What does leading look like at Virgin Galactic?

Leading the world’s first commercial spaceline is no mean feat. We caught up with Yajaira Smith, Associate Director People, and Julia Tizard, Vice President, to find out what leadership looks like at Virgin Galactic.

How is leading at Virgin different from other businesses?

Yajaira: The biggest difference is that you feel the passion and excitement from day one. You feel the culture and as a leader it draws you in and it brings out the best in you. Leading at other companies I was often expected to follow some type of script or norm, here at Virgin being a leader is more than that. Being a “Virgin” leader is leading by example, its leading by passion and showing compassion and heartfelt service. We push others to think out the box, by inspiring creativity and exploring paths and roads that are challenging and less traveled. That’s not a common trend at most places; but it’s what makes Virgin Virgin.

What is the best leadership you’ve ever seen?

Julia: The best leaders I've seen touch people deep in their organisations, not just those in their top leadership and management groups. It takes years to build a personal relationship with everyone in a large organisation. It's much easier in a small one, but it still takes time. Presenting yourself as an accessible leader, showing interest in people, and opening the door for listening, takes no time at all. Having the pulse of the company and the team making it happen is invaluable for leaders and for creating healthy, productive and fun working environments. 

What’s the biggest mistake you’ve made as a leader?

Yajaira: Biggest mistake by far is trying to be someone I’m not, feeling that I had to follow some complicated model. I wasn’t being true to my core values. I found that people saw right through me when I was forcing leadership and trying to be someone else and not me. Once I started being me and not conforming to norms is when I really understood leadership. This is why I think Virgin is the perfect place for me, I’m not expected to be someone that I’m not and it’s been instrumental to my success here.

Julia: I've made many mistakes as a leader and I've learned from all of them. Experimenting in leadership is critical to being a successful leader. Leadership is personal. No one size fits all. Situational awareness and learning to be quickly adaptable in any situation is a precious skill. As trained academic and astrophysicist, experimenting comes naturally to me. So does introspection. There have been many times I have missed opportunities to learn and practise leadership by being too self-critical. 

How do you think that management and leadership differ?

Julia: Management and leadership are often confused, and mistakenly so. Management is an art; a skill to build and refine, with tools to master. When honorably applied, this function, and those good at it, serve a team to organise, excel and achieve their goals. Leadership is a choice. A relationship chosen and cultivated to motivate, influence and inspire others. Leadership for me is not an achievement in hierarchy or talent (which management is), but a reflection of others success that you have supported.

How do you inspire other leaders in the business?

Yajaira: I just try to be consistent every day. I smile, I’m passionate and I care, it’s simple. It’s not a big secret or a formula. When others see that you embody the values they sense it and feel it, they get inspired. I’ve been inspired by my leaders here at Virgin more than at any other employer, because my leaders embodied values of compassion, consistency and humility. So I try to just be that every day!

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