As humans, we need connections to thrive – meaningful relationships with family and friends to grow personally, and great professional partnerships to ignite ideas and make a positive impact.
When I wrote this month’s newsletter, I had just returned from an incredible birthday celebration on-board Virgin Voyages’ Scarlet Lady – with family and friends, new and old. It was so touching to see people from every chapter of my life, all in the same place at the same time.
From Virgin Records executives who have been with us since day one, through to world leaders from The Elders, cherished siblings who shaped my childhood, Virgin Galactic astronauts who experienced space with me, and incredible changemakers who we partner with at Virgin Unite – I was reminded how my career and my life has been built upon great partnerships.
I picked this theme following the launch of Jean Oelwang’s brilliant book called Partnering. Jean is the founding CEO of Virgin Unite – and she cites meaningful partnerships as the key ingredient in Virgin Unite (the not-for-profit foundation of the Virgin Group) amplifying its positive impact on the world. In her own words: “Mastering the skills of partnering is the first step to building collaborations necessary to tackle our toughest challenges.”
So many of you submitted fantastic questions about the best ways to collaborate, unite and forge relationships that create meaningful change, and I enjoyed learning how partnerships have impacted your own lives. I decided to answer Tanya Kelen’s question, as it captured what many others were also pondering.
How do you forge deeper partnerships and collaborations?
Since the early days at Virgin, I’ve forged partnerships, teams and collaborations with people who bring different skills to the table. When we launched Virgin Records I was dyslexic, 19-years-old, and had no real experience running a business (hence the name Virgin), but I surrounded myself with people who knew what they were doing.
We created a tight-knit team who all trusted each other and were motivated by the same purpose of making records cheaper and supporting independent artists. As a team of musicians, creatives, press managers, lawyers, accountants and beyond – we formed an incredible partnership and disrupted the industry for good. I entrusted my fresh-out-of-university cousin, Simon Draper, to take the lead on buying music for the company.
While I had always appreciated music, Simon lived for it. He didn’t just casually enjoy an album, he understood it. Simon’s taste in music became the single most critical element of the Virgin ethos. Our record shops were not just stores, but arbiters of taste. Simon’s keen ear for talent, shown by his appreciation for Mike Oldfield, eventually led us to create Virgin Music – without which we could have never launched Virgin Atlantic. Without the complementary skills of everyone on our teams, the Virgin brand wouldn’t exist.
2. Stay open to different ideas, opinions and views on life
Throughout my life I’ve tried to remain open to different opinions, even when they are at complete odds with my own. If you want to grow and create something new – you need to encourage healthy debate and stay open to different ideas. If you want to change someone’s mind and make meaningful change – you need to try and understand where they are coming from. I’ve always said that you should listen more than you talk, and I view every conversation as a learning opportunity. Jean calls this ‘celebrating friction’ and explains how embracing disagreements helps to take the heat out of conflict and turn it into a learning opportunity.
Staying open to different opinions can ignite a creative spark, create shared solutions, form deeper connections and help us overcome our differences. As Max Walzenbach so wonderfully put it in a comment on my LinkedIn post: “I believe the key piece to unity and forging relationships is a certain level of openness and vulnerability. Those that do not open themselves to other opinions – both ones they agree and disagree with – will have a hard time connecting and thus forging relationships. Even those who disagree on one issue can find some common ground on another issue. But so often we close ourselves off to one another, isolate ourselves to tribalism, and forget the complex human that sits on the other sides of the keyboard.” Beautifully said.
3. Break down hierarchies and build relationships based on equality
It’s difficult to form meaningful connections if there are stuffy protocols, stiff upper lips and old-fashioned hierarchies in place. This is why we’ve never had dress codes at Virgin and why I sometimes go around cutting off people’s ties. It’s also why we embrace reverse mentoring and have created a culture where people can bring their authentic self to work each day and where all ideas are always welcome.
I once had a conversation with a business owner who was struggling to bring her team together and maintain morale. She asked me how to make her employees feel more connected, to which I turned to a young Virgin employee sitting next to me and I asked what she thought. The woman quickly dismissed her reply and fired another question my way. Her response spoke volumes. By breaking down hierarchies and giving everyone an equal voice, your employees will feel more unified, empowered and more deeply connected. This is where the magic happens!
4. Don’t be afraid to challenge each other
When you form a deep connection, it’s important to become comfortable with challenging one another and saying ‘we can go further than this’. This is how you really stretch out an idea and reach new heights. A wonderful example is from when we formed The Elders – a group of global leaders working together to confront the biggest issues of our time. Peter Gabriel, Jean and I worked with Nelson Mandela and Graça Machel to form the group.
We then brought together a group of inspiring leaders, including Archbishop Tutu and President Jimmy Carter, to pitch the idea and explore how the group would work. We put together a huge presentation when President Jimmy Carter raised his hand and said ‘I don’t believe in this idea’. We were devastated, but quickly picked ourselves up and spent two weeks working together with everyone in the room to challenge ourselves and co-create a much stronger idea for the group.
The idea that came out of the other side was so much better than the one we had pitched – to the point that President Carter later said The Elders was the most important thing he had ever done. From that point onwards, we made it our mission at Virgin Unite to always co-create, challenge one another, and never work in silos.
Thank you to everyone who shared such wonderful questions and reflections on the power of partnerships. I do hope these tips help you form deeper connections and more meaningful relationships in every aspect of your life. After all, One plus one = more done and more fun. Here’s more about Jean’s fantastic book and here’s a wonderful interview she did with Holly recently too.
- A Tell / Richard Branson