Richard Branson: 'You Can't Just Turn Up and Wing It'

Richard Branson
Sir Richard Branson arrives on the beach after attempting to cross the English channel by kite surfing.
Ming Yeung | Getty Images

I have been a keen sportsman since my school days — I love the color and vibrancy of major sporting events. Over the past few weeks, there have been so many to watch: Wimbledon, the Tour de France and now the Olympics in London, where there is a tremendous buzz of excitement in the air. The Bransons are cheering on the British team (plus of course Usain Bolt, my alter-ego.) As we have watched the events, I have been reminded of sport's many useful lessons for business.

Carefully coordinated teamwork is as important in business as it is in sport. While the benefits of teamwork in soccer, handball and basketball are clear, it isn't always obvious that similar planning happens behind the scenes in everything from swimming to cycling, where elaborate strategizing and choreographing of the roles played by various team members is required to ensure a first-place finish by any individual star.

At this year's Tour de France, the success of Team Sky, which was sponsored by the Sky broadcast network, showed how important great teamwork is to cycling. While Bradley Wiggins was the first Briton to ever win the Tour, his victory depended on his seven teammates' meticulous planning and unwavering support. As a keen cyclist and through Virgin, a supporter of cycling events such as the Virgin Money Cyclone and the Cycle Slam, I was extremely proud of the team's achievement. (I say that through gritted teeth, as Sky is one of Virgin Media's fiercest competitors in the media space.)

As the founder of your company, you may be the one telling the world about your incredible new product and showing it off at industry events, but this wouldn't be possible without all your teammates working hard behind the scenes — the people who did everything from product testing and market research to galvanizing the press. A successful launch event is the culmination of thousands of tasks carried out by your team members. Whether you want to win a gold medal or build a profitable business, you can't just turn up and wing it.

Athletes demonstrate the sort of determination and perseverance that is necessary for an entrepreneur launching a startup. The hours can be very long and the obstacles may sometimes seem insurmountable, but you have to keep going. Several cups of tea will only get you so far, so this is where sport and business meet: an entrepreneur needs to be in decent shape. When you hit a roadblock, getting your body moving will help you to stay creative. I often come up with good ideas after exercising, which is one of the reasons I try to start the day with a swim, a surf or a game of tennis.

Sport is at the heart of many of our companies, most obviously Virgin Active, which helps people get healthy in many countries around the world. This is partly due to my enthusiasm. I captained the football and cricket teams at school, but a knee injury curtailed my athletic aspirations, and so I focused on business. I soon set up Student magazine, then Virgin Records, and the rest is history.

But sport continued to have a profound impact on the Virgin Group. As the company's representative, I have attempted to break a number of sporting records, especially in ballooning and kite-surfing. Just a few weeks ago a group of my family members and friends attempted to break some kite-surfing records. My son Sam became the fastest person to kite-surf across the English Channel, while I became the person with the most years to do so! We also broke the record for the fastest group to kite-surf across the Channel, which was fitting after such a collaborative effort. Without the contributions of all our team members, none of us would have been successful.

At the Virgin Group, we use sport as part of our everyday efforts to promote health and wellness for all our employees and customers. Just recently the team at our management offices in London enjoyed a sports day where we celebrated the Olympics by taking part in fun races. Events like these can help to break down departmental barriers and foster better teamwork as employees get to know each other in an informal setting. This can go a long way toward showing your staff that it is OK to have fun at work.

Time set aside for athletic recreation also reminds people that you don't have to compete at an elite level to get a lot out of it. Nevertheless — as is so often the case in business — a little competition doesn't hurt.

Good luck to all those athletes taking part in the Olympic events. Enjoy the games, everyone!