what few people would have dreamt of: starting the Virgin Atlantic airline in Britain, home of British Airways, one of the world's largest carriers. Today, Virgin Atlantic is only second to British Airways in terms of size in Britain. Branson has also taken on Coca-Cola with his Virgin brand of soft drinks.
The Virgin Group is a conglomerate of over 200 small companies, with interests ranging from air travel to tourism, telecommunication, rail transport and fashion. This business model has been criticised as a form of trying to make up for something that Branson feels could be missing in life. In one instance, an academician charged: "A brand cannot stand for music stores, airlines, mobile phones, colas, financial services, and on and on. There's no brand on earth that can do that. That's ego."
To this, Branson replied: "The conventional wisdom is you should specialise in what you know and never stray from that, but no other brand has become a way-of-life brand the way Virgin has... We've got people all over the world who are coming up with great new ideas, and trying them doesn't actually cost us a lot relative to the overall size of the group."
Ego or no ego, Branson is a believer in constant innovation, besides being a risk taker. And like every visionary leader, he anticipates an exiting opportunity at all times, and this often happens. He believes in his people, has a forward inclined perspective of himself and others, and is good at forgiving: "Give people a second chance if they screw up. Even people who have stolen from us have become, when given a second chance, incredibly loyal and valued employees. I don't know where I'd be if I hadn't been given second chances."
Unlike many of the most vaunted and imitated entrepreneurs, writes Michael Hopkins of Inc. magazine, Branson keeps looking like someone on the prow of that sweet boat, grinning because he knows a secret, happy because he does not know exactly what's next but is absolutely sure that it won't be dull.
Besides being a high flying business leader, Branson believes in giving back to the society. Back in Britain, he is a trustee of several charities, among them the Healthcare Foundation- a charity responsible for the launch of Parents Against Tobacco campaign. In an interview, Branson once said "I think it's important if you're running businesses, especially if you've got the wealth of a small nation which some of the bigger brands have got now, you are more than just a business."
The first time for Branson to lend his name to a project was in South Africa - The Branson School of Entrepreneurship at CIDA City Campus. This is South Africa's first virtually free tertiary institution and actively promotes the growth and education of budding entrepreneurs from financially disadvantaged backgrounds.First Published in Small Medium Enterprises Today magazine, Nairobi, April 2007.