What Richard Branson and toilet rolls teach us about disruption

As far as icebreakers go, this one reaches new levels - literally. "I came in early today and put a bog roll under every other seat in the front row", Richard Branson announced to the packed auditorium, gathered for the first Virgin Disruptors session of the day. "You’ve got to unroll the bog roll up through the auditorium and back down again." If anyone had been expecting a conference-as-usual, they’d clearly come to the wrong place.

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What you can learn by reading this article:

  • Why Richard Branson wants to put himself out of business
  • How Virgin Atlantic disrupted the airline industry
  • Why business leaders should campaign against global inequalities

The bog roll challenge was a trick Richard learned in the early days of Virgin Atlantic - "when I wanted people to smile more than they usually did" - even if the customs officials did think he was a little odd for bringing his own suitcase packed with toilet paper. After the audience was happily energised, Richard kicked off a panel discussion that ranged from thoughtful insights on leading with purpose, to a healthy debate about whether disruptors are born or made.  Suffice to say, Richard shared many personal reflections on the topics of the day, so here are just a few of our favourite words from the wise.

1. "I don’t think it would be much fun to not to be outside my comfort zone"

"I‘ve got the greatest pleasure in my life to set myself seemingly impossible challenges and then overcome them," Richard told the audience when he was asked what motivates him to keep pushing. Setting impossible challenges has become a signature move for Virgin, and one that gives the brand a sense of pace and energy. "The head of British Airways wouldn’t get on a hot air balloon," he added, "but Virgin has that excitement, and I really enjoy it." In short, seeking the impossible gives brands an edge.

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2. "Sometimes it’s good to leave the building entirely"

Having just returned from a grueling month-long Strive Challenge, Richard joked that he’s back to the body he had aged 28. Physical appearances aside, Richard used the point to elaborate on a topic close to his heart - spending quality time away from the business, with family and friends.

"I found the time to do that in my 30s, 40s, 50s... I surrounded myself with people better than me in every aspect, in Virgin, and put myself out of business as quickly as possible." For Richard, this is the difference between "planting acorns as you go" and running the day-to-day. "I think that’s really important for people in this room who think they need to cling on. If they can spend the time finding the right people, they’ll suddenly find it’s freed them up to achieve other things."

3. "If you’re going to take on a big guy, make sure your quality is better"

"We started Virgin Atlantic with one secondhand 747, and we were up against British Airways with 400 planes and PanAm with 400 planes... and no one thought we could survive," Richard explained, "so we had to make sure that what went on in that 747 was so good and so fun that word would get out." It’s a defining story of disruption that delights with every retelling, but for all the surprising and innovative add-ons - from stand up bars to salt and pepper pots that made their way into customer carry-on - Richard had a welcome reminder for the crowd:

"We went from one plane, to two, to three, and on, but the main thing is if you’re going to take on a big guy, make sure your quality is better than them so when they play dirty tricks your customers stay loyal."

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4. "If you become a public figure, you need to use that public status to campaign on awful inequities in this world"

Richard’s tireless campaigning on major global topics, from abolishing the death penalty to ocean conservation, is well known - but it’s something he expects of every business leader. "You have enormous responsibility to get out there and help tackle the problems in this world" he told the crowd, adding "if we can get every business to take that attitude we can tackle every problem in this world, through disruption and innovation." He shared timely examples where countries are getting on top of systemic challenges, such as Portugal’s approach to heroin use, adding that there will always be "things we have to speak out about, even if it’s bad for your business."

5. "With the right mindset, people in this room... they can become disruptors, and they can shock themselves by doing it"

It was a topic which divided the panel - are disruptors born or made? Richard came down on the side of nurture over nature, saying that anyone can learn how to be a disruptor - even if they surprise themselves in the process.

If you joined us in London and would like to share your highlights and how you've been inspired to make a change in your world, drop us an email on social.media@virgin.com with the subject Virgin Disruptors 2016.

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