Editor's Note: Entrepreneur Richard Branson regularly shares his business experience and advice with readers. Ask him a question and your query might be the inspiration for a future column.
Q: It’s obvious that you are great at choosing partners to execute your ideas. How do you verify whether a person has enough passion and determination to grow a business? -- Maciej Miko, Poland
It takes many different types of CEOs and top managers to lead Virgin’s 50,000 employees and keep our businesses fun, purposeful and profitable. We find great leaders everywhere: working hard inside our company, executing entrepreneurial changes in large corporations, and even selling auto supplies from the backs of their cars. The exciting part is letting them shine in leadership roles.
The long process of building up your company’s bench strength starts with the daily practice of letting employees take on challenging responsibilities beyond their current roles. All you have to do is listen to their ideas and give them the power to make the best ones a reality. Building their skills is essential to your company’s long-term success.
Following on this principle, we promote from within as much as possible -- there’s no better way to learn whether someone has passion and determination than by working with him or her every day. Jayne-Anne Gadhia’s career with us is a great example of how this can work. In 1995, she was a crucial member of the team that launched Virgin Direct, and then she helped with the launch of an all-in-one banking product, the Virgin One account. Virgin One was so successful that three years later, the Royal Bank of Scotland bought the remaining 50 percent of the business that it didn’t already own, for 100 million pounds.
When we started looking for someone to take Virgin Money’s top job in 2007, we already knew Jayne-Anne well -- her toughness, creativity and leadership skills -- and so she was one of the first people who came to mind. She went on to lead our purchase of the failed bank Northern Rock in 2011, where she introduced community-friendly approaches that have gained the public’s trust: Virgin Money is now Britain’s third-largest net lender, responsible for more than 3 million customers.
In contrast to Jayne-Anne’s deep background in her field, some startup founders have joined the Virgin Group with little more than their energy, passion and single-minded focus -- all essential for growing an idea into a company and for attracting and retaining partners and employees.
When we met Billy Levy and Zack Zeldin, we learned that they’d been friends in college, at the University of Florida, and had started their first business together, selling Freon to auto shops. Their true passion was playing video games, and as gamers, they knew that people were eager to compete for cash and prizes against others with similar skills. They started up WorldGaming.com, which we bought in 2010.
Virgin Gaming has since partnered with major interactive entertainment companies to integrate our technology into popular games available on the Playstation and Xbox. So far, our gamers have won more than $45 million.
What made Billy and Zack, now respectively the vice president and president of Virgin Gaming, stand out? Their pitch was inspiring, and as we discussed the idea with them, it became clear that they would able to generate excitement among employees on a daily basis. They had something that worked in the past for Virgin: youthful inexperience, offset by a relentless focus on success.
Some of our other CEOs used to work for larger competitors. When making such hires, what we look for above all is whether a person listens to employees. You can tell that a leader is open to change when their employees feel empowered to make decisions that can become the norm.
David Cush was an executive at American Airlines for more than 22 years before joining Virgin America, and he really took to heart the opportunity to work in a smaller company, where every voice can be heard. His annual training program, which is attended by all employees, emphasizes communication, recognition and teamwork. Recently David joined an open session where teammates brainstormed improvements to the staff travel policy. He then made sure that the group’s best suggestion was implemented, delighting all who’d contributed. David’s leadership has turned the first U.S. domestic airline to start up after 9/11 into an award-winning, profitable business.
To answer your question, Maciej, we look for passion, determination and quite a bit more - it all depends on what the business requires. The leaders we find all share the same entrepreneurial spirit and focus on customer service that are part of Virgin’s DNA.
What core values does your brand represent, and does it look for them in its leaders?
The author is an Entrepreneur contributor. The opinions expressed are those of the writer.