It’s a common misconception that the success of a business is down to the work of its leader alone. More likely, you’ll find that a successful company values diversity and empowers its staff to make suggestions and innovations, so argues Richard Branson.
"Most people presume that if a company is beating out the competition, it’s because of the leader at the helm," the Virgin Founder says in a recent blog post. "But I expect that if you dig a bit deeper at any successful company, you’ll find a large group of leaders working behind the scenes who deserve a great deal of credit for the business’ achievements."
At Virgin, there are numerous alpha leaders throughout the companies. Richard says that they’ve learned that by encouraging employees to be leaders, they share more ideas that make the businesses more successful. He also highlights that this is why it’s essential to employ a diverse staff - to ensure that new ideas appeal to the broadest range of people.
Richard Branson and staff in a meeting at the Battleship
"This is one of the reasons that leaders at our Virgin Management offices are offered ‘unconscious bias training’ - we encourage everyone to think outside the box," he says. "People tend to hire those who are most like themselves, and we don’t want to have a company in which everyone looks and thinks alike."
This dedication to working together so that the best ideas shine through no matter who came up with them is the secret to the success of Virgin companies, he adds.
“After all, a company is a kind of family - a group of people who laugh, grow, and achieve great things together,” he says. “A system like ours then, requires that each staff member must have the freedom to act on her own ideas, so that she can be a leader who inspires others. And our system works well!”
For example, at Virgin Trains, employees who interact with customers are empowered to implement changes and see them through. One member of the retail team rearranged how the Virgin ticket office at Manchester Piccadilly station was laid out to make it more accessible, which Richard says was a "terrific improvement". One of their train managers reimagined how the ticketing download system worked, which saw download success rate climb to 90 per cent from 72 per cent.
"You can’t wait for the executive team to come up with innovations like these," Richard says.
This freedom to use leadership skills also allows employees to shape their careers according to their abilities, not just their luck at finding openings on the corporate ladder.
Take Scott Hood, Virgin Active Australia’s managing director for example. He started out at the UK’s second Virgin Active health club as a receptionist, then took a personal trainer job, then was promoted to operations manager. Next, he served in three general manager positions before he was named regional manager of 12 health clubs in the UK. In 2006, he was appointed national operations manager.
From there, he gained some experience as head of fitness, decided that he wanted to see more of the world so became project director in South Africa, and then chief operation officer. Next, Scott moved again to become Australia’s operations director.
"An ascent like Scott’s would never have happened if he didn’t work with managers who were eager to hear fresh perspectives like his," Richard argues. "They encouraged open discussion from everyone on the team, and he had some terrific ideas to share."
But how does Virgin keep that innovation alive? "Whenever I meet an employee who just joined a Virgin company, I encourage that person to start thinking about how he would do things different, and I urge his manager to put those fresh ideas into practice.
"And as that employee and his managers and the rest of the team makes small improvements every day, they gradually build a great business."