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Unlocking Your Team’s Inner Richard Branson


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What if every person at your company had the freedom and creativity of an ultra-entrepreneur like Richard Branson? 

That thought was flowing through our minds during Scaling Up’s Leading the Recovery Summit with EO and YPO last week. Featuring Branson along with CEOs and top business school professors, the session was filled with advice for navigating strategy, execution, and people during an uncertain time for business. 

How to Think Like Branson

Sir Richard Branson dropped out of school at 16. With no formal business education, Branson has built a formidable empire through pure creativity and grit. Focusing on industries ripe for disruption, Branson saw an opportunity to buck the trend of poor customer service in travel starting with the launch of Virgin Atlantic in 1984. 

His creativity permeates every aspect of his life. An active septuagenarian, Branson completes fitness challenges, leads numerous environmental charities, and speaks around the globe about a range of issues, including his dream of commercial space travel. 

Despite his foresight, even Branson could not have predicted the apocalyptic market conditions in travel due to the coronavirus pandemic. His enterprises have suffered a series of setbacks starting with the ill-timed launch of a cruise line, Virgin Voyages, in February. Virgin Atlantic had to file for Chapter 12 Bankruptcy in August. The struggles forced Branson to sell off hundreds of millions in Virgin Galactic stock to funnel into his travel businesses. 

Despite all that, Branson maintains his trademark smile. Even now, it’s difficult to find a photo of Branson where he isn’t beaming. His outlook, like his fortune, is immune to a few setbacks. “I’m an optimist,” he told the virtual crowd at Scaling Up Summit. “I can safely say I’ll be in space early next year.”

How to Plan Like Branson

His ability to bounce back from a string of bad luck speaks to Sir Richard’s unique and unchanged approach to strategic planning. “Instead of pushing our teams to do ever more intensive analysis to pick our next venture – which can slow the whole business down”, Branson explained, “I set a priority on our remaining open to new ideas.” 

Having established Virgin Atlantic as a leader in customer experience, Branson sought out industries where that strength would provide competitive differentiation. Rather than get bogged down in the analysis of a given strategy, Branson emphasized enthusiasm and speed to market. 

“If somebody offers you an amazing opportunity but you are not sure you can do it, say yes – then learn how to do it later!” says Sir Richard. “Opportunity favours the bold.”

Finding these opportunities is less about a disciplined search and more about the creativity of approach. This is why Branson recommends having interests outside of work, taking regular vacations, and working shorter weeks. “Exercising your creativity in other settings isn’t just relaxing; you’ll stay informed about developments in other fields and connect with a wider circle of people than you might encounter at work. Keeping your thinking fresh and original makes good business sense!”

Building a Team Full of Bransons

Creativity, resilience, and opportunism are all traits business leaders would love to develop in themselves and their teams. As Branson shows, these aren’t linked to a formal business education, but rather a particular mindset. Surviving challenges of COVID-19 requires innovative solutions and teams that can think like Sir Richard.

So how can leaders encourage their teams to think with the resiliency and creative problem solving of Richard Branson? 

The key, says fellow Scaling Up Summit speaker and Wharton organizational psychologist Adam Grant, is creating an environment where ideas can flourish. “Creativity is allowing yourself to make mistakes,” writes Grant with Sheryl Sandberg in Originals: How Non-Conformists Change the World.

Leaders stifle the creative energy of their teams, says Grant, by failing to create a sense of safety. When leaders say “Don’t bring me problems, bring me solutions”, their teams internalize that they might be punished for bringing problems to management’s attention, explains Grant. Yet these organizational weaknesses are exactly the problems leaders should encourage teams to identify and collaborate to solve. 

In brainstorming sessions, groupthink and hierarchies can hold groups back from bring their full creativity. The most innovative teams, on the other hand, are those where dissenting opinions are not only heard but valued. In Originals, Grant quotes Berkeley psychologist Charlan Nemeth, a leading expert on group decisions, who explains that even when dissenting opinions are wrong, “they contribute to the detection of novel solutions and decisions that, on balance, are qualitatively better”.

Building a Culture of Constructive Dissent

Creating a culture where every team member has the creative confidence of Richard Branson may seem unimaginable in hierarchical organizations with top down decision making. But London Business School professor and Scaling Up Summit speaker Gary Hammel thinks a better way is possible. 

The loss of faith in Capitalism, says Hammel, has nothing to do with Capitalism’s ability to produce great ideas. Rather, he explained, America has too little Capitalism, depriving workers of the ability to feel like owners. “70% of Americans would now rather work for themselves,” Hammel explained, “but for millions of individuals, the entrepreneurial dream seems out of reach.”

Employees have lost faith in capitalism because their creativity is crushed by hierarchy. “Bureaucracy is a caste system that empowers the few at the expense of the many” said Hammel. “In doing that it squanders vast quantities of imagination.”

In his new book, HumanocracyHammel lays out examples of vanguard organizations blazing the path to better management structure. He cites Haier, in which teams operate as 4,000 micro-enterprises of 10-15 employees. With 26,000 employees, Nucor Steel still manages to give everyone a voice and a stake in performance, using just four layers of management and tying 25% of salary to plant performance. The German healthcare company Buurtzorg has found success with just two managers for 16,000 employees. 

Employees at these organizations are more likely to create visionary solutions because dissenting opinions are tolerated and celebrated not crushed by bureaucracy. Every individual knows that their work will make a difference for the direction of their organization. 

The Work Place of The Future

2020 has created an unprecedented opportunity for the transformation of the workforce. Companies must adapt to changing conditions to maintain an engaged team and remain competitive. 

Some may be tempted to look in the rearview mirror at the command-and-control models of the past. But amidst the uncertainty of our post-COVID future, only the creative survive. To stifle employee feedback and sense of ownership would be competitively unwise, not to mention a tragic waste of human potential. 

Now more than ever, leaders must maximize, as best they can, employee input in strategic planning. When employees see themselves as CEOs and own a stake in outcomes, company and personal goals become one. Employees find more meaning in their work lives and the freedom to thrive personally. 

Ahead of us is a world where every worker has the creativity, passion, and optimism of Sir Richard Branson. Enabled by new technology, this collaborative approach to goal setting unlocks your team’s full potential. Companies with cultures that foster these adaptive, fully-engaged teams will build solutions that power the most innovative enterprises of the next decade. 

Where will this empowered, creative mindset take your team?

Who knows? Maybe even the moon!


For more information on how technology can help your team achieve big goals together, talk to an Align advisor today!

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