By Richard Branson, ”Old Blocks and Young Chips”,
Sometimes the greatest leadership lessons can come from the most unexpected places. Some elements of leadership are almost certainly genetic and there is no escaping the fact that we are all products of our upbringing and our environment. As the saying goes, ‘An apple never falls far from the tree that bore it’. Well, as anyone who knows my mother Eve or my late father Ted will testify, I am certainly no exception to the rule. I recognise a lot of traits in myself that I have clearly inherited from my parents – mostly good – although just a few of the things that drove me nuts about my mum and dad when I was a kid almost certainly had the same effect on my own children.
From my first memories of her, my mum was always on the go, buzzing around the place. She had a seemingly limitless imagination for coming up with new business ideas. I don’t recall her ever considering herself an entrepreneur – that was probably only because I don’t think the word existed back then and if it did nobody knew what it meant – but she was certainly the definition of ‘enterprising’. Eve is a human whirlwind. No matter what the latest big thing was, she’d always manage the whole process by herself from developing the ideas to crafting the products, to making deals with distributors, delivering and selling the goods. Nobody else could get in her way, it was her show and hers alone! I remember being very impressed by one of her more successful ventures, which was building and selling wooden tissue boxes and wastepaper bins. This one made it to some fairly swanky stores but they were generally more local ventures. She was absolutely tenacious, and taught me never to cry over spilt milk. If an item didn’t sell, she’d just write it off, learn from the experience and quite dispassionately move on and try something else. My sisters and I were always being dragged in as unpaid child labour, ‘a labour of love’ she’d call it, or the household chores would be delegated to us while Mum was in manufacturing mode. Obviously I didn’t realise it at the time but there was unquestionably a lot of osmosis going on in that house that would stand me in good stead later in life.
Eve hasn’t changed much even though she is now… oops. As she was the one that taught me never to talk about a woman’s age let’s leave it at ‘she is rather well into her eighties’. In her early life she had a spell as a West End dancer, and later became a stewardess for British South American Airways – that was in the really glamorous days of flying.
One recent example was when quite out of the blue she casually announced her intention to organise a charity polo match – not exactly the kind of thing one expects from an octogenarian! But this wasn’t going to be something on the village green near her home – she was planning to do it in Morocco! Surprised but far from stunned, I told her in no uncertain terms that I thought it a really crazy idea; not only would it be a huge amount of work but it would probably end up costing her money rather than raising it. She listened intently to what I had to say and then went ahead and did it anyway. Not only did it happen but it was a huge success and raised about a quarter of a million dollars. So while I was denied the opportunity to say, ‘See, Mum, I told you so’, I really had to admire her tenacity and so instead simply said (a very quiet) ‘Well done, Mum.’
Another of those family signature characteristics that I am told I have inherited is forever insisting on getting the last word in on any given subject. Well, just to show how flexible I can be on such things, I am going to let Eve have some of the first words in this book so (as a published author herself) I invited her to write a few thoughts. Based on what I’ve just told you about her, see if any of the following sounds familiar? ‘Apples and trees!’
Dear Ricky, If you’re really going to let me say something in your next book, then here it goes.
We saw it in you from virtually the first moment you began to talk. But even before that, when you learned to walk we realised we were going to have our hands full; you were just a toddler but you were clearly someone who liked to do things his own way and on your own terms.
To make matters even more interesting, as you grew you per- petually had some crazy new scheme or other up your sleeve that you were convinced was either going to change the world, make lots of money, or both! On a few such occasions we would say things like, ‘Oh don’t be ridiculous, Ricky! That’s never going to work.’ More often than not, however, your father and I instead opted to give you plenty of scope to learn by your mistakes and so left you to get on with your Christmas tree growing, bird breeding and all the other weird and wonderful enterprises you came up with. Almost without exception they all ended in some form of a disaster with us picking up the pieces – literally and metaphorically – but we’d sol- dier on and just kept hoping that one day the lessons learned would help you in life.
And that certainly would seem to have turned out to be the case.
After a rocky beginning, once you and Virgin had become an established success, Ted and I would often ponder on just how differently you might have turned out had we been more controlling, or some might say ‘better’, parents. What if we had insisted that you not take so many silly risks and, rather than allowing you to drop out of school at sixteen, forced you to buckle down and complete your education? Like your headmaster at Stowe, who famously (now) pre- dicted that by twenty-one you would either be in jail or a millionaire, we too shared some very serious misgivings about what the future might have in store for you.
As we now know, of course, we needn’t have worried. What we saw as being a pig-headed little boy who was utterly determined to do his own thing, turned out to be nothing more than the growing pains of a budding entrepreneur. If only we had been able to recognise that at the time we might have had a lot fewer sleepless nights!
I read that some wag once said of me, ‘That Branson chap is the luckiest person I know. You just watch – if he ever falls off a high building he’s almost certainly going to fall upwards!’ Please don’t hold your breath on this one as it’s not a theory I intend to test any time soon! Others have suggested that I was simply ‘born lucky’. Perhaps!
In my opinion ‘luck’ is a highly misunderstood commodity. It’s certainly not something that drops out of the heavens, you really can work at helping it along – but more on that later. For now suffice it to say that I came into this world a lot luckier than most people. I had the good fortune to be born into a wonderfully loving family where I enjoyed a safe and ‘sensible’ childhood in post-war England. I grew up in a home where there were few if any excesses, but at the same time my two sisters and I never really wanted for much of anything, especially affection and guidance from our parents.
Looking back on that period of my life I have to heap praise on the stalwart efforts of my mother and father, as I certainly was not the easiest child to bring up. Apart from being dyslexic I was blessed with an indomitable spirit that, whether she wants to admit it or not, unquestionably came from my mother Eve’s side of the family. Perhaps she recognised this kindred spirit in me as she was constantly taking the lead in trying to keep young ‘Ricky’ (that would be me) in line. At the same time it was also very much a team effort with my father Ted, even if the two of them didn’t always realise it at the time.
There are many examples of this. Like one Sunday in church when I point-blank refused to sit next to the son of a friend of my mother’s simply because I didn’t like the child. Despite my mum’s loudly whispered protestations, I instead sat with a friend on the opposite side of the aisle. I really didn’t think it was that big of a deal, so I was utterly shocked when I got back home and, for what might have been the first time ever, my mother insisted that Dad should spank my bottom. She loudly proclaimed that, ‘The boy has to learn that such behaviour will simply not be tolerated in this house.’ As I was thinking, ‘But I didn’t do it in this house’, Dad dragged me out of the room by the scruff of the neck and then, just loudly enough to ensure that Mum would hear him, proclaimed, ‘Okay, young man. It’s time for me to teach you a lesson that you’ll never forget!’
And he certainly did. Following his quickly whispered instruc- tions, I squealed in an appropriately pained manner as my dad proceeded to loudly clap his hands together half a dozen times. In a conspiratorial whisper he then told me to go back in to see Mum and apologise while looking ‘suitably chastised’. It was all I could do to keep my face straight when mid-apology Dad gave me a huge wink from behind Mum’s back.
Dad was really just a big softy at heart, but I am convinced that the way he handled the situation after church that day taught me a far more lasting lesson than a severely bruised bottom (and ego) could ever have achieved. I’m not sure if my mother ever knew about the fake spanking – if she didn’t then when she reads this she certainly will – but there was another more serious occasion when Ted’s parenting skills have stuck with me forever. On the odd occasion I had been guilty of helping myself to a few pennies from the loose change that Dad used to unload from his pockets into the top drawer in his bedroom wardrobe. To my childish amusement I had also discovered it was the same drawer where Dad kept his secret stash of what we used to call ‘dirty books’, but I digress. Helping myself to his change was never something I saw as ‘stealing’ per se. In my juvenile mind I was just kind of ‘borrowing’ it and we’d simply never established the repayment terms or structure.
As it turned out, however, I was the one who was about to get repaid by getting myself into a lot of trouble. We lived just around the corner from a sweet shop and I’d been using my ill-gotten gains to buy chocolate, with Cadbury’s fruit and nut being my particular favourite. One day, though, I’d taken a much bigger ‘loan’ than usual from Dad’s wardrobe bank and promptly done my part to boost Cadbury’s shareholder value. The ‘old lady’ who owned the shop, who at the time was probably all of forty years old, quickly smelled a rat. She said nothing to me, but the next time I was in her shop in the company of my father she staggered me by blurting out, ‘Now I don’t want to get him into any trouble, Mr Branson, but I don’t know where young Richard’s getting all his money from. He’s becoming quite my best customer – so I do hope he isn’t stealing it.’ I remember her words like it were yesterday and thinking, ‘Did she really have to put that zinger on the end?’
But then, just as I was thinking, ‘Oops, I’m really in for it now!’ my dad staggered me by putting his nose right up to hers, looking her straight in the eyes and loudly declaring, ‘Madam, how dare you accuse my son of stealing?’ I was even more surprised when, after we’d marched out of the shop, he never said another word about it. Sometimes, though, the power of the unspoken word can be a frighteningly powerful thing and my father’s studied silence with me for the rest of that day spoke volumes. In addition, the fact that he’d immediately jumped in and vehemently defended his light-fin- gered son’s integrity made me feel more guilt-ridden and miserable than if he had berated me in front of her.
Dad’s handling of the situation certainly taught me a hugely effective lesson. Not only did I never pinch another penny from my parents, but it also taught me a life-lesson on the power of forgiveness and giving people a second chance. I’d like to say the incident also taught me the importance of ‘giving the benefit of the doubt’, except in that particular case my father was in no doubt whatsoever as to precisely what had been going on.
Some business leaders have built their personal brand images (and businesses) around their quirkiness and outspoken eccentricities, be they hard-nosed, authoritarian or just downright crotchety. Michael O’Leary, CEO of the Irish airline Ryanair, once described his ideal customer as ‘someone with a pulse and a credit card’ and in the same ‘Lunch with the Financial Times’ interview referred to the British Airports Authority as the ‘Evil Empire’ and the UK’s Civil Aviation Authority as a bunch of ‘cretins and twerps’. While nobody can question Ryanair’s incredible financial success (last time I checked the low-cost carrier had built a market cap of over $13 billion), being voted Europe’s ‘least liked’ airline by TripAdvisor subscribers is something that would not sit well with me no matter how good the bottom line looks. American property magnate Donald Trump is another controversial character who seems to be either loved or hated by the consumer and is perhaps most famous for his ‘You’re fired’ line, something he seems to delight in telling people on his TV show The Apprentice. Unlike both these very successful gentlemen I have always believed there are tremendous upsides to a more conciliatory approach to life and business – an attitude that even Michael O’Leary is now publicly proclaiming he wants his much-maligned airline to assume, although it remains to be seen whether or not this particular Celtic Tiger can change his stripes. I’m not a betting man, but if I were, I’m not at all sure I would put money on this one!
While I wouldn’t be foolish enough to pretend that Virgin’s three airlines have never had passengers with valid complaints or that I have never fired anyone, I can honestly say that, unlike Mr Trump, the latter is not something I have ever taken the slightest pleasure in doing. On the contrary, I will usually move heaven and earth to avoid letting someone go, as when it comes to such a last resort I feel both sides have somehow failed each other. It’s so much better, where possible, to try and forgive offenders and give them a second chance, just like my mother and father did so often with me as a child.
Richard Branson’s book – The Virgin Way, is now available.