Like a Virgin: Secrets They Won't Teach You at Business School

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Release Date: 
September 25, 2012
Portfolio Trade
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Like a Virgin works because of the author’s characteristic irreverence, self-mocking humor, breezy style, and utter refusal to hide behind standard CEO-speak.”

Richard Branson is not your typical CEO: Charismatic, engaging, and far more successful than his formal education might suggest. Lacking undergraduate schooling, he never even bothered to acquire an MBA—like a bush pilot who soloed before attending flight school.

So where does he get off lecturing to anyone who did about the deficiencies of their B-school educations?

Well, maybe because Sir Richard is his own best success story, with a formidable record of creating or reorganizing businesses into profitable, well-run enterprises. How formidable? According to the book, the Virgin Group is a constantly evolving aggregation of companies operating in over thirty countries, totaling more than 50,000 employees and serving millions of customers every month.

That record is all the more remarkable because the author began in Britain, where conventional economic wisdom is even stodgier and more entrenched than in the U.S. So CEOs on both sides of the Atlantic must be driven crazy whenever Richard Branson retreats to his home offices in the British Virgin Islands, launches a new venture into commercial space flight, crosses the Atlantic in a speedboat, and generally seems to be having a lot more fun than they are.

Those qualities are evident in Like a Virgin, more than 70 succinct, unnumbered chapters, each averaging four to five pages. Compiled from his syndicated columns—and without footnotes, bibliography, or any discernible organizational pattern, Like a Virgin invites the reader into a series of topical conversations with Sir Richard.

If you don’t like “The Customer’s Always Right,” for example, then you have probably missed the whole point of his book; not to worry, that chapter is followed only four pages later by “Brand Awareness.” Take him or leave him, Richard Branson is his own primary source.

Intolerable if attempted by almost any other executive, Like a Virgin works because of the author’s characteristic irreverence, self-mocking humor, breezy style, and utter refusal to hide behind standard CEO-speak.

Richard Branson’s upstart leadership style also syncs perfectly with the aggressively decentralized, networked approach to global business empowered by social media and mobile technologies:

“Work on developing a corporate culture that tries to ‘catch employees doing something right’ and rewards dedication and initiative. Empowering and taking care of your staff is the best way to look after your customers and keep them coming back for more.”

Because most traditional business hierarchies claim to want those things, too, the author cites numerous examples to underline critical differences: “A service culture starts at the top so management must be constantly . . . ready to respond quickly at the first hint of a problem.”

In 2010, the chief of one Virgin America subsidiary organized heroic efforts to assist a planeload of his passengers grounded in upstate New York by a snowstorm. In less daunting circumstances half a world away, the manager of a Virgin-owned health club in South Africa noticed that a brake light was out on a club member’s car. “The next time that member arrived for a workout the appropriate replacement light bulb was waiting for him. Now that (pun intended) is what I’d call enlightened customer service!”

Because corporate cultures truly embracing these radically new-old ideas can make mincemeat of more traditional hierarchies, Sir Richard is also notorious for having fun with advertising.

When Panamanian dictator Manuel Noriega was toppled by a U.S. invasion and led away in chains to face Federal drug racketeering charges, “We ran a large picture of him with the caption, ‘Only one person has flown to Miami cheaper than on Virgin Atlantic!’”

When rival British Airways sponsored the London Millennium Wheel but later had difficulties erecting it, Virgin “scrambled a small airship . . . to drag a banner across London’s skyline emblazoned with, ‘BA can’t get it up!’. . . [We] not BA grabbed the headlines that night.”

And those other secrets they don’t teach you in business school? The author makes compelling cases for the following countercultural ideas:

• Younger is not necessarily better. (A 60-something reviewer can only wonder why has no one said this before?)

• Despite stunning technological advances, the quality of business communications has suffered: “Why is it so hard to pick up the phone?”

• Outing the “most absurd statement ever recorded” on a business helpline: “Your business is very important to us. Please continue to hold.”

The satisfaction of Richard Branson’s customers must be exceeded only by the sheer glee of being one of his employees, whom he insists “should never feel like hired hands but fellow entrepreneurs.”

So maybe Sir Richard should consider making the Branson Business School the next major addition to the Virgin empire. Possible Motto: “Because Harvard Was Only Just-Good-Enough.”