Book Talk: Richard Branson on leadership, telling stories

NEW YORK (Reuters) - Billionaire entrepreneur Richard Branson is best known for starting and operating business ventures under the Virgin Group, but he is also a prolific author.

Sir Richard Branson listens to a speaker at the Global Commission on Drug Policy in New York, September 9, 2014. REUTERS/Shannon Stapleton

His autobiography, “Losing My Virginity,” is a best seller, and many other books by the long-haired businessman have also been commercial successes.

In his latest book, “The Virgin Way,” he expounds on his leadership philosophies.

Branson, 64, spoke to Reuters about hiring people, start-up companies and grooming the next generation of leaders.

Q: Why did you write a book about leadership now?

A:. This is my 50th year as an entrepreneur, having started in business at 14 years old. I have had 50 years of being the boss and the leader, and I’ve learned a lot. I am always encouraging people to write books, and I had not written a book about leadership. While this is all relatively fresh in my memory, I thought I would give it a go.

I like to tell stories rather than provide a list of do’s and don’ts as with other leadership books.

Q: How do you balance track record against personality in hiring?

A: In an interview, you’re trying to figure out the genuine person, which is quite difficult for both sides. When I am looking for a leader, it is incredibly important that the candidate is good with and genuinely cares about people, and who will sprinkle magic dust on a group to get them to excel and believe in what they’re doing,

If you pick the wrong leader, you can destroy a company very quickly.

Q: How do you groom the next generation of leaders within your companies?

A: We have had people who used to clean the floors at our recording studio wind up running it. If you put personality quite high on your list of priorities, you can teach most people on the job. In our airlines, 99 percent of our cabin crew do not have work experience with another airline. We hire based on their personality and then train them at Virgin. They don’t come in with bad ideas from other airlines. They come in with a fresh approach.

Virgin Atlantic was run by somebody who had not worked at other airlines before and came up the ranks of Virgin through marketing. As much as possible, we try to promote from within. Occasionally, we will bring in new blood from outside, and we did that recently with both of our airlines and it has worked really well.

If it is a choice between an internal and external candidate, and both perform equally well in the interview, we will hire the internal candidate. Otherwise it is demoralizing for people internally.

The principal skill that we’re looking for when running a company is someone’s ability to delegate and build a great team. We don’t want someone who wants to do everything themselves.

Q: When do you exhibit the leadership to exit businesses?

A: I am not very good at retrenching at a company and am apt to hang on longer than I should, which really is unwise. The extra money that you lose could be better put to starting something afresh. The jobs lost by retrenching could be created much more quickly if you spent money starting something elsewhere.

Virgin Megastore is a good example. It was so much a part of Virgin, and we kept on thinking there must be a way of reinventing the selling of products. But as months went by, people kept on buying music online, and we eventually bowed out.

In battles, if you are a general in an army, there are going to be occasions where you have to cut your losses. Over the years, we have fortunately had more successes than failures. Apart from the Virgin Megastores, we have not let things run too long. That was one where I was definitely mistaken, but in other situations we have managed to move quickly.

Q: When do you decide to stick it out with a start-up business despite lack of initial profitability?

A: If a company is building turnover (revenue) month by month, then generally profits should come. If you’re not managing to increase turnover monthly and people are not excited about your product, then the business is unlikely to work.

Editing by Leslie Adler