3 Leadership Secrets from Richard Branson

“Tie-loathing adventurer and thrill seeker, who believes in turning ideas into reality. Otherwise known as Dr Yes at Virgin!”

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This is the quote that you will find on every one of Sir Richard Branson’s social profiles. As the CEO of Virgin and billionaire founder of over 400 companies, Richard Branson is one of the most accomplished entrepreneurs in history. Yet these two sentences are all you’ll find in his “job description” on LinkedIn.

Why not billionaire British magnate, CEO of the Virgin Group that generates $25 billion in annual revenue and has 50,000+ employees in 50 countries? What kind of corporate leader would choose just these short words to represent him in the business world?

When you Google ‘Richard Branson Leadership’, you will get about 645,000 results and hundreds of quotes. Clearly Branson is widely sought after for leadership advice. Maybe it’s because he rose from being a dyslexic high school dropout to found over 400 companies and become #298 on the Forbes list of billionaires. Maybe it’s because he lives a “rock star” life, travels the world and calls (his own) Necker Island in the BVI’s his “office”.

To me, it’s because he never seems to be “working” at all…or at least nothing that he can’t do from a beach or a yacht! Talk about working from home.

With this much press about Richard Branson’s story and his achievements as a businessman, you may ask, what leadership “secrets” could he possibly have? Well, I believe that when you dig a little deeper, you’ll find out why Branson is one of a rare breed – a social leader. I also believe he is keeping some secrets behind that billion dollar smile, and they aren’t just what happened during his last backstage party with the Rolling Stones. :)

Secret #1: Meld Your Personal and Company Brand

To Richard Branson, the Virgin brand and his personal brand are essentially one and the same. Virgin’s mission reflects Branson’s personal values and vision for a better world. You see it right away when you go to Virgin’s home page. On display are videos, blog posts and social media feeds that discuss Branson’s ideas about social causes, the environment and critical world issues.

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Most of these are general posts about Branson and Virgin “turn ideas into reality”, not about how Virgin will decrease your TCO by 20%. If you want to find out more about Virgin products and services, you can click on the unobtrusive buttons to the right or engage with them on social networks. Share buttons and social media site links are everywhere!

Contrast this with, say, the Oracle.com website. Oracle’s home page is loaded with stock photos and marketing speak. Oracle’s website perfectly reflects the personality of founder Larry Ellison…bleh!

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Other than marketing brochures and self-serving “whitepapers”, you’re not likely to find much on Oracle’s site. You’re not likely to find helpful business or life tips from Larry Ellison, or what he stands for either. You might find Larry or some current Oracle executive bragging about how Oracle Widget X crushes the competition or making outrageous claims…like Larry “invented the cloud.” (Even I know that Al Gore invented the cloud…duh)

On the other hand, people going to the Virgin website are going to find plenty of useful advice and evidence of the value Virgin provides. Here’s an example from the ‘Richard’ page, which is Branson’s personal blog on the Virgin site:

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Look at the engaging topics (‘Believe in your dreams’), positive messages (New Year’s Resolutions? Make a list, get it done), humor (Say yes in 2015) and the evidence of social interaction (8.3K shares on one video alone) on Branson’s blog. Social network activity and share icons (Facebook, Twitter, even Google+) are everywhere.

True, Larry Ellison owns an island and lives a rock star life like Richard Branson. He’s probably met the Stones. Still, I’ll leave it to you to decide who you would rather buy from, hang out with, or listen to. And which company “walks the walk”? (pop quiz at the end)

Secret #2: Provide Useful, Engaging Content

In the tuck-away menu at the top of Virgin’s website you will find several options for content pages called ‘Richard’, Entrepreneur’ and ‘Disruptors’. The ‘Richard’ page is Branson’s personal blog, which provides his thoughts on social issues and his favorite topics: leadership and entrepreneurship.

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‘Entrepreneur’ is a more general blog with visually rich content including videos and posts by Virgin employees, as well as guest posts from other influential entrepreneurs. In addition to providing useful tips, this blog demonstrates to potential customers and other businesspeople that Virgin knows what issues they are facing in Virgin’s markets: music, hospitality, travel and aerospace.

To top it all off, the Virgin site has the ‘Disruptors’ page with content about innovation around the world. So cool.

Who knows? Maybe I could run into one of these entrepreneurs or disruptors on a Virgin America flight (I can dream). At the very least, I can live vicariously through Sir Richard and the Virgin staff on their adventures. With this website, I feel as though I’m being invited to his “virtual beach”. The useful, engaging content draws me in…and inspires me.

For comparison on the Oracle site, I tried to find some useful or even just interesting content. For giggles I tried the “Must Read” option and found this.

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  • An issue in “Profit Magazine” (lemme guess) about how Oracle OpenWorld can increase your profit – after you buy a database upgrade
  • A talk at the Oracle Conference from Oracle CEO Mark Hurd about why Oracle’s Mark Hurd is a Next-Gen Leader
  • News from Oracle CloudWorld, in case you didn’t catch it on CNN!
  • Teaching kids how to code (sounds useful)…oops, in Oracle Java…zzzzz
  • Real Time Business Intelligence (from Oracle, only for Oracle database customers that want to buy additional software)
  • Oracle has products and solutions for every role in the enterprise. Good to know.

Wow! I’m glad I followed that link. It was good for a laugh anyway. :)

Throughout the Oracle site, I can’t find a share button or social media feed anywhere. Ah well…there’s probably nothing worth sharing anyway, at least not for me!

I feel like I’ve been invited a fancy Oracle sales party in Vegas, allowed to glimpse pretty people through a small door, realized I didn’t have enough money for the cover charge and told that I can have a brochure as a consolation prize. No thanks. I’ll take Virgin’s virtual beach every time..

Engaging and useful content is what I want, along with the ability to share and interact with interesting people doing great things. Thanks, Sir Richard! C’mon Larry…get with the program. It works. Richard Branson is giving away his secrets on how to create and share great content, for free. All you need to do is to listen.

Secret #3: Understand and Leverage Social Media

Perhaps Richard Branson’s greatest differentiator as a “social CEO” is that he truly “gets” the power of social collaboration. He takes advantage of what authors Ted Coiné and Mark Babbitt call OPEN, which stands for Ordinary People Extraordinary Network. Branson doesn’t wait for some marketing executive or PR firm to show him the ROI of Virgin’s social media campaigns. Instead, he infuses social into everything Virgin does.

What is the impact of this social-centric strategy?

  • Dramatic reductions in the “management tax” because he doesn’t need middle level managers to supervise his empowered employees with their switched on networks.
  • Root Ad Square

    Dramatic reductions in marketing costs because Branson uses mostly free social media networks to spawn “brand ambassadors” for Virgin.

  • Better customer service because he can use OPEN to find out what customers want without expensive, backward facing market research.
  • Better response time to customer problems before they become a PR nightmare, like United’s handling of the guitar incident.
  • A fountain of new ideas from his engaged “tribe” of employees and customers.
  • Improved employee satisfaction and retention, particularly with millennials, because his staff believes in Virgin’s mission.
  • An audience of over 7 million followers on LinkedIn, who have “opted in” to get notifications when he posts blogs or shares content.
  • Almost 5 million followers on Twitter, where he can spread his message quickly and efficiently – for free.

Branson doesn’t wait for some marketing executive or PR firm to show him the ROI of Virgin’s social media campaigns. Instead, he infuses social into everything Virgin does.

So, are these leadership insights and practices from Richard Branson really “secrets”? Is he a good example of a social leader? I hope that by reading this post it has at least stimulated some interest in the question of whether Branson is any different in his approach to leadership than other business leaders you know.

After reading this post, I hope you have some questions like the following:

  1. Is your CEO or manager active on social media? What, if any, is their “personal brand”?
  2. What is the perception of your company and your brand on social media?
  3. Does your company’s marketing plan include a blog and marketing campaigns that incorporate social media in the mix?
  4. Does your CEO or manager default to yes?
  5. What would happen if you said you had a new idea or suggested to management that they should “Screw it, let’s do it”?
  6. What are the repercussions if you don’t achieve a goal or you make a mistake at work? Do you fear for your job?
  7. What is the tolerance level for social media on the job? Is all of it considered slacking?
  8. Is this leadership advice really a secret, or just spin? (opening myself up on this one)

I hope that you will leave me some answers or new questions in the comments section below. If you work at Virgin or you have a story about Richard Branson, then I’d love to hear it.

 

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Dan Aldridge is the founder and CEO of Performa Apps, a manufacturing ERP software consulting firm. Dan is the founder of http://inforln.com, a new community for enterprise software enthusiasts, consultants and manufacturing executives. As an Infor LN consultant and ex-Baan ERP consultant, Dan is a vocal evangelist for the “Baan culture” and manufacturing ERP software. He has over 20 years of experience as an ERP consultant, project manager and financial analyst. Dan has helped dozens of manufacturers with their ERP software implementations; Carrier, Siemens, Mercedes Benz, Snap-on Tools, Blue Bird, and Flextronics to name a few. He is a blogger on LinkedIn, inforln.com and Wordpress. His wonderful wife, two boys and two dogs help him remember what’s important every day.

  • Marcie

    The push bak to participating in social media in my business is astounding, the only thing we have down moderately well is Facebook. These are excellent points to encourage the team on, and I love that we don’t just have to share about fitness (trainers). What’s the best way to introduce a new social media engagement campaign to your team?

    • Hi Marcie – Yes, many (most) CEO’s don’t understand the value of social media because they look at it in terms of pure ROI. I spend this and I get this much additional revenue. What they don’t factor in is the impact of even a single interaction or conversation for building “brand advocates” inside and outside their company. Think of it as positive word-of-mouth on a global scale! Potential customers want to know about the stories and the people behind the company. They don’t want to just hear about fitness just because you’re trainers. Instead, they may want to know about the health benefits of mindfulness, taking frequent breaks at work, just walking if you can’t get to the gym, eating organic foods, etc. The best way to introduce a social media campaign to your people might be to talk about holistic wellness instead of just going to the gym. I know that when you feel better from changing your diet and meditating, then you’re more motivated to get a personal trainer as well.

      • Marcie

        So how do we quantifiably measure social media’s impact? The amount of followers? engagements?

  • Rich

    Vomit….comparing two totally different products by the same metrics. Ridiculous. Oracle sells business to business data bases. Virgin is effectively a marketing/branding company. Of course they take different approaches. This article is way too light and fluffy….

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