Leadership

5 observations from 5 nights with Richard Branson

Richard Branson spends about six months out of the year on Necker Island
Contributor | Jack Brockway | Getty Images
Richard Branson spends about six months out of the year on Necker Island

When you get invited to Sir Richard Branson's private paradise known as Necker Island, you don't say no. I was lucky enough to spend five nights with him as part of a group of entrepreneurs called 'Change Makers Rule Breakers' during the last week of May.

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I've been long fascinated with Sir Branson. He's one of the most famous personas in the business world, and beyond that an expert in crafting his public persona. To have an opportunity to be up close to him was a good chance to play undercover reporter and so I took a few questions from my friends to add to my list as well.

Mostly, their questions were like, 'What is he like in person?' 'What tricks can be learnt about brand-building?' And how people-centric is The Virgin Group in reality versus reputation.

Personally, I also wanted to see what could be learned from the 30 other entrepreneurs who were going to be on the island.

And finally, I wanted to experience how Necker Island has been developed, since I'm involved in the launch of a similar project in Asia called Bawah Island.

1. Branson

Richard was more low-key in person than his public persona would suggest. The first morning we were all a bit starstruck when, after jetting in from London, he suddenly appeared at the breakfast table with his muesli and cup of tea to sit amongst us. We would quickly grow used to these sudden appearances over the next five days as, apart from a quick day trip to Brazil, Richard was around us a lot.

He casually mooched around Necker in board shorts and sports shirts, often barefoot. An avid sportsman, he clearly enjoys pushing his body and staying fit. Watching Richard, be it his tennis games, kite-surfing, chess or conversations, he was focused and present. He was interested in our businesses and, if he felt he could link us with someone, he followed through and did what he said.

Richard obviously likes being around people, and he was particularly drawn to the more gregarious and younger people in the group. But, while comfortable in the role of 'party boy', an image he also maintains in the media, I suspect he remains very much in control.

I asked Richard how he sustains his mental energy and stops himself from hitting a wall. His response: "I enjoy everything I do; if you are happy it doesn't burn much energy." He also added that he always tries to remain positive and said, "I can't remember a time that I wasn't."

Sir Richard Branson speaking at the Innovation Summit in Brooklyn, New York on July 14, 2017.
Adam Jeffery | CNBC
Sir Richard Branson speaking at the Innovation Summit in Brooklyn, New York on July 14, 2017.

2. Necker

Branson bought Necker in 1978 for $180,000 to impress his then girlfriend, now wife, Joan. Forty years later, the 76-acre coconut tree fringed paradise in the British Virgin Islands, offers perhaps the most pleasure that could fit on one island. With zip lines, water slides, exotic wildlife, not to mention countless bars dotted over the island and 130 gorgeous staff, Necker well and truly piqued my island envy.

Starting at $30,000 for a room (the prices were recently put up after the Obama family holidayed there), it is apparently booked solid for four years, making Necker a major cash cow for the Branson Family.

Branson says he spends 80 percent of his time at Necker and I was quite surprised with the modest one-bedroom apartment the Bransons call home there. Admittedly, a bigger home is under construction on Necker and he also owns the palatial Branson Estate on nearby Moskito Island.

3. People

I'm sure there are people who don't like Branson or Virgin, but I was struck by how many that do. He has been amazingly successfully at crafting a persona that is very likable.

Insofar as how this translates into his business style, he seems to be a master delegator and trusts the people around him. He's the first to admit he doesn't enjoy detail and leaves that to the experts.

I suspect Branson has very good intuition. He makes fast judgments on people. And if he likes a business idea, he acts quickly. I got the impression that he prescribes to my favorite mantra of "it's either a hell yeah or a hell no" and doesn't sit in indecision for long.

4. Branding

The simplicity of the Virgin brand, coupled with its power, has been a master stroke of Branson and his team of branding experts. Applied to more than 400 different companies, Branson and Virgin are seemingly everywhere.

It's hard to separate the personal Branson brand from the Virgin brand. While part of me sees the risks in this, I can see how it works in Branson's case, where he is prepared to be so public with his persona and energy.

Branson's social media strategy is a textbook approach on how to manage a public identity. He has his core blog, housed on the Virgin site, and this material is repurposed on Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn, Instagram and YouTube.

The genius of Branson's social media approach is that his writing is very authentic yet always usable. I saw first-hand an idea discussed during our Necker trip that made it into his blog several days later.

5. Entrepreneurs

The word entrepreneur is ambiguous. I like to think it's someone who has had to start something, grow it, stick with it and take risks. To me entrepreneurship was often synonymous with loneliness, as you often have to figure out your own answers. However, I later on learned that there are many experts and mentors to get opinions from.

Spending time with the 30 other entrepreneurs, I found myself being inspired by different parts of each person's story. No one there was put on a pedestal, with the obvious exception of Branson himself. A common denominator of virtually all the participants is that everyone had a lot of energy.

I think this was no coincidence as it dawned on me that entrepreneurialism not only requires drive, it also requires rhythm and self-preservation. And as we all got a window into Branson's success and his life, it became clear that Necker itself, apart from being a useful tax haven, clearly allows him to find this balance. I find the same thing at my farm, Parihoa, in New Zealand.

The come-down to the 'real world' after my time on Necker was all too real. I left inspired, but with my head spinning with many great ideas. The overwhelming feeling that remains from being around Branson is that success comes from every incremental decision we make in our life.

I am reading a great book on this at the moment, called "The Slight Edge" by Jeff Olson. It's about how we spend our time, who we spend it with, and whether we open ourselves up to new ideas and whether we execute on those ideas. So with this in mind, I think the mantra that needs to be followed is "Work hard, Keep focused, Meet great people, Enjoy life, Have fun."

Or in its condensed form: "Stay happy."

Matthew Chapman is the co-founder of ChapmanCG and mentors human resources leaders across the globe.

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