Book Review: The Virgin Way by Richard Branson.

First, thank God that Mr. Branson was daring enough to call it Virgin and not Slipped Disc, because how would that even have worked? Considering he is such a serial entrepreneur and all his businesses would carry the name – Virgin Records, Virgin Atlantic, Virgin Money, Virgin Hotels, Virgin Mobile, Virgin Active – you see where I’m going with this. Besides it sounding impish on its own, I think it’s such an appropriate name. Truly, it exudes a sense of newness and freshness, and sounds untainted with so much to look forward to, for all intents and purposes.

Coming from a person who admits that he’s never read a leadership book in his life, which is what his headline reads, he really does have it together, quite the natural – and that might just be the kind of Virgin you want to explore – untainted by the book version of what leadership is about and that’s what even makes it more exciting. I won’t even go into how he dropped out of school at 16, is dyslexic and has never been employed – because at this point that’s inconsequential.

Richard Branson, The Virgin Way

When I started reading the book, I first fell in love with his writing style, his chain of thought and just how he told his story – it was light-hearted and downright frank. It’s what kept me flipping page after page. I feel like I say this for every other writer whose book I faithfully finish. But it’s because it takes a lot to get someone like me who gets bored very easily, reading a book to the end without giving up midway. He’d anticipated that many of us would probably do that, and even though I didn’t, he put up a summary of what the book is about. And I’m really glad I stuck on to the last page, because the amount of wisdom shared is unmatched. Below is a sneak peek,

  • Follow your dreams and just do it
  • Make a positive difference and do some good
  • Believe in your ideas and be the best
  • Have fun and look after your team
  • Don’t give up
  • Listen, take lots of notes and keep setting new challenges
  • Delegate and spend more time with your family
  • Turn off that laptop and iPhone and get your derriere out there
  • Communicate, collaborate and communicate some more
  • Do what you love and have a couch in the kitchen

His perspective on listening, living, laughing and leading is just not just the mere dictionary meaning of it, but rather the action you put into it. How he’s antsy about customer service and would ensure that it’s the core of his businesses – that the customer is comfortable, satisfied by your services and that those services add (some much needed) value to their lives – and from my observation, besides the fun times – that’s his drive, it’s the reason he does what he does.

Having a great product like Apple’s certainly helps, but the icing on the cake is having great people in the front line. Get that part of the equation wrong and ‘typically’ poor customer service can undermine even the best of atypical products. Pg. 150

Don’t worry about profit. Think about customer service. Profit is a by-product of good customer service. It’s not an end in itself. ~ Herb Kelleher (Founder, US Carrier Southwest Airlines) Pg. 229

Another thing I found quite fascinating about ‘the virgin way’ is their culture – the people-first culture. Basically, enjoying what they were doing, enjoying working with each other and treating their customers like they were part of the family. And you can see from the stories he shares, that he’s not doing it on his own. The growth of the Virgin brand is as a result of team effort coupled with a visionary leader that allows them to be. He shares stories of the people he has worked with, the various Execs, CEO’s and managers from the different Virgin Sub-brands, the circumstances under which they came on board and the expertise they brought on board.

One of the keys to ‘the way’ we do things is nothing more complex than listening – listening intently to everyone who has an opinion to share, not just the self-professed experts. It’s also about learning from each other, from the marketplace and from the mistakes that must be made in order to get anywhere that is original and disruptive. And perhaps most importantly, it’s about having fun with a capital F while we’re doing it. Pg. 5

While the majority of skills can be learned, when it comes to personality what you see tends to be what you get – with the caveat of course that what you’ll see on a ‘best behavior’ interview showing is not always what you’ll get when they’re installed on the payroll. Pg. 207

Culture eats strategy for breakfast. When there’s too much focus in profits and growth and too little attention on nurturing your people and culturing the culture, there’s a very serious risk that somebody else might soon be eating your lunch. Peter Drucker. Pg. 240

The one story that really challenged me was that of Ron Faris, who was then the CMO (Chief Marketing Officer) at Virgin Mobile, USA (2009) and the ‘Pink Slip VIPS’. It was a time when layoffs had dominated the market and they had to make a decision whether to go on with their annual music festival or not. While other organizers had backed out fearing that there would be no crowd since no one would afford such outings at that time, Ron Faris and his team went against the tide and decided to do things a little differently. And rather than cancelling the festival, they decided to ‘buck the gloom and lighten things up’ – their goal being to put out a new energy that would focus on optimism – the tickets were to be free and some more.

When Ron Faris briefed Mr. Branson, he was to ‘act like Willie Wonka at the Chocolate factory gate.’ Sic. Inside they had created a VIP lounge like no one had ever seen. And so rather than being the usual exclusive sanctuary for the A-Listers’ this one was still exclusive but the only people allowed in were those who could prove they’d been laid off. With ‘Pink Slip Pinatas’ hang from the tree as deco, the young fans could just celebrate a day of free music instead of stressing about getting a job. Pg. 173. And it’s out of such a miserable situation that was turned into a moment of happiness for the young fans that ‘Virgin Mobile FreeFest’ was born. And besides just being enjoyed by the attendees over the years, they also raise hundreds of thousands of dollars a year for homeless youth.

Someone please pass me some Kleenex.

My former boss used to ask me where in the world I would like to do a work exchange programme given the chance. Simple question, right? But it gave me such grief because I didn’t have a place I’d honestly say, ‘I want to learn from this ones because of this and that.’ I mean, besides the Apple’s, Google’s and Microsoft’s of the world, and that’s because they seem cool, and they make cool stuff – and their work environment looked colorful and chilled – especially Google.

But now I have a direct answer, because after reading about all these brands, I see a place whose culture I resonate with and for me that reason is more than enough. A place whose way of life would excite me because it’s about being true to who you are, involving the people you genuinely care about in your decision making, focusing on your passion and ensuring that whatever you do, you’re doing good for others and having fun while at it.

It is a refreshing read, as you see someone prosper by just believing in himself and his dreams (which just started as ideas) even when they seem unrealistic. And then tagging along people who have faith in his ventures and who can help him achieve those dreams. So much so that when they fail (because not all of them are successful) they fail together, dust themselves up and move to the next idea, and give it their best. But there’s no one point he ever threw the towel and said, that’s it – even when there were so many opportunities to do so.

Truth be told, we can’t all be like Richard Branson’s, and I won’t even tell you to try to be, neither will I myself, because it’s virtually impossible. But there are some simple values he lives by that we can pick here and there that can help you to be a better version of yourself and a better citizen of the world.

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’s either in a person’s DNA or not, and as such has to come from within. Pg.6

Ps. He mentions Kenya and talks about the leadership demonstrated by Safaricom and Vodafone with ‘M-Pesa’ Pg. 354. It gave me some warm fuzzy feeling inside. And even if I was never a part of the innovation team, I’m a great beneficiary of the service. The simplicity is outstanding; the impact, revolutionary. For what would we do without M-Pesa?

I was at that point where I was looking for some inspiration, and this book delivered it to me in a full platter. To the extent I couldn’t get myself to read the next book until I had shared what I had learnt from this one with you. It also has the most book markings courtesy of my gold pen, because everything was oh-so-relevant. And this is just a nutshell, the flesh is overwhelming. It radiates the energy, it’s for you to absorb it.

Richard Branson, The Virgin Way

Such a great way to close the year book-wise. Though I still have the one I’d planned to read over Christmas pending – Let It Snow: Three Holiday Romances by John Green.

Book Purchased from TBC at KES 1,150. It’s worth every shilling.

Happy Reading Snippers.

Signing Off ~~~ *Kawi*