February 15, 2018
Holly Branson is a doctor, philanthropist, executive at Virgin Group and Virgin Unite and now the author of WEconomy: You Can Find Meaning, Make A Living, and Change the World. Branson studied medicine at the University College London, before graduating and becoming a junior National Health Services (NHS) doctor. In 2008, she took a short leave from her role to become an intern at Virgin Group, the venture capital conglomerate founded by her father, Sir Richard Branson. After interning at the different companies within the organization, she found her calling at Virgin Management, which focuses on philanthropy and the growth of the Virgin brand. As a member of the Virgin Group senior team, Branson focuses on people and purpose within existing and new companies across the globe as well as the growth of Virgin Hotels. Branson is also involved in philanthropic work at organizations including Virgin Unite, Big Change, WE Day UK and Virgin Money Giving.
She and Craig and Marc Kielburger, cofounders of WE Movement, teamed up to write WeEconomy, a guidebook to making purpose integral to your personal and professional life. They include actionable advice they’ve learned from building successful companies and charities as well as advice from influential individuals including Oprah Winfrey, Earvin “Magic” Johnson, Sir Richard Branson and Sheryl Sandberg. I spoke to Branson about her career path and suggestions for navigating the WEconomy, which she describes as “an emerging economic system driven by purpose and profit, which ultimately turns business into a force for good.”
Holly Branson: This year, I celebrate 10 years at Virgin Group. It’s been an incredible decade, one in which I have learned so much from so many inspirational and dedicated people. As part of the leadership team at Virgin Group, I am so lucky I get to dedicate my time to my passions: people, culture and purpose. Alongside the rest of the leadership team and some incredible colleagues, we strive every day to ensure that our business remains a force for good in this world. I am also the chair of our foundation, Virgin Unite, and a founder and trustee of Big Change, a United Kingdom-focused charity with the core belief that young people should thrive in life, not just exams.
Branson: As the mother of two very energetic three-year-olds, my day starts early usually with: “Mummy, daddy, mummy, daddy!” and an entertaining family breakfast. Then after dropping the kids to nursery, I usually walk to work in Paddington, London. After that, no day is the same…
As part of the team tasked with embedding purpose into the very DNA of what we do as a business, my role sees me promoting the importance of our people and culture at Virgin (I cannot emphasize how important the well-being of your employees is to your overall business) and safeguarding the positive role we play as a business within the communities we operate in and the wider world. Our supply chains are also critical – I work closely with our teams to ensure we continue to work with the best in class. It’s challenging, rewarding work and every day I get to work with amazing colleagues – colleagues I can genuinely call friends. I am also very hands-on with our charities Big Change and Virgin Unite and increasingly I’m enjoying speaking at events.
The last month or so has been far from even my version of typical though. I’ve been traveling a lot with my WEconomy co-authors, Craig and Marc Kielburger, as we launch our book and I have been taking part in my first ever book tour…what an experience.
Branson: Purpose is one of the greatest untapped forces in the for-profit world. It is the cause that drives an individual or company to make a difference. Before you can fully integrate it into your business model, you must identify what your purpose is. Ask yourself if it captures the essence of your business. Does it emotionally engage people? Does it highlight the positive change you will create? Purpose should not sit within a separate department, but rather it should be at the heart of everything your company does. Everything should then be viewed through your “purpose barometer”: your staff, your customers, your community, importantly your supply chain and ultimately the planet as a whole. If you find you are swinging to the negative, take steps that hopefully we have helped you within WEconomy, to get your business back on track.
Branson: The WEconomy is an emerging economic system driven by purpose and profit, which ultimately turns business into a force for good. Historically, people have always looked at purpose and profit as two different extremes: a person can go into the non-profit world and barely pay their bills or they can go into the for-profit world and check their conscience at the door. Traditionally, businesses have thought in terms of “What is the least we can get away with?” rather than, “What is the most we can do?” Thankfully, those days are over. To be successful in the future, businesses must balance the importance of purpose and profit, equally. Customers and employees are increasingly demanding that businesses do exactly that. If you don’t, but your competitor does, you’ll find your business is pretty quickly out of the race. It is no longer an either-or proposition.
Branson: Fake it. Seriously, it’s what I do. Even working for a family firm, there were times, especially after maternity leave, when my confidence took a bit of a knock and I felt overwhelmed in meetings and at work events. Everyone else seemed so confident. They knew all the right words to say, in fact not even words, the right acronyms. Have you ever noticed that? Businesses have acronyms for everything! I work in a huge shared office space. We don’t believe in individual offices at Virgin. I quickly realized there were only two things I could do. First, fake the confidence – after faking it for a while the real confidence genuinely comes. Secondly, just ask. If I didn’t know my COB, OOO, NAV, ROE from my FTP, AIDA or CTR – really what did it matter!
Branson: The WEconomy is gaining momentum. Everything we researched and discovered while writing this book points to this being the future of successful business. That being said, some companies are still at the very beginning of the journey to embed purpose into the very DNA of their business going forward. It is actually down to young professionals to take charge and show by example. Step one: Read our book and utilize all the hints, tips and guides we’ve included on how to approach your boss with purpose projects, how to rewrite your job description and the proof points that their bottom line will benefit, not falter if they adopt purpose. You need to start by pinpointing what you are passionate about and finding a way to make it happen. Encourage your colleagues to get involved as well through a volunteer day, mentoring a community or a charity project. Even if it’s with your team (not the higher-ups) and in your own time, do it. Then make sure you all talk about how amazing it was when you are at work. Get your bosses excited by seeing the kudos they could get from supporting your efforts in the wider community. You can then build on that. Small steps are all that’s needed to encourage your company to start talking about purpose and its benefits to the business. Plus leaving WEconomy on your boss’s desk is not a bad idea…it’s a conversation starter at the very least.
Branson: I’m not convinced that individual characteristics are crucial for success in any role. A good work ethic, loyalty to your team and your colleagues as a whole, the ability to recognize the importance of your own well-being, curiosity, a supportive nature and a sense of purpose are critical in any healthy work environment and to all roles.
Branson: I believe everyone benefits from the ability to listen more than they talk. I increasingly try and get myself out of my comfort zone and mix with as many people from as many different departments as I can. You learn so much about the business as a whole and about the pressures and workloads of other teams and they, in turn, learn so much about you. I believe any role and business benefits from your ability to reach outside your own team or individual role and learn as much as you can from others. In truth, I didn’t learn this at work but from my dad – watching him at both home and at Virgin events while growing up. I love having the opportunity every day at work to practice what he and my mum instilled in both me and my brother Sam around our kitchen table.
Branson: Truthfully, there is nothing I wish I’d known. Life is so much more rewarding when we challenge ourselves to learn every day. My career has ended up being nothing like I thought it would be. All my life (literally from the age of three) I dreamed of being a doctor. After achieving medical and physiology degrees, I realized that dream and I started practicing as a junior NHS doctor. I loved every minute of it. Then my career took a turn that I would never have predicted. I took a year out as a result of a predominantly surgical rotation (I didn’t want to be a surgeon) and spent the year as an intern at Virgin to learn about business. One year became two, which surprisingly quickly turned into three. Tasked with a great team to embed purpose into the heart of our business, I was learning something new every day. A career change had happened, almost without me even realizing, and I loved it. If I had known any of that was going to happen, I may have made changes accordingly and I would have missed out on so much. Sometimes it’s simply best not to know.
Branson: To follow your passion and not beat yourself up if what you originally thought was your passion, morphs into something completely different. A career path should have twists and turns. How dull would any journey be if you only walked in a straight line?
Branson: Admit you have a lot to learn and ask for mentorship. When choosing your mentor don’t go for the often most comfortable option of a female line manager who you may already work closely with. If your leadership team is mainly composed of men – ask one of them to be your mentor. Learning from as diverse a group of mentors as possible will be invaluable. Remember that he will learn just as much from you as you will from him. In the Weconomy, it will be companies who embrace diversity and inclusion that thrive.