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OCT 06 by

At a new venue for the Inspired Leaders Network, the Westcliff Hotel, the two latest CEO's in the Virgin Stable John Maxwell, Virgin Money and Sajeed Sacranie, Virgin Mobile delivered a masterclass in leadership. Over two fast moving hours to an audience of almost one hundred members, were entertained with stories unique to the Virgin brand.

CEO of Inspired Leaders Network, Andy Rigg, opened the evening with a series of questions and stories that opened the mind with what was to come. Five months since the launch of Virgin Money and Virgin Mobile what does Sir Richard think of their performance so far? What does it take to impress him? Why did he choose you to lead Virgin? What happens when has gone?

When most change takes weeks and months and is usually surrounded in oppressive governance, how can Virgin fly the Atlantic seventeen weeks from announcing the idea? So many questions, would the Virgin leadership deliver the answers? Are they inspired leaders?


Sajeed has worked for Sir Richard Branson in the UK and South Africa and gave a personal and honest perspective on what it’s like working for the Virgin brand. He gave a clear insight into how Sir Richard’s own values and characteristics translate into the values of each business.


John Maxwell on the other hand is relatively new to the brand but there was an obvious attraction for a leader who already shared some of the Virgin values – honesty and absolute accessibility to his staff. John is a confident storyteller – and he had some wonderful stories to tell !


Together they described and illustrated the talents, skills and most of all the philosophy behind the Virgin brand – and especially how it has been able to transfer so successfully to South Africa:

The human element is everything for Branson – he treats everyone the same – status & rank aren’t important. Sajeed started with a great story about when Richard posed as a taxi driver to ferry the contestants on his ‘Rebel Billionaire’ programme a few years back. He then fired 2 people immediately just for being rude & insensitive to the ‘driver’!

Branson is ‘hands-off’ with his businesses – there are so many that he spends very little time actually in the business - which means people are encouraged to assume responsibility. His interventions are often in the form of single, but powerful questions – which sometimes appear to come from left field. As a Virgin leader – how you respond to those questions will be crucial. Suffice to say - spin and waffle aren’t rewarded at Virgin !

Branson’s ability to move from a ‘helicopter’ view of his businesses to a ‘microscopic’ one – and back again – is prized amongst Virgin leaders and John described it as hugely valuable in the set-up stage especially. It can present some staff with a challenge – being able to know where you’re at – so communication is vital.

Persistence is a Branson hallmark – he never gives up. He has an ‘insane’ quality that as pressure increases he becomes calmer & calmer, and really comes into his own.

Both Sajeed and John gave many great examples of how Branson’s qualities manifest themselves in the companies and teams within the Virgin group. In particular his obsession with both the consumer need and the brand. And by being equally clear about the need for employees to be themselves - parties offer an opportunity for everyone to mix on an equal footing – he ensures that everyone ‘owns’ that obsession and feel able to contribute ideas and improvements continuously.

They talked about the need to guard your culture; especially pertinent when you might be working very closely (to the point of partnering) with suppliers. A dilution of your culture will manifest itself very quickly in a dilution of your offering – and therefore your competitive advantage. Leadership is about taking opportunities to reinforce and deliberately create a culture which supports your product – not just letting a culture grow by default.

His talent and ‘nose’ for publicity inspires those who work for him; new product launches are always a challenge – to come up with the next stunt. But Richard Branson always cheerfully goes along with whatever is asked of him on those occasions, and – critically – he can defy convention. When Virgin Money was launched in RSA, 90 journalists attended resulting in 225 pieces of coverage – unheard of in the industry.

John described the Virgin Money launch – with the internet only ready at 4am that day – when Sir Richard asked for a competitor card from a member of the audience and promptly cut it in half! His unplanned promise to deliver a replacement was swiftly met!

Branson’s honest and upfront approach – to everything - is what the brand has since become known for – and they are great values to work with, because those are often competition-beaters. They allow individual business leaders like John and Sajeed to tackle established market players like Vodacom head on and in some cases help to establish new markets.

Both speakers’ views on leadership – shaped from outside and inside the Virgin brand were of course eagerly absorbed (and occasionally challenged) by the audience. Sajeed emphasised the need for Leaders to be self-aware – otherwise you won’t be a (respected) leader for very long. Making mistakes is a good trait – provided you’re aware and can acknowledge them with your team. And he suggested that Leadership intelligence resides not in words, but in ideas, and in inspiring people – enabling them to perform to the best of their ability.

On the question of whether leaders are born or taught, Sajeed eloquently described the role of future leaders in the Virgin group as being akin to an apprentice to a master craftsman. Starting with basic leadership qualities, Virgin leaders are advised and encouraged to listen and imbibe – and consequently there are others beside Branson in the group to learn from.

Sajeed described Leadership as a lonely place; you have to teach yourself to learn, and you have to listen and act on what you hear. John went further and said that listening is not the same as ‘death by yes’ syndrome – where you give the impression of listening by nodding and grunting affirmatively, but don’t take opinions and ideas on board.


Having experienced two Virgins – one straight after the other, we then went straight into a dazzling Question and Answer session. Far too much energy and wisdom to share here, but here are a few of the highlights of the brilliant and non-stop discussion:

John talked a lot about his team – and it was his team:

  • Very clear ideas about the attitude & attributes he wanted.
  • Started with people who knew the SA market, he was looking for ‘high energy’
  • Described as critical the need to answer the 56th call on a Friday afternoon in the same way you answer the 1st; ‘fluidity of mindset’
  • Everyone is expected to muck in and work out the nature of their job as they go – e.g. dealing with 9500 calls per day rather than the anticipated 1200 ! ‘non-political’
  • No place for politics in organization, and that clarity is there right from the beginning.
  • Described the challenge of living a brand which is seen as a bit maverick compared to competitors, and the need for internal discipline, efficiency and great teamwork.
  • Teams decide their own ‘house rules’ (of behaviour) and make the most of opportunities to create fun outside the working environment.
  • The importance of listening – to the customer and to the team, and the importance of acting on what you hear. He gave great personal examples of taking a real interest in his people.
  • Described the confidence that the Virgin Brand brings – but that the product still had to meet the customer need. However, when the two combine, then the offering is enough. Cold canvassing isn’t necessary – and might even undermine their confidence in it.

Summarising by identifying leadership flaws, Sajeed described the frustration of Branson’s ‘promiscuity’ – i.e. that he had so many diverse interests that just when you think he’s really interested in your business, he’s off somewhere else. He was quick to acknowledge the inevitability of that, and to suggest it as a warning to us as Inspired Leaders – recognize that you are always communicating, so consider at all times what messages you are giving simply by how your time is allocated.

John finished by espousing a Virgin-esque leadership quality: always tell the truth. Handled well, it results in more clarity, better ideas, respect, loyalty & commitment.

A truly inspiring evening from two committed, but challenging Inspired Leaders. “Its challenging but we love it” was the best summary of life at Virgin shared by them both.

All in all another highly successful and unique evening by the Inspired Leaders Network South Africa. Everyone left talking about what they had seen and heard and next year promises to be even better. 

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