What does it take to lead a challenger brand?

All this month we’re speaking to leaders from across the Virgin Group, assessing their best advice, biggest mistakes and understanding what it takes to lead at Virgin. Today is the turn of Joe Thompson, MD at Virgin Holidays.

Hey Joe, let's start with life at Virgin. How is leading at this brand different from other businesses?

Most leaders would get nervous if their teams were encouraged to think "screw It, let's do it!", but not at Virgin - we’re a challenger brand and must be nimble enough to identify and take advantage of new opportunities quickly.

We’re also people orientated and customer-centric, and it is vital that our leaders model those values in an authentic and grounded way. Modern consumers, and modern employees for that matter, can smell bullshit a mile off. The way our people represent the Virgin brand is our most powerful asset, and leaders - at all levels of the organisation - have a responsibility to ensure the brand values are reflected in leadership style. 

What's the the best leadership you’ve seen in action?

You need to focus on what matters, and put effort into areas where you can really make a difference. There was a former Operations Director at Virgin Atlantic who demonstrated this perfectly. Many years ago the airline had poor punctuality, despite numerous projects to address the issue involving some expensive external consultants. The new Operations Director recognised this as something that mattered to our customers and was determined that it could be solved by our people. By making it matter to everyone involved in every aircraft turnaround and aligning objectives, teams were quickly working more collaboratively and reduced delays by 30 per cent in a single year. Virgin Atlantic has been more punctual than British Airways every year since - and maybe those expensive external consultants have had to downgrade their lunch meetings from Roka to Wasabi!

What's been your biggest mistake as a leader?

I hope people see me as a rational and objective decision-maker. However, at times in my career I’ve relied too heavily on rational logic to bring people on my journey - and have learned that not everyone reacts well to ‘standalone’ logic! Over time, I’ve worked hard to adapt my influencing and communication style to suit different audiences and have learned that it’s just as important as analysis or insight in reaching a positive outcome.

What's the difference between leadership and management?

I think of management as 'turning the handle', maintaining the status quo, and hoping that will be sufficient to reach your objectives. Clearly that’s not a path to long term success in a changing world. Leadership means embracing change, shaking things up, developing a compelling vision of what a better future looks like and enabling people to build out the plans to get there together. Inevitably, that involves risk and not everything works perfectly first time, but as long as you’re always learning - including from the odd failure - then you’re on the right track.

How do you inspire other leaders in the business?

Don’t accept the status quo. Believe in a purpose greater than the company’s goals. Be a force for positive change in your industry. We owe it to our people, and our customers, to keep making things better. Finally, be energetic, be positive and be accessible. If you are warm and personable with your colleagues and peers, you will achieve more because people want to work with you, and not for you.

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