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The Awesome Advice We Learned From Richard Branson’s Former Assistant

Penni Pike discusses the qualities that made the adventurous British entrepreneur a great leader (and that time she jumped out of a helicopter).

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Most people don’t go in for a routine day of work expecting to fly in a hot air balloon. But most people don’t work directly with Richard Branson.

For 31 years, Penni Pike, of Hampshire, England, worked as the personal assistant to the founder of the Virgin Group.

Pike got her start with the company as a backroom helper at the first Virgin Megastore, located on London’s Oxford Street, in the 1970s. She told Entrepreneur she quickly progressed to become the executive personal assistant to the golden-haired entrepreneur, a job she held for 31 years.

Pike hasn’t retired, however, even after suffering a “devastating stroke” in 2008. “I refused to sit back and accept it, and I was determined to carry on with my life and career,” Pike told Entrepreneur. She joined Time etc, a 9-year-old company that provides virtual assistants to professionals in the U.S. and U.K., after meeting its founder, Barnaby Lashbrooke. He reminded her “a lot of Richard when he was younger.”

Related: Richard Branson on What Makes a True Entrepreneur

Pike acts as special advisor at the company, helping to design and shape the service it provides, as well as advising its 600 VAs on how to look after clients.

So who better to provide insights into the adventurous British entrepreneur than the woman who was by his side for three decades? We couldn’t resist asking Pike questions about her memories of Branson and the lessons she learned from him. Here’s how she responded, edited for length and clarity.

What were your daily duties for Mr. Branson? How did you help him? What specific projects/duties were your main focus?

There is no easy answer here because every day was so different. You’d go in thinking you were going to do filing or something routine and end up flying in an air balloon! Days were long, often not ending until 2 a.m.

On most days I would get there early, perhaps 7 a.m., see Richard and immediately jump into organising whatever was on the list. I would coordinate everything – for example, if Richard was traveling I would take care of every part of organising the trip – and simply hand all the documents and his passport to Richard as he headed to the airport.

Oh, and I took the call that resulted in Virgin Atlantic starting!

Are there any funny anecdotes or stories you can share about your time working closely with Mr. Branson?

One of the most memorable tasks I was given was to leap out of a helicopter carrying Richard in order to read road signs for the pilot, who had forgotten his map.

What surprised you most about Mr. Branson?

Nothing! Because almost everything was a surprise, but I never let it phase me. When you were working for Richard you just did it!

What do you want people to know most about your time working with Mr. Branson?

richard-branson-virgin-atlantic

My time with Richard was absolutely wonderful from start to finish – and something that can never be replaced. It was the time of my life. The only reason we stopped working together is that he wanted to move to Necker and I didn’t want to work anywhere else. As a parting gift, Richard lent me his houseboat in London for seven years.

Related: Richard Branson on Embracing Failure

What did you like best about working with Mr. Branson as his assistant and why? What did you like least and why?

I loved the variety and adventure – literally no two days were the same. The only task I didn’t relish was coordinating the travel plans for the hundreds of friends and family that Richard would fly to his private island, Necker, every summer.

In those days people had to fly to New York, then down to Miami, then to an island, then take a private plane to another island and finally a boat to Necker. Organising that for 300 people was sometimes a nightmare!

What specifically did you do while working so closely with Mr. Branson that taught you how to be an effective virtual assistant? How did these things help you do what you do better?

Supporting one of the world’s most successful business owners for 31 years taught me exactly what successful people require in an executive assistant. There are many things, like learning to be always one step ahead, that you simply cannot learn any other way.

How did working closely with Mr. Branson help you develop the competitive, 10-stage selection process for Time etc virtual assistants?

Because I was lucky enough to work so closely with Richard for so many years, I know exactly what traits a good executive assistant has to have – and I’ve used that unique knowledge to help design the selection process at Time etc.

What we look for ranges from specific skills right down to softer personality traits like humbleness – a very important thing to have in this role!

What are the top specific lessons you learned about business and productivity directly from working with Mr. Branson?

I learned so much from Richard, but more than anything else:

I learned that if you look after your people, like Richard looked after me, they will happily work seven days a week and long hours without feeling like they want to stop.

He was incredible at keeping me interested and engaged, and I wouldn’t have wanted to work for anyone else.

I also learned about the value of hard work. Richard never stopped and was always on the go – always planning and starting new adventures almost constantly.

What are your top productivity tips for busy entrepreneurs struggling to “juggle it all”?

Firstly, invest the time in planning your week and your day – this is vital to making sure you get the most out of the precious time you have.

Secondly, learn to delegate – sooner or later you will have to get some help in order to grow. Delegation takes a huge amount of effort, patience and practice, but when you master it, it’s extremely powerful – just look at Richard Branson!

Finally, make sure you take the time to rest up – whether that’s once a week or a couple of times a year. Richard was always very good at making sure he took time away from the grind to spend with his family, and it’s when he had all his best ideas!

What’s the biggest productivity mistake people make and what should they do to fix it, specifically?

People often end up being busy on the wrong things – so they feel they’re being productive, but it isn’t getting their business or career anywhere.

Richard was a master at being productive only on the things that pushed Virgin forward.

Related: Richard Branson on Why Hiring Should Be Your No. 1 Job

What is the key to staying productive?

I believe in short cycles – doing lots of different tasks for an hour or two each helps me to stay productive. I’d really struggle if I tried to do the same thing all day every day!

What was it like to work with Mr. Branson? Are there general impressions or quirky things that stand out from working with him?

In two words: Simply incredible. One of the most amazing things in all those years [is that] Richard never lost his temper in front of me – not even once. Considering the pressure he was under – I think that’s remarkable!

This article was originally posted here on Entrepreneur.com.

Stephen J. Bronner is news director of Entrepreneur.com. He was formerly contributors editor. Bronner occasionally writes about food and fitness.

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Here’s Why Every Entrepreneur Needs A Business Mentor

There’s no success to be found when you’re standing still or alone.

Tasmin Copley

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Some entrepreneurs may look at their success and think it insulting to consider talking to a business mentor. And others may look at their struggles and think it’s the only solution to getting the business back on its feet. Neither of these views are correct in terms of what a business mentor can do for a business.

What a business mentor is

Before we get into reasons why, we need to clearly define what a business mentor is and that should already start clearing up the reasons why you’d need one. A business mentor is a well-established person in an industry who offers to impart their knowledge and experience to lesser experienced entrepreneurs and employees.

One could consider business mentors as a more personal relationship than one would have with a business consultant, but just as beneficial (if not more). Business mentors are basically business consultants, except you don’t (always) have to pay for their advice and mentorship. It’s a mentorship relationship and partnership. So, regardless of who you are and how successful your company is, every entrepreneur needs a business mentor and here’s why.

Related: How can I find a mentor?

There will never be “nothing more to learn”

At no point in any person’s life will they be able to say “I know absolutely everything and there’s nothing more for me to learn”. It may feel that way, but sit down with a business mentor for five minutes and your mind will be swirling with questions. We learn something new every day and with the help of a business mentor, the “something new” will always be related to business and have the potential to lead to business success. Isn’t that something that every entrepreneur dreams of?

There will always be something for entrepreneurs in every industry to learn. Technology is forever developing and providing new innovative ways for industries to work and that’s something entrepreneurs need to stay on top of.

Every bit of experience is beneficial

Now, you may be wondering how a business mentor can help when the years of experience they offer is from a time period where technology wasn’t as great a factor as it is today. And the answer is consistency. While the face of the world changes, there are certain constructs that remain exactly the same and business mentors will be able to teach you about these fundamentals that consumers rely on and need in order to adapt to the changing world.

Every bit of experience that mentors offer their mentees is valuable and beneficial. Entrepreneurs are usually so caught up in the bigger picture that they forget about the smaller, background details that are, in fact, the cornerstones of that end goal. Mentors have been there, made those mistakes and are here to make sure you don’t go down the same paths that caused them business trouble.

So, while their information may seem “outdated”, basic principles never change and should not be overlooked.

Everyone needs a support system

Having the weight of the business rest on your shoulders can be a mentally and emotionally draining responsibility. Entrepreneurs don’t only look to business mentors for advice but for support as well.

Everyone needs a support system and, in business, this means having a mentor. Someone who can back up the difficult business decisions you make and who can listen to the inevitable ranting sessions that follow a rough day in the office. They’re also someone to let you know that you’re doing a better job than you give yourself credit for and someone who can talk some sense into you when you go off the rails a little bit (this happens to all entrepreneurs, don’t worry).

Related: How do I go about choosing a a mentor and where can I find contact details?

It opens doors to networking opportunities

Generally, business mentors have been in the game for years. And over all those years they have met with some of the most influential people in the industry and business world. Every entrepreneur needs a business mentor even if it’s only for the networking opportunities that come with the relationship.

Business success, these days, is highly influenced by who you know and the importance of networking is not something that entrepreneurs can dismiss. Your business mentor will be able to introduce you to the biggest names in the industry and get you into networking events where you will have the opportunity to meet new people who can help you on the path of innovation.

You need someone to challenge you

Speaking of innovation, another reason why you need a business mentor is so that you have someone who is knowledgeable about the industry to challenge you. Through challenges, you’ll be forced to think about business in a new way and create innovative ways of dealing with standard business issues.

The problem many successful entrepreneurs have is that they tend to stick with what works and choose not to push any boundaries for fear of failure. That type of thinking will only get you so far in the business world and then your competitors will be overtaking you. Any business mentor will be able to explain to you why failure isn’t always a bad thing and that by challenging yourself and innovating, you’re growing. There’s no success to be found when you’re standing still.

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MAD Leadership Skills: Our Perspectives

Let’s have a look at some aspects around reasons for starting a business, the challenges faced and critical lessons learned.

Spencer Horne and Tshinondiwa Thovhakale

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Some entrepreneurial skills can be taught while others need to be experienced. It is possible to gain skills while working for someone else, but there are perspectives that you can miss if you have not started your own initiative. Let’s have a look at some aspects around reasons for starting a business, the challenges faced and critical lessons learned.

The people who contributed to this content are from different fields of life, in various industries, with a variety of unique goals and ambitions.

Why Start an Entrepreneurial Initiative?

Some people start ventures because they have a good idea, some want to make a difference, and some are lucky enough to have witnessed a family member beginning a legacy. Three themes have been highlighted by our contributors this week:

Entrepreneurship is About Building Your Own or Expanding upon a Family

Member’s Legacy 

Tshinondiwa Thovhakale has started a transport company and has done this because of the memories she shares below: “Growing up I had a good relationship with my dad. I have some of the best memories of him. He owned his own taxi business and drove one of them. He would come to school and fetch me, and before dropping me home, we would go to the taxi rank, take people, and I’d sit in front next to him and count money for him. Then do the normal rounds of dropping people at their destinations, and then he’d take me home and go back to work. I think all that grew on me. When he stopped and made other deals with his taxis, I felt it was our legacy, and I couldn’t let it die like that.”

Related: The Kindling Of The Entrepreneur Spirit

Entrepreneurship is About Following Your Passion:

Spencer Horne stated:

“I wanted to work directly on the needs and problems that are my passion. The independence of starting a business and choosing exactly what to work on has been one of the most fulfilling aspects of my work. “

Entrepreneurship is About Making a Difference:

Many entrepreneurs start a venture because of a need that they would like to fulfil in the market. Some love the idea of feeling good by doing good and making a living out of it.

Things to Think About

Five challenges identified this week are:

  • Networking is essential: People don’t always seek new businesses to uplift, the help their associates, leverage this to your benefit and establish a network of influencers, support, and contacts in the industry.
  • Getting and keeping talent is a task: Especially initially when resources are limited, and you have a lot to do and achieve to grow your business, and cannot do it all alone.
  • You may encounter cultural/societal biases –  learn to use it to your advantage and set a precedent in the industry of what you can achieve: For example, being a female in transport, people may undermine you if they see the industry as a “man’s world” – show them why they’re wrong.
  • You need to make your opportunities when starting a business: There are fewer opportunities when on your own, and you need to build a relationship base to spread your reach. Tenders are often given to the same people and fundraising is one of the most time-consuming aspects of starting or scaling a business. It’s not something that is always enjoyed, and unfortunately, it must take priority over all else until it is achieved.
  • Persistence and flexibility should be balanced: Ironically one needs both an unfaltering belief in what you are doing and the flexibility to pivot out in response to the market. This is one of the most significant and most difficult responsibilities of a business leader.

Lessons Learnt

You need to make your own path

There is no blueprint. Your particular path to building your business will be different to that of others. At times you may learn from the experiences of other entrepreneurs, but be careful of comparisons. Be prepared for the detours and bumps along the road and be sure to take the time to enjoy the journey.

Related: Entrepreneurship Is All About Overcoming Obstacles

The importance of being patient

Patience is vital. Always have back up plans. It is best to venture into a business that you’re passionate about, because it’s the love for the business that will whisper the words “try again, just one more time” every time a challenge comes your way.

The importance of noticing the small wins

Entrepreneurship is a journey and in many cases, a challenging one. With this in mind, it is easy to get frustrated, lose patience and give up. At points, you may feel like no progress has been made. This is when people should remind themselves of the journey that they’ve already walked. It’s important to celebrate the small successes so that we stay positive and forge ahead.

Bringing it All Together

Entrepreneurship isn’t easy, but it is needed. It makes many people happy and helps create jobs and uplift communities. People start initiatives for different reasons, and we all experience challenges. It is through these challenges that we learn and grow.

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The 3 Dumbest Business Mistakes New Entrepreneurs Make Most Often

Don’t be superficial. Don’t chase too many opportunities. And do sweat the small stuff.

Dillon Kivo

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Most new entrepreneurs make terrible, dumb mistakes that crash their businesses before they can even get started. They make these grave mistakes not because they are unintelligent, have low IQs or possess little experience.

New entrepreneurs allow these blunders because they don’t see them as issues. Thus, they fail to invest their resources into fixing the problems until the problems bulldoze their companies.

In this article, I will give you the top three dumb mistakes new entrepreneurs make, and I will offer a lasting solution to each oversight.

1. Superficiality

We live in a world of superficiality – shallowness, no attention to detail, not focusing on satisfying our customers.

In a world of 140 characters, many of us build products fast and hope for quick cash. The focus is more on “build and sell fast” than on quality and originality. Many entrepreneurs, especially the newbies, fall into this superficiality trap.

These would be entrepreneurs refuse to sharpen their skills, ship broken products and provide terrible customer experience. That’s why many startups don’t see the light of day.

Related: The 5 Biggest Mistakes Entrepreneurs Make

What’s the solution?

  • Customer obsession. Your startup exists to serve your customers. Be obsessed with always pleasing them with your product.
  • Obsessive attention to detail. Before you build or ship any product, check every tiny detail with care. Don’t settle. Don’t let your team rest until you have completed the project to above-standard quality.
  • Constant learning. Knowledge is the antidote of superficiality. Keep learning, so you can satisfy your customers with unstoppable value and become the go-to person in your industry.

In the end, dumping the superficiality habit requires a change in mindset. You can get rid of it with constant practice and obsession with quality. That means focusing on getting good at one thing, before moving on to something else.

Let’s talk about that next.

2. Chasing two rabbits at a time

Amateur founders are quick to craft multiple ideas, bloating their online stores with a vast array of products and constantly re-writing their missions to accommodate their offerings. But is that the brilliant idea they think it is? No, it’s not.

A friend of mine who is a freelance web designer recently told me that he had added copy-writing on top of his web design services. “I want to increase my income, you know,” he excitedly told me.

I told him not to do that. I told him to focus instead on his design services so that he would become known as an expert in that category.

Related: Derek Thomas from Letsema Holdings on Learning from your Mistakes

But he didn’t take my advice. The last time I checked, he had quit his freelancing career altogether.

Obviously, he was frustrated because he was chasing more than one rabbit at a time. As Confucius beautifully said, “Man who chases two rabbits catches neither.” Don’t offer two services or products at a time.

What you need as a new entrepreneur is credibility, not money. And the only way to establish yourself as credible is to focus on refining and improving your skill set, your product and your offering. Only then can your customers regard you as the best provider of a particular product or service.

3. Ignoring “minor issues.”

For new entrepreneurs, a comma splice in their home page copy is not something to worry about. “It’s just a minor issue,” they say. A broken link in their Facebook page is no big deal. “It’s just a minor thing,” they say. One negative customer review? Well, that’s just a “hot-tempered customer,” they say. “It’s just a minor thing.”

But is it? The reality is, these are not minor issues. These are big issues. Remember, all problems start small before they gradually metamorphose into big, uncontrollable setbacks.

That’s how Friendster crashed. It was the hottest social networking company in 2003, which Google wanted to buy for $30 million. But it lost momentum by 2006 due to minor technical glitches, paving the way for Facebook to take over.

Related: 6 Common Mistakes First-Time Business Owners Should Avoid

That little comma splice on your homepage can lead to a tsunami of credibility issues. An error in spelling will then portray your brand as another fake company in the marketplace. Protect your brand. Don’t leave any tiny issue unresolved. Fix it – fast.

Conclusion

When starting up as a new entrepreneur, the first thing to do is avoid making constant business blunders, no matter how insignificant they seem.

Don’t be superficial in responding to your customers’ inquiries. Take your time to provide them with in-depth answers to their questions.

Don’t chase too many opportunities, lest you fall into bloat and overload. Instead, focus on providing one product, and ensure that it stands out from the crowd.

Don’t ignore the small issues. They’ll grow into bigger problems. Nip them in the bud before they destroy your company.

Everyone makes mistakes, even veteran entrepreneurs, but learning how to fix these three big blunders will save your little startup from crashing early.

This article was originally posted here on Entrepreneur.com.

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