Being a Virgin leader - what does it take?

Virgin Media’s Managing Director of Mobile, Jeff Dodds, is one of a handful of leaders to have left the Virgin Group, only to return a couple years later. We caught up with him to find out more about his perspective on leadership and how doing it at Virgin differs from elsewhere.

So Jeff, tell us how leading at a Virgin company is different from doing so at other businesses.

I think perhaps the most challenging element of leadership in a Virgin business is meeting the high expectations set by the employees. More than anywhere else I’ve had the privilege of working, the leadership expectations of the people who work in a Virgin business are not just higher, they are also much more specific. 

I would describe it as being much less about the 'What' and more about the 'How'. Of course, they rightfully expect their business leaders to have great functional expertise, but it’s how they choose to lead that really gets the most out of each and every person. In my time here I’ve come to realise that the most successful Virgin leaders are highly approachable (no need for excessive hierarchy), straight talking (telling it how it is), creative (finding solutions in the least obvious places), employee focused (striving to create advocates from each and every person) and just plain good fun.

What’s the best piece of leadership advice you have received?

One of the best pieces of advice I was given came in particularly useful when I was taking on a new leadership role, in a new company, in a new country. It was about not wasting the one-off opportunity that comes with starting a new leadership role, and having a fresh perspective and used the analogy of moving house. 

On moving day, when you're doing the repetitive journey up and down the stairs, delivering boxes to the bedrooms, you will notice things that you didn't see when you first viewed the property.

Maybe it's something good. But more than likely it's something like a crack in the wall. And you say to yourself 'I must sort that out'. But the thing is, if you don't deal with it quickly, pretty soon you'll stop noticing the crack, and it will become the acceptable norm.

This is so often the case when you start in a new challenge, or in a new company. The benefit of fresh eyes helps you to spot many fundamental issues that need resolving. But pretty soon the fresh eyes become acclimatised and the issues no longer seem as clear. Just like those cracks in the walls. So, make a plan to fix them, or even better, just fix them whilst you still see them.

And the second thing I’ve observed that has really impressed me, is the rare breed of leaders who have the ability to turn their teams into delivery machines. I know this is oversimplifying things, but broadly in my experience employees can be divided into two camps. There's the strategists, who think about what to do, and the executioners, who do it. And also in my experience there's a huge premium placed by many leaders on the strategists, as thinking is somehow given more kudos than doing. I don't subscribe to this. In fact, I would go as far as to say that I’ve seen great strategies executed poorly, and they always fail. Whereas I’ve also seen average (perhaps even below average) strategies executed brilliantly, and a high number of them have been successful. Of course, the perfect combination would be a great strategy executed brilliantly. But the great lesson for me as a leader has been to remember to value, recognise and reward the great executioners in the team, otherwise they'll go and execute brilliantly for one of your competitors (and you'll probably end up replacing them with another strategist). 

What's been your biggest mistake as a leader?

There are actually so many I could list here, it would be more of a novella than a blog. But perhaps that’s the point. All good leaders make decisions that turn out to be wrong; take risks that don’t pay off or just plain screw up. The key is to learn from those mistakes and move on.

One of the mistakes I used to make too often was to make big decisions based on the opinions of too few people. Over the years I’ve learned that the more people you speak to in different roles, at different levels of the organisation, with different perspectives, the richer the debate will be, and ultimately the better the eventual decision will be.

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In your opinion, what’s the difference between leadership and management?

For me this is very simple. The organisation gets to decide who the managers are, by assigning job titles, salary bands and organisation structures. But only the people who work in the organisation get to decide who the leaders are. And they do this by choosing to follow. And it doesn’t matter what someone’s job title is or how much they get paid. If they inspire others around them enough for them to choose to follow, then they are leaders.

How do you inspire other leaders?

This would be a question for them, not me. I try to inspire others by listening to them, valuing their input and supporting them whenever they need it. I try to set the right example of how I think everyone should behave in business; the everyday, the small gesture, replying to email, remembering the last conversation can have a much more profound impact. Yes, I think there’s a role for big platform inspiration, where you stand up there in front of people reminding them of the business vision, but the opportunities to do this are limited compared to the former.

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