When you’re running a business pressure can come from many directions, all at the same time. Fortunately, Richard Branson has some advice…
"The other day someone asked me how I deal with pressure," the Virgin Founder says in a recent blog post. "Without thinking over my response, I said that pressure is a privilege – which really is a great way to think positively and proactively about any challenge."
The phrase comes from the title of a book by the legendary tennis player Billie Jean King, who with 39 Grand Slam titles to her name – including 12 singles wins – certainly knows a thing or two about performing under pressure.
"Learning to harness pressure’s positive aspects is a valuable skill in tennis and in everyday life," Richard says. "When we are faced with exciting scenarios and situations, dealing with the stress that they bring can lead us to be more alert, alive and attentive. It can help to improve our performance.
"And remember: When the stakes are higher, the rewards are greater — and the journey is more enjoyable."
Richard says that he learned to perform under pressure while dealing with something that caused much stress and anxiety for him over the years: speaking engagements. Although he now regularly gives speeches at events all over the world, he started out as a very nervous public speaker.
"I struggled with it from the first time a teacher told me to stand up in front of my classmates at Stowe School and recite a poem,” he says. "Being dyslexic, I really had a tough time whenever we had to do this. What’s more, our headmaster used to ring a gong whenever we paused too long or made a mistake, and then we were forced to march off the stage to a chorus of boos and jeers.
"I found myself being gonged offstage with depressing regularity."
But rather than give up on public speaking, he persevered. "I eventually learned to convert the intense pressure I put on myself to do well into positive energy. Since I’m not gifted at reading off formal speeches, I treat the occasion as an informal conversation, which I am good at."
Richard admits that public speaking still isn’t something that he finds easy and he still gets nervous when he’s on stage. "I still stutter over a word or two, and I even forget my lines sometimes, but as long as I remember that it’s a conversation rather than a performance and I try to have fun, things usually work out okay.
"These days, I love putting pressure on myself to keep the crowd engaged, as it helps to keep my standards high."
But there is such a thing as too much pressure. "You need to balance high-pressure periods with plenty of time for rest, reflection and recuperation, or else you won’t be able to switch off and get perspective. This is partly why work-life balance and spending time away from the office is so important," he says.
In the business world pressure can come from many different places. “You might find yourself suddenly shrinking under stress, rather than thriving under pressure,” Richard says. “But if you take a moment to be mindful and recognise that pressure can, indeed, be a privilege, you may be able to manage the outcomes in a smarter manner.”