Conceived in 1970 by Sir Richard Branson, the Virgin Group has gone on to grow successful businesses in sectors ranging from mobile telephony, travel, financial services, leisure, music, holidays and health & wellness. Across its companies, Virgin employs approximately 50,000 people, in 34 countries and global branded revenues in 2011 were around £13bn ($21bn).
What are the guiding values, principles and/or defined behaviours within your business?
Virgin has strong and enduring brand values based on the entrepreneurial spirit of Richard Branson, challenging the status quo and innovating new businesses. We are in business to make money but equally importantly to make a difference. An organisation can have a positive impact on its staff, customers and society at large, which in turn enhances business performance. We capture this in our brand promise: don’t just play the game, change it for good.
How would you define the culture of your business?
Our culture is based on the ethos that if you take care of your employees, they take care of your customers and that brings shareholder value. Creativity and a sense that everyone can challenge the norm are central to our culture. We like to say yes rather than no. We care and we want to make a difference.
How and why do you view this as the bedrock of the organisation?
Our people are the main ingredient of our success. It’s increasingly common now for businesses to say this, but we’ve held true to it for more than 40 years and allowing our people to be themselves is key. They are the ones who have the relationships with our customers, and by being human they make those customers’ lives better.
How do you ensure your leaders role model these to ensure leadership authenticity, openness and transparency among your employee population?
Virgin attracts a certain type of leader – one who is approachable, open to feedback, visible and who works shoulder to shoulder with their teams at all levels. They recognise the talent of their teams and empower them to do the right thing. While we’re mindful of the importance of diversity – not just in the traditional sense of gender and ethnicity, but in terms of diversity of thought – we make every effort to bring the right people into the Virgin family so that they continue to develop our culture. If leaders stop listening to their people, they will be heading in the wrong direction.
How do you use your influence to not only steer boardroom strategy but ensure all your talent understands the vision and values of the business?
We’ve spent a lot of time over the last year or so redefining our vision and values to ensure that they endure for the next 40 years. Our talented people have been instrumental in that process. This collaboration and co-creation automatically ensures a level of understanding, but I also enjoy having the opportunity to hold regular ‘town halls’ with the team and send them weekly updates on what I am focused on, relevant to our vision and values and how they are contributing to the achievement of our strategic goals.
How are you a change agent of the business?
I have the privilege of working with the senior management teams of all the Virgin businesses globally. Each of them interprets the brand in its own way while remaining true to Virgin’s core values. The richness of diversity that this leads to and the innovation which flows from it can be shared across the group in a way that ensures everyone is better off.
Can you offer a couple of stories of successful change?
The history of Virgin is full of these stories, but a couple of recent ones stand out. The reinvention of NTL, Telewest and Virgin Mobile as Virgin Media in the UK has been an incredible success. That was driven by the management team led by Neil Berkett, who recognised that the customer experience was critical to success. To achieve that, he and his team worked hard to ensure that Virgin Media’s people were organised and focused behind a clear vision to deliver the end-to-end customer experience seamlessly. At Virgin Money, Jayne-Anne Gadhia and her team have taken the best of the culture of Northern Rock and infused it with the Virgin Brand to create a professional, human and caring bank.
How do you create trust as well as loyalty and integrity between your people and managers/leaders?
We are united by a brand that has people at its core. This means Virgin is well trusted and creates a great environment for trust. In the end though, qualities such as trust and integrity are personal and it is the responsibility of all Virgin leaders to ensure that we live up to this promise. Choosing management teams in each Virgin company that start with openness, honesty and accountability from the top is critical.
What engagement strategies are in place to encourage discretionary effort, productivity, motivation and consistent high performance among your employees?
Aside from remuneration structures, which I am sceptical about as tools for driving these outcomes, we have various recognition strategies. The group-wide highlight is our annual Star of the Year awards where one person from each Virgin company is chosen by their peers to attend a gathering with the Branson family, as well as me and my team, to celebrate their success. This allows us to reward the best from across the group. This year will be the 10th anniversary of these awards and most of our star alumni are still part of Virgin. We are also fortunate to have our wonderful foundation, Virgin Unite, which offers a range of small and large platforms such as staff engagement trips to areas in the world where Virgin people can really make a difference to those in need. The feedback that we receive from our employees who have experienced such trips demonstrates how overwhelmingly rewarding they are and therefore engaging.
How do you use metrics to measure engagement and keep your finger on the pulse of your people?
Virgin’s people teams work across all Virgin businesses to ensure best practice and develop the most appropriate approaches to measuring and driving engagement for each specific business. We want to understand how proud our people are to work for Virgin and their likelihood to recommend our products and services.
What’s your biggest current challenge?
Finding enough time to spend with my people in a role that requires a huge amount of international travel.
What’s top of your agenda for 2013 and why?
Building on the various initiatives within the group which make a difference not just to business but to people and planet, and integrating those into the Virgin brand.
What advice would you offer to talented HR directors who aspire to be on the board?
Really focus on understanding the business, its strategy and culture, to offer an indispensable perspective. Constructively challenge and partner with the board to achieve balanced outcomes, taking people and business impacts into full consideration. Demonstrate the strategic value of the HR profession.
What’s the greatest lesson you’ve ever learnt in business?
What legacy would you like to create/leave behind in business?
One in which all our people and partners are part of the ‘family’, working together to make each other’s lives better.
Why do you personally care about making a difference beyond shareholder profit and how do you personally live this Virgin value and lead by example.
As an investor we look to be different, principally by changing people’s lives. That is the sort of purpose that will get me out of bed every morning for the rest of my life, which making great investment returns could never do. To achieve this we aim to create an experience for our customers, rather than just provide another product which anyone else can replicate. This involves focusing on the culture of our business, which is all about our people. They can be part of the higher purpose of not just being part of a successful business, but making a difference in the world. I like to think I live these values by striving to go the extra mile in all aspects of my life, by engaging in mentoring, working on charitable causes and involving myself with education.