The great thing about Virgin is there are no rules
John Pearson’s inside view of Virgin’s corporate culture, revealed at November’s Inspired Leaders Network event, proved both fascinating and inspirational. Glenn Le Santo was there as René Carayol chatted to John in front of a capacity audience at the BPP Business School in London’s Square Mile.
John Pearson, the former CEO of Virgin Radio and current Chairman of Shazam, was our sofa guest at November’s Inspired Leaders Network event. At perfect ease as he was skilfully interviewed by René, John gave us a fascinating glimpse at Virgin’s unique corporate culture. A special buzz was generated as we all listened intently to John’s views and stories on what it takes to make people and companies really excel. It proved to be a genuinely inspirational and highly entertaining evening.
John reminisced about the birth of Virgin Radio and we saw a man who was obviously passionate about his work, totally focussed and yet relaxed and friendly. Perhaps this is no surprise as John has spent a good part of his life working closely with Richard Branson, the man John himself describes as ‘an enigma’.
“Richard’s greatest legacy is that he has shown us all that anyone can do anything,” John told René and the 120-strong audience. “He’s a great guy to work for because he is so inspirational – and the role of a leader is to inspire.”
This can-do attitude is firmly entrenched in Virgin’s corporate culture and it’s a mind-set that has helped propel them to success in even the most difficult of markets. Flexibility is another vitally important aspect of the culture of both Branson and the brand that epitomises his spirit.
“Richard said to me that the great thing about working for Virgin is there are no rules,” explained John. “The culture there allows you to use your own initiative and to follow gut feeling.”
One can almost hear those working in command and control cultures gasping with shock at the thought of employees operating on their own initiative. For them it sounds like a recipe for disaster. But John explained why and how it all works and actually, it’s all remarkably simple: Start with the right people.
“I always employ for attitude over aptitude,” says John.
The reasoning behind John’s choice of attitude over skill sets is simple; if your people have the right mind-set then everything else is going to be possible – just train them with the skills you want them to have.
Getting the right people is vital but even good people will under perform, or even move on, if you don’t handle them right.
“I want my people to feel very valued,” said John. “People define a business. Start with your people and they will look after everything else. Don’t ever start with numbers.”
This is a clear message but one that some companies obviously fail to hear as, once again, troubled times are bringing the accountants back to the fore.
“Tough times make accountants rule,” John observed. “But you can’t measure everything. If I ask my wife how much she loves me do you think she’ll answer ”87.86%? No! Because somethings, and they include really important things, simply can’t be quantified.”
Given there are yet more stories in the press about big bank bonuses and excessive executive pay awards, René and John’s chat about how renumeration effects motivation was both very topical and highly revealing.
“Is there a correlation between financial reward and motivation?” asked René.
“No. Money is the last thing that motivates people,” was John’s emphatic response. “It is passion that drives people. You must find a way to create passion in your people. Find a crusade to unite them behind it.”
Communication is a key part of getting the best from your people, nobody likes to be in the dark, and openness brings great rewards.
“Honesty is so important in business,” urged John. “Always tell everyone everything the way it is. You owe your people that, you must treat them as you’d like to be treated yourself.”
The three-hour ILN event was jam-packed with valuable insight, information, wisdom and inspiration. It was obvious that the delegates were left feeling very privileged to have shared in such a great evening.
However, with the shadow of recession over us, it was John’s closing words that perhaps carried the most important message of the entire evening:
“Times might be tough but this is also an era of huge opportunity. We need to empower people with clear, confident and decisive leadership.”
Amen to that John!