According to a poll, one in four Britons would choose Sir Richard Branson as their “dream boss”.
The Virgin founder easily tops surveys of best-known business figures. It’s as if we haven’t produced anyone worthy of note in commerce over the past few decades apart from him.
Part of the reason for that profile is Branson’s genius for self-publicity. A key ingredient in this method is the book. There are no fewer than nine works on Branson by Branson. Then there are the books about Branson by others. There are just as many of those – Tom Bower alone has written three.
To this groaning shelf can now be added The Virgin Way.
Like Branson’s Losing My Virginity, which has scarcely moved off the business bestseller list since it was published in 1998, this one is guaranteed to fly. We can’t get enough, it seems, of the billionaire’s tips for success, his homespun philosophy laced with humour, and his constant chiding at the Establishment and corporate behemoths that are too stuffy and slow to give ordinary people what they want and deserve.
Wannabe consumer champions will lap up this detailed manual. It’s littered with references to real-life experiences and encounters with famous global figures. The book is subtitled “How to Listen, Learn, Laugh and Lead”.
Certainly a key facet of the Branson approach is “listening, not hearing”. He puts great store by listening intently and, as he says, writing copious notes in notebooks. I can vouch for that, having met him several times – he is attentive, and yes, he does scribble away, taking down whatever is being said.
He does not have an office as such, as he points out, preferring to get around his businesses to see people where they work rather than they go to him. If a more formal one-to-one conversation is required he likes it to be in the living room of his house, with him sitting cross-legged on the sofa, shoes off.
Be warned, though: his casual manner belies a sharp brain. Senior representatives of some of the world’s biggest, toughest, most security-conscious corporations have come a cropper as what they’ve said to Branson has come back to haunt them in future litigation.
None of his entreaties amount to rocket science. “Turn off that laptop and iPhone and get your derričre out there”, “Delegate and spend more time with your family”, and “Have fun and look after your team”, would be risible if they came from anyone else. But because Branson enjoys iconic status his outpourings, however simple and even banal, will be treated as profound.
His early run-in with the law is well known and recounted again here, almost with relish, as Branson uses his own example to show that miscreants deserve a second chance. Take risks, relish in being the underdog, find holes in the operations of the “big dogs” and exploit them, change the game, and beat them.
These are Branson’s directly put rules. If only it was that easy. Branson is not infallible; he does not have an answer for everything: in fact, he has experienced more business failures than he has successes.
The latest may be Little Red, his troubled domestic airline. When he launched the carrier last year, Branson promised: “Little Red will stop British Airways dominating routes and driving higher prices.” Virtually unaffected by Little Red – so much for his advice about beating the big dogs – BA has pressed on regardless.
Similarly, a Virgin culture in which employees feel “valued, empowered and trusted” so they can “go out and make amazing things happen” has yet to deliver a start date for Branson’s space flights.
Likewise, reading that “giving our customers, both internal and external, a better work environment or service experience than they can find anywhere else” rings hollow for anyone who had to report a fault with Virgin Media before it was bought last year by Liberty or has had to endure a poor experience on Virgin’s West Coast trains.
These days, Branson lives on Necker, his Caribbean island. While he says he made the move because he craved the lifestyle, rather than for financial purposes, it does mean he gains considerable UK tax benefits as a non-resident. For years, long before he based himself on Necker, Virgin profits were routed through offshore trusts.
But even his tax status – in an age when tax avoiders are vilified – does not dent his broad appeal. Branson, it seems, long ago acquired a trademark jumper coated in Teflon. He can do no wrong – or if he does, the damage never causes lasting harm.
Plenty of copies of The Virgin Way will be sold, and compared to many business books there’s no doubting it’s refreshing, easily understood and instructive. Those of a more critical persuasion, however, might not be so impressed. Onward the Branson legend goes.