15 months leading Virgin Active - here's what I've learnt

Hello folks. I’ve been leader of Virgin Active UK for 15 months. My first year was an eventful one as we repositioned the business, selling half our clubs in order to focus on those in metropolitan and commuter hubs. We now have 45 up-market health and fitness clubs in the UK, 33 of which are in London.

This divestment was particularly challenging as it led to a pretty wholesale restructure in our club estate and our support offices. However hard it was to see good clubs and teams go, the greatest challenge for me as leader was rebuilding confidence in the remaining team.

To get us to today’s position of strength I appointed a top team combining long-term Virgin experience with newcomers bringing in their own specialisms; I made a conscious move closer to the aspirational Virgin 'motherbrand'; and - most critically - I set out to ensure that every member of staff is fully onside with our global mission: To make exercise irresistible, by providing our members with leading expertise, superb innovation and the best clubs.

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Placed as Virgin Active UK now is, at the premium end of the crowded health and leisure industry, we want members to enjoy a 'lifestyle experience' not just a simple work out. The digital journey alone - the way a new member finds and joins us - is expected by today’s consumer to be seamless and intuitive. So we’re investing to deliver a leading-edge experience from that first online search to the first exercise class. And we invest hugely in new classes and equipment so that members enjoy the latest in, for example, yoga, boxing, spinning or high intensity work outs.

I revel in the challenge that running a Virgin business poses. The power of the brand is infectious, plus (and not to brown nose) I am a long term admirer of The Boss, Sir Richard. To join the company was a dream come true.

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Of course expectations are high. But that’s the same in any millennial-focussed business. And that’s not so different from my previous life in hospitality for 30 years, where the customer expects 24/7 delivery.

What Virgin does is bring together things I’ve recognised and been committed to all my career  - ruthless focus on what the customer wants, excellent service, cool product execution and edgy tone of voice. All combined in one red hot brand.

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In addition to Richard, there are many great leaders I have learned from. Ken McCulloch, founder of Malmaison and Dakota Hotels, taught me about the value of music, lighting and style in boutique hotel creation. Richard Balfour Lynn of MWB, the hotel and property group, gave me the confidence to believe, no matter how challenging a situation, "it can be done". I learned from him about the cut-throat nature of running a business in a downturn, after the Lehman Brothers crash in 2008 with its devastating effect on the world’s economy.

Working for F1 driver David Coulthard was also a great learning curve - life in the fast lane! David taught me about keeping the competitive edge no matter the market, and how much attention to detail matters.

Another man who massively inspired me is former Man United manager Sir Alex Ferguson. I’ve spent a few evenings post-match with him, and heard at first hand his passion for developing young players through his academy. I’ve adopted his philosophy and built on it - growing a team from within, enriching it with outside talent, to deliver results year in year out. I built the Malmaison and Hotel du Vin hotel chains on that premise, and developed the careers of many as a result. To this day, still my single biggest achievement - and the delight of seeing talent grow through providing opportunity is still my most rewarding part of leadership.

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15 years in the CEO chair means big decisions and even the odd mistake! Learning from mistakes, and being quick to admit it, is key. Collectively finding a solution with your team, with insight from previous experience, is the formula. And don’t believe you won’t make another! As you grow older and wiser you don't become less risk taking, but you do have the benefit of experience - and hindsight!

Leadership is quite different from management. Leading a team is more about creating harmony and inclusion, and management is about judgement. Good gut instinct intertwined with good insight makes good managers; building teams together makes great leaders. When I hire, my prerequisite is get up and go, fire in the belly and a hard work ethic.

Then it’s about chemistry, getting the people recipe right to bake the perfect team cake. I see myself as a generalist. When I hire specialists, finance, marketing, sales and so on, I’ve hired them for their talents, so let them be themselves. As the old saying goes, "don’t employ a dog and bark yourself". Let them make decisions, let them make mistakes, knowing you are there for them, to help get things back on track but always backing your horse. Loyalty generated through active leadership, from the front, makes the greatest teams.

This is a guest blog and may not represent the views of Virgin.com. Please see virgin.com/terms for more details. Thumbnail from gettyimages.

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