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Virgin Group: Richard Branson

Fuelled by frustration with the status quo, Richard Branson built his Virgin Group empire attacking verticals that had long been dominated by lumbering legacy companies.

Jason Ankeny

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Sir Richard Branson is in a reflective mood. Almost 40 years after the launch of the Virgin Records label vaulted him into the global consciousness, Branson is in Los Angeles to collect a special Grammy Award celebrating his contributions to the music business, and the honour finds him looking back on his transformation from industry interloper to institution.

With his black leather jacket, manicured goatee and signature long hair, the roguish Branson still looks uncannily like the London-born hippie kid who gate-crashed the music biz four decades ago. And he retains the energy and intensity that fuelled the Virgin Group empire as it expanded its reach to embrace air travel, broadcasting, publishing and mobile communications.

But Branson has changed: Now 61, he devotes much of his time to personal passions like The Elders, the international human rights group chaired by Archbishop Desmond Tutu.

“A lot of my entrepreneurial skills are now spent in setting up not-for-profit organisations,” he says. “We’re a little more secure now, so we do things a bit differently.”

Galactic travel

Branson has always done things a bit differently. It’s a philosophy that is central to the Virgin brand and ethos, and it’s the catalyst behind the project he calls “the most exciting thing” the company has ever pursued: Virgin Galactic, the commercial aerospace business devoted to providing spaceflights to everyday (albeit deep-pocketed) citizens.

With suborbital test flights taking place in 2012 and passenger service ready by December, Virgin Galactic had already signed up nearly 500 customers willing to fork more than  $200 000 each to reach an altitude of about 110 kms above the earth’s surface by mid-2012. 

Like all Virgin efforts, the Galactic unit emerged out of Branson’s deep dissatisfaction with the status quo. However, unlike other Virgin initiatives, Galactic is not an alternative to slow-footed, self-satisfied legacy corporations that have lost their way; it’s the vanguard of a nascent industry, with no rules to break and no establishment to topple. For Branson, this is a new frontier.

“First we’re taking people to suborbital space travel, then orbital, and then we’ll be able to put satellites into space at a fraction of the price it currently costs. One day, maybe even hotels in space – who’s to know?” Branson asks. “Whatever happens, it’s going to be ridiculously exciting. It’s the start of a whole new era.”

The roots of Virgin Galactic lie in Virgin Atlantic Airways and Virgin America, the latter of which began flying out of San Francisco five years ago. Renowned for their candy-coloured onboard mood lighting, plush leather seats, expansive in-flight entertainment systems and passenger-to-passenger messaging tools, Virgin America aircraft now serve 18 locations across the US and Mexico.

“If you’re going to launch an airline in America, you need to make sure it’s far and away the best airline, and make sure you do it with panache and style and fun and flair, and really shake up the industry,” Branson says.

“Your brand needs to make its mark, and making that mark means that when you do offer space travel or something, people will say they’d like you to be successful at that as well. So one thing leads on to another.”

Breaking down the status quo

Branson built the Virgin Group brand by targeting business verticals “where things are not being run well by other people,” and he remains driven by a compulsive desire to do things the way he believes they should be done. Seemingly all of Branson’s stories of entrepreneurial success begin as tales of consumer discontent.

In the case of Virgin Records, he formed his own label because no established company would agree to release multi-instrumentalist Mike Oldfield’s hypnotic Tubular Bells; the album inaugurated the Virgin imprint in 1973 and went on to sell more than 16 million copies worldwide.

In the case of Virgin Atlantic, Branson and 50 other passengers found themselves stranded in Puerto Rico when American Airlines cancelled a flight to the Virgin Islands; he chartered a 50-seat plane, sold all the tickets for $39 apiece and not long after acquired a secondhand 747 to launch an airline in earnest.

“I did a blog the other day saying, ‘If you didn’t know how old you are, how old do you think you would be?’” Branson says, sipping tea over brunch at the Sunset Marquis, the legendary West Hollywood hotel favoured by rock ‘n roll royals. “I feel like I’m still in my 20s, although I’m obviously not. I still enjoy life enormously. I throw myself into it as much as I did when I was in my 20s.

“There’s no point in going into a business unless you can make a radical difference in other people’s lives,” Branson says. “To me, it’s like painting a picture: You have to get all the colours right and all the little nuances right to create the perfect picture, or the perfect company.

I know that there’s a need for Virgin to come in and attack a marketplace, because I know that I’m frustrated by having to experience bad service in that particular marketplace.

“So I’ll throw all the paint up and get all the best people in. By the time it sticks on the canvas, we’ll try to start getting some order into it. Every little single detail has to be right.”

Does it float your boat?

Branson embodies Virgin’s target demographic across all its endeavours, says Chip Conley, founder and CEO of the Joie de Vivre Hotels, international speaker and author of books including Emotional Equations: Simple Truths for Creating Happiness + Success.

“[Branson] once said to me that his mantra when starting a new business is, ‘I am the market,’” Conley says. “He won’t jump in unless he’s thrilled with the product. As a customer, if it doesn’t float his boat, he won’t do it. Focus groups and marketing consultants are only worth so much – it’s your gut that tells you what to do. He doesn’t pursue things unless he feels passion for them.”

Entrepreneurs can make a mint by making a difference, Branson maintains. “All start-ups should be thinking, ‘What frustrates me and how can I make it better?’” he says. “It might be a small thing or it might be a big thing, but that’s the best way for them to think. If they think like that, they’re likely to build a very successful business.”

Maintaining an upstart identity

About ten kilometers south of San Francisco International Airport sits Virgin America’s corporate headquarters. Located in an otherwise nondescript business park in California, the offices mirror the postmodern aesthetics of the company’s aircraft:

The walls are painted iPhone white, complete with industrial accents that evoke the rivet heads protruding from a fuselage skin. A photo timeline of Virgin Group milestones stretches throughout the space, commemorating Branson’s greatest entrepreneurial achievements and his most outrageous public relations stunts.

Every January through April, Virgin America mounts ‘Refresh,’ a series of daylong training and team-building exercises that are mandatory for all the airline’s employees, regardless of rank or position.

Close to 100 staffers are attending Refresh on this Thursday morning; over the course of the session, they learn the subtleties of body language from a San Francisco Police Department detective, hone their salsa dancing moves, do their best to imitate IndyCar pit crew tyre changes and prepare their own lunches in silent tag-team relays, a process that yields unholy mélanges of tofu, Nutella spread, Tabasco sauce and Pop Rocks candy.

The Refresh programme is essential to maintaining Virgin

America’s youthful, anti-establishment identity as its business grows and matures, Branson says. “The challenge as you get bigger is not to become so big that you become just like another one of the big carriers,” he explains.

“Trying to stay small while getting bigger is very important. Any company that has more than 250 people in a building is in danger of starting to become impersonal. In an ideal world, 150 people are the most that should be working in one building and in one organisation, so that everyone knows each other and knows their first names.”

With Virgin America having turned five years old in August and profitability finally within its grasp, the airline is at a turning point in its evolution, says president and CEO David Cush.

A two-decade veteran of the air travel business who joined Virgin after serving as senior vice president of global sales at American Airlines, Cush acknowledges that the structure of the industry mandates that Virgin America begin serving a larger number of locations to remain competitive with its legacy rivals. However, he recognises that too much growth too fast can strangle the company’s upstart spirit and culture of innovation.

“What is the delicate balance between the scale you need to be profitable and to earn enough money to continue to reinvest in your product, versus being small enough to still feel like a small airline?” Cush muses. “A lot of what we think about is how to replicate this [business model] for 4 000 employees instead of 2 400. That’s why we feel we have to bring them back in every year to reconnect.”

Empower your great employees

Virgin America is not the first Virgin Group unit to face this crossroad. “In our record companies, when the business got slightly too big, I would get the deputy managing director and the deputy sales manager and the deputy marketing manager and say, ‘You are now the managing director, sales manager and marketing manager of a new company,’” Branson says.

“We’d split the company in two, and then when that company got to a certain size, I’d do the same thing again. That’s something that can be done within an airline – you can break departments in two, and that may be a way for Virgin America to go in the future.”

Branson expresses deep admiration for what Cush and his staff have built at Virgin America. “With every Virgin company, I make sure we have the best people running them and make sure that if I’m run over tomorrow or if my balloon goes down or whatever, the company is going to run fine without me,” Branson says.

“In the case of Virgin America, all the hard work has been done by David and the team there. I will jump in when asked – I’ll come in and sprinkle some magic dust on every new route we do to give it the best chance of success. Whatever else needs to be done, I’m happy to oblige. But I’m a great believer in finding great people, and letting them get on and do their job.”

Although Branson calls himself “a hands-off parent,” Cush says his philosophies exert a profound impact on Virgin America’s momentum and direction. “Richard preaches, ‘Don’t manage by incrementalism,’ for lack of a better term – to keep the bigger picture in mind, and recognise that sometimes it is a slippery slope,” Cush says. “That’s what we’ve done here. The key thing is to stay focused on the company’s values, and not to stray from them.”

This is not to suggest that Branson has always played it safe – nor that he has always come up a winner. Not all Virgin efforts have disrupted their target markets: Virgin Cola failed to quench consumers’ thirst over Coca-Cola and Pepsi, for example, and apparel brand Virgin Ware quickly fell out of fashion.

Critics also question Branson’s daredevil proclivities, like his attempts to circumnavigate the globe via balloon or his record-setting English Channel crossing in an amphibious vehicle.

“Virgin is an adventurous company because I am an adventurer as well as an entrepreneur,” Branson says. “We were the first to cross the Atlantic in a balloon, and we’ve broken lots of other world records. That’s been part of the spirit of building the brand and building the company, and set it apart from the more staid companies we compete with. On the other hand, one could analyse it and say it’s very irresponsible. But we like to break the rules occasionally.”

Asked to describe the differences between Branson’s entrepreneurial philosophies and his own, Conley says: “He’s got bigger balls. He’s willing to roll the dice over and over again. In the past, he showed willingness to maybe experiment too much at times. But I think he’s learnt his lessons.”

Going for top 5 status

Time will tell whether Virgin Galactic falls on the positive side of the ledger. That company “again came out of personal frustration,” Branson says. “I thought when I saw the moon landing all those years ago that one day NASA would be able to fly me into space.

I waited and waited, and soon it became apparent that government-run companies don’t have any interest in worrying about you or me going to space. They have other things on their minds.”

Virgin Galactic will launch commercial services on the wings of SpaceShipTwo, a six-passenger, two-pilot spacecraft designed and trialled by Scaled Composites, the aerospace firm founded by famed engineer Burt Rutan (designer of the Rutan Voyager, the first aircraft to circle the globe without stopping or refueling) and now owned by Northrop Grumman.

As of February, SpaceShipTwo, the first vehicle in the company’s proposed five-ship fleet, had completed 31 atmospheric test flights in all: 15 attached to its carrier aircraft White Knight II and 16 glide tests.

“From December of this year, Virgin Galactic will be offering people trips into space,” Branson says. “Virgin is already one of the top 20 most respected brands in the world, and I suspect this could propel us into the top five and will be a wonderful sort of halo effect for everything else Virgin does.”

It’s unclear what the suborbital spaceflight market might be worth, but Virgin Galactic competitor Xcor Aerospace estimates a potential value of $3 billion within the next few years. Xcor is just one start-up battling Virgin Galactic to dominate the space tourism market; other rivals include Armadillo Aerospace, Space Adventures, Orbital Sciences Corporation and RocketShip Tours. There is no incumbent.

Branson welcomes the challenge

“Every single person in a company has to be empowered to be open to new ideas all the time,” he says. “You’ve got to have a yes mentality, rather than a no mentality. You’ve got to be willing to take risks and allow people to fall flat on their face on occasion. Don’t criticise them when they do, or else they won’t take risks the next time around. Screw it, just do it – get on and try things.”

In other words, Grammy Awards and lifetime achievement honours are all well and good, but Branson isn’t calling it a career anytime soon.

“I enjoy life too much to become complacent,” he says. “I was on the phone a few months ago with the president of the Maldives – there had been a coup there, and I was trying to see if I could help him not get arrested. I’m in a position where I can make a difference and I think I shouldn’t waste that. Life is far too much fun and interesting not to throw myself wholeheartedly into it, and I suspect I’ll keep doing so until I drop. Hopefully we’ll make a little bit of difference in the process.”

A brief history of Virgin

  • 1968  Youth-culture magazine, Student, is created and published by a sixteen-year-old Richard Branson.
  • 1970  Branson starts his Virgin Mail Order business selling cut price records by post.
  • 1971  The first Virgin Record Shop opens in London. Behind the till, Branson sells the first record – Tangerine Dream.
  • 1972  Virgin opens Britain’s first residential recording studio.
  • 1973  The Virgin Records label and Virgin Music Publishing launch in the UK.
  • 1978  Branson buys Necker Island in the British Virgin Islands for £165 000 – mainly to impress a girl called Joan Templeman. It works and she marries him.
  • 1979  The first Virgin Megastore opens in London. Plus, Virgin Books is launched to publish music titles to complement the record label.
  • 1984  Virgin Atlantic Airways and Virgin Cargo are born. Richard and a whole host of friends, celebrities and media are on board the inaugural flight.
  • 1986  Virgin Atlantic buys another Boeing 747 to launch its second route from Gatwick to Miami.
  • 1987  The Virgin Airship and Balloon Company (later to become Virgin Balloon Flights) takes off. It becomes quite hard to keep Richard’s feet on the ground.
  • 1988 Virgin Hotels (later to become Virgin Limited Edition) launches an exclusive hotel range.
  • 1991  Virgin Publishing (later to become a new incarnation of Virgin Books) is formed. Richard Branson signs Janet Jackson to Virgin Records for $25 million for just one album (Janet – her fifth). This makes her the world’s highest paid recording artist.
  • 1994 Virgin Cola, Virgin Vodka and a range of soft drinks are launched under the Virgin Drinks banner.
  • 1995 Virgin Direct Personal Financial Service (later Virgin Money) opens for business. Virgin Cinemas open up its big screens for the first time in  the UK.
  • 1996 Virgin Express airline takes off. Virgin Atlantic makes its inaugural flights from Heathrow to Washington DC and Johannesburg. Virgin Trains is launched as the Virgin Rail Group is awarded the CrossCountry rail franchise across mainland Britain.
  • 1997 The Virgin Cosmetics Company launches with its first four flagship Virgin Vie (later Virgin Cosmetics) stores.
  • 1999 Virgin Mobile launches Virgin’s first consumer telecommunications venture. Virgin Cinemas is sold for £215 million. Digital station Radio Free Virgin begins broadcasting over the Internet. Richard Branson is knighted.
  • 2000  Virginmoney.com, a financial services supermarket, is launched. Virgin Blue, an independent airline in Australia (which goes on to be the fastest-growing company in Virgin’s history) takes flight. Virgin Cars begins retailing online. Virgin Wines is uncorked – raise your glasses… Virgin Energy begins selling gas and electricity to UK homes. Virgin Mobile Australia launches.
  • 2001  Virgin Active launches in South Africa, taking over the ailing Health and Racquet Club at Nelson Mandela’s request. 2004  Virgin Galactic – the first commercial space tourism company – is launched. Virgin Unite, Virgin’s non-profit foundation, is established.
  • 2005  The Virgin Atlantic Global Flyer successfully breaks ‘round the world’ record. Virgin Cars ceases trading. Virgin Electronics and Virgin Ware close their doors.
  • 2006  Virgin Fuels (later to become Virgin Green Fund), an independent private equity firm investing growth capital in the renewable energy and resource efficiency sectors in North America and Europe, is launched.
  • 2007  Virgin Digital pulls down its virtual shutters in the UK. Radio Free Virgin stops playing.
  • 2009  Virgin America becomes the first airline to offer Wi-Fi access on every flight. Virgin Atlantic celebrates its 25th anniversary.
  • 2010 Virgin Galactic takes its first test flight.
  • 2011 Fire breaks out on Necker Island and the main house is burnt down. Guest Kate Winslet helps save Richard’s mother from the fire. Virgin launches Virgin Oceanic, a deep sea exploration submarine.
  • 2012  Virgin Galactic reveals its plans for LauncherOne, a revolutionary satellite launch vehicle, at the Farnborough Airshow in the UK, marking an historic moment for satellite research. Richard is named the most influential person in Britain on Twitter by The Independent newspaper.

Chicago-based writer Jason Ankeny is the executive editor of Fiercemobile content, a daily electronic newsletter dedicated to mobile media, applications and marketing.

Entrepreneur Profiles

Expert Advice From Property Point On Taking Your Start-Up To The Next Level

Through Property Point, Shawn Theunissen and Desigan Chetty have worked with more than 170 businesses to help them scale. Here’s what your start-up should be focusing on, based on what they’ve learnt.

Nadine Todd

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Vital Stats

  • Players: Shawn Theunissen and Desigan Chetty
  • Company: Property Point
  • What they do: Property Point is an enterprise development initiative created by Growthpoint Properties, and is dedicated to unlocking opportunities for SMEs operating in South Africa’s property sector.
  • Launched: 2008
  • Visit: propertypoint.org.za

Through Property Point, Shawn Theunissen and his team have spent ten years learning what makes entrepreneurs tick and what small business owners need to implement to become medium and large business owners. In that time, over 170 businesses have moved through the programme.

While Property Point is an enterprise development (ED) initiative, the lessons are universal. If you want to take your start-up to the next level, this is a good place to start.

Risk, reputation and relationships

“We believe that everything in business comes down to the 3Rs: Risk, Reputation and Relationships. If you understand these three factors and how they influence your business and its growth, your chances of success will increase exponentially,” says Shawn Theunissen, Executive Corporate Social Responsibility at Growthpoint Properties and founder of Property Point.

So, how do the 3Rs work, and what should business owners be doing based on them?

Risk: We can all agree that there will always be risks in business. It’s how you approach and mitigate those risks that counts, which means you first need to recognise and accept them.

“We always straddle the line between hardcore business fundamentals and the relational elements and people components of doing business,” says Shawn. “For example, one of the risks that everyone faces in South Africa is that we all make decisions based on unconscious biases. As a business owner, we need to recognise how this affects potential customers, employees, stakeholders and even ourselves as entrepreneurs.”

Reputation: Because Property Point is an ED initiative, its 170 alumni are black business owners, and so this is an area of bias that they focus on, but the rule holds true for all biases. “In the context of South Africa, small black businesses are seen as higher risk. To overcome this, black-owned businesses should focus on the reputational component of their companies. What’s the track record of the business?”

A business owner who approaches deals in this way can focus on building the value proposition of the business, outlining the capacity and capabilities of the business and its core team to deliver how the business is run, and specific service offerings.

“From a business development perspective, if you can provide a good track record, it diminishes the customer’s unconscious bias,” says Shawn. “Now the entrepreneur isn’t just being judged through one lens, but rather based on what they have done and delivered.”

Related: Property Point Creates R1bn In Procurement Opportunities For Small Businesses

Relationship: “We believe that fundamentally people do business with people,” says Shawn. “There needs to be culture match and fluency in terms of relations to make the job easier. As a general rule, the ease of doing business increases if there is a culture match.”

This relates to understanding what your client needs, how they want to do business, their user experience and customer experience. “We like to call it sharpening the pencil,” says Desigan Chetty, Property Point’s Head of Operations.

“In terms of value proposition, does your service offering focus on solving the client’s needs? Is there a culture match between you and your client? And if you realise there isn’t, can you walk away, or do you continue to focus time and energy on the wrong type of service offering to the wrong client? This isn’t learnt over- night. It takes time and small but constant adjustments to the direction you’re taking.”

In fact, Desigan advises walking away from the wrong business so that you can focus on your core competencies. “If you reach a space where you work well with a client and you’ve stuck to your core competencies, business is just going to be easier. It becomes easier for you to deliver. Sometimes entrepreneurs stretch themselves to try to provide a service to a client that’s not serving either of their needs. This strategy will never lead to growth — at least not sustainable growth.”

Instead, Desigan recommends choosing an entry point through a specific offering based on an explicit need. “Too often we see entrepreneurs whose offerings are so broad that they don’t focus,” he says. “Instead, understand what your client’s need is and address that need, even if it means that it’s only one out of your five offerings. Your likelihood of success if you go where the need is, is much higher.

“Once you get in, prove yourself through service delivery. It’s a lot easier to on-sell and cross sell once you have a foot in the door. You’re now building a relationship, learning the internal culture, how things work, what processes are followed and so on — the client’s landscape is easier to navigate. The challenge is to get in. Once you’re in, you can entrench yourself.”

Desigan and Shawn agree that this is one of the reasons why suppliers to large corporates become so entrenched. “Once you’re in, you can capitalise from other needs that may have emanated from your entry point and unlock opportunities,” says Shawn.

Building a sustainable start-up

While all start-ups are different, there are challenges most entrepreneurs share and key areas they should focus on.

Shawn and Desigan share the top five areas you should focus on.

1. Align and partner with the right people

This includes your staff, stakeholders, partners, suppliers and clients. Partnerships are the best thing to take you forward. The key is to collaborate and partner with the right people based on an alignment of objectives and culture. It’s when you don’t tick all the boxes that things don’t work out.

2. Make sure you get the basics right

Never neglect business fundamentals. Do you have the processes and systems in place to scale the business?

3. Understand your value proposition

Are you on a journey with your clients? Is your value proposition aligned to the need you’re trying to solve for your clients? Are you looking ahead of the curve — what’s the problem, what are your clients saying and are you being proactive in leveraging that relationship?

Related: Want To Start A Property Business That Buys Property And Rents It Out?

4. Unpack your value chain

If you want to diversify, understand your value chain. What is it, where are the opportunities both horizontally and vertically within your client base, and what other solutions can you offer based on your areas of expertise?

8. Don’t ignore technology

Be aware of what’s happening in the tech space and where you can use it to enable your business. Tech impacts everything, even more traditional industries. Businesses that embrace technology work smarter, faster and often at a lower cost base.

Ultimately, Desigan and Shawn believe that success often just comes down to attitude. “We have one entrepreneur in our programme who applied twice,” says Shawn. “When he was rejected, he listened to the feedback we gave him and instead of thinking we were wrong, went away, made changes and came back. He was willing to learn and open himself up to different ways of approaching things. That business has grown from R300 000 per annum to R20 million since joining us.

“Too many business owners aren’t willing to evaluate and adjust how they do things. It’s those who want to learn and embrace change and growth that excel.”

Networking, collaborating and mentoring

Property Point holds regular networking sessions called Entrepreneurship To The Point. They are open to the public and have two core aims. First, to provide entrepreneurs access to top speakers and entrepreneurs, and second, to give like-minded business owners an opportunity to network and possibly even collaborate.

“We believe in the power of collaboration and networking,” says Desigan.

“Most of our alumni become mentors themselves to new entrants to the programme. They want to share what they have learnt with other entrepreneurs, but they also know that they can learn from newer and younger entrepreneurs. The business landscape is always changing. Insights can come from anywhere and everywhere.”

The To The Point sessions are designed to help business owners widen their network, whether they are Property Point entrepreneurs or not.

To find out more, visit www.ettp.co.za

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Entrepreneur Profiles

Bain & Company Give You The Data On How To Become 40% More Productive

Top performing organisations get more done by 10am on a Thursday than most companies achieve in a full week. They don’t have more talented employees than everyone else though — they’re working with the same people and tools as you. Michael Mankins unpacks what separates these businesses from everyone else, and how you can learn to be more like them.

Nadine Todd

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Vital Stats

“Engaged employees are 45% more productive than satisfied employees. An inspired employee is 55% more productive than an engaged employee and 125% more productive than a satisfied employee.”

When Bain & Company partner, Michael Mankins evaluates businesses, he clearly distinguishes between efficiency and productivity. Efficiency is producing the same amount with less — in other words, finding and eliminating wastages. Productivity, on the other hand, is producing more with the same, which requires an increased output per unit of input and removing obstacles to productivity.

Interestingly, when businesses face challenges or tough operating conditions, the first response is always to become more efficient, instead of more productive. Restructuring and ‘rightsizing’ are the result. The problem, says Michael, is that when companies take people out, they don’t take the work out, and so the people end up coming back, along with the costs.

A better response, he says, is to identify the work that could be removed to free up time, which could then be invested in producing higher levels of output.

While businesses have become very good at tracking the productivity levels of blue-collar and manufacturing workers, tracking the productivity of knowledge workers is entirely different.

“There’s no data around white-collar productivity,” says Michael. “The problem is that the world is shifting towards knowledge work, and so, if we can’t measure productivity, output and obstacles in that space, businesses will never get the great levels of performance they’re looking for.”

Because of a complete lack of statistics in this area, when Michael and his colleague, Eric Garton, were approached by Harvard Business Review Press to write a book dealing with this issue, they had to devise a way of looking at the relative productivity of organisations comprised of white-collar workers.

The results were unexpected. “We were asked to research the difference between top performing organisations (the top quartile) compared to average organisations. I honestly thought the answers would be obvious, even if we didn’t yet have the tools to track them. I thought the best companies would have the best people. That’s 90% of the answer. Simple as that.”

As it turned out, it wasn’t that simple at all. Of the 308 organisations in the study, drawn from a global pool, the average star performer or A-player was one in seven employees. This statistic held true whether the company was in the top 25% of performers or an average performer. The difference was that the top performing businesses were 40% more productive than their counterparts — and yet their mix of talent, on average, was the same.

“There were some exceptions, but on the whole, the best in our research accomplishes as much by 10am on a Thursday as the rest do the whole week. And they continue to innovate, serve customers and execute on great ideas — all with the same percentage of A-players as other, more mediocre businesses.”

Related: (Slideshow) Top Advice From Local Entrepreneurs That Will Change Your Business In 2019

So, what were the differentiating factors?

What’s dragging your organisation down?

First, we need to understand how Michael and Eric approached their research before we can understand — and implement — their conclusions.

“We began with the notion that every company starts with the ability to produce 100 if they have a workforce that’s comprised of average talent, that’s reasonably satisfied with their job and can dedicate 100% of their time to productivity — bearing in mind that no-one can dedicate 100% of their time to productive tasks.

“The question we were focusing on was around bureaucratic procedures, complex processes and anything else that wastes time and gets in the way of people getting things done, but doesn’t lead to higher quality output or better service to customers. That’s what we call organisational drag. You start at 100 and then the organisation drags you down. The good news is that you can make up for organisational drag in three ways: First, you can make better use of everyone’s time. Second, you can manage your talent better by deploying it in smarter ways, which includes placing it in the right roles, teaming it more effectively and leading it more effectively. Third, you can unleash the discretionary energy of your workforce by engaging them more effectively.”

This trifecta — time, talent and energy — became the basis for Michael and Eric’s book, Time, Talent, Energy: Overcome Organizational Drag & Unleash Your Team’s Productive Power. “The way you manage the scarce resource of talent can make up for some, potentially even all, of what you lose to organisational drag,” says Michael.

What the research revealed: Time

time-management-productivity

“Wasted time is not an individual problem,” says Michael. “It’s an organisational problem. The symptoms include excess emails and meetings and far more reports being generated than the business needs to operate.”

These are all manifestations of an underlying pathology of organisational complexity, which is managed by senior leadership. “The best companies lose about 13% of their productive activity to organisational drag. The rest lose 25%. The most important thing is to reduce the number of unnecessary interactions that workers are having. That means meetings and ecommunications need to be relooked.”

The easiest manifestation for Michael and Eric to observe were hours committed to meetings and how much time workers spend dealing with ecommunications. What’s left-over is the time people can actually get some work done.

What they found is that the average mid-level manager works 46 hours a week. 23 hours are dedicated to meetings and another ten hours to ecommunication. That leaves 13 hours to get some work done — except that it doesn’t.

“It’s difficult to do deep work in periods of time less than 20 minutes. When we subtracted all the other distractions that happen daily, we were left with just six and a half hours each week to do work.” What’s even scarier about this statistic is the fact that meeting work and ecommunication time is increasing by 7% to 8% each year and doubles every nine years. If left unchecked, no-one will have the time to get any work done. “This is why everyone plays catch-up after hours and on weekends,” says Michael.

“One of my clients told me that his most productive meeting is at 6.30am on a Saturday, because it doesn’t involve one minute that isn’t required or one individual that doesn’t absolutely need to be there. If the same meeting was held at 2pm on a Tuesday, there’d be twice as many people, it would be twice as long and there’d probably be biscuits.”

The point is clear: We don’t treat time as the precious resource that it is, and if we did, we would radically shift our behaviour.

Start by asking what work needs to be done and then figure out the best structure to do that work. “Don’t confuse having a lean structure that does the wrong work with being effective,” says Michael. “One of the biggest problems we see is that companies are not particularly good at stopping things. Things get added incrementally, but nothing ever gets taken away. For example, we found that 62% of the reports generated by one of our clients had a producer — but no consumer. Time, attention and energy was invested in reports that no one needed and no one read.

“Ask yourself: How many initiatives have you shut down? If you made the decision that you could only do ten initiatives effectively, and each time you added an initiative, one had to be eliminated, what would your organisation look like?

“Unless you routinely clean your house, it gets cluttered. The same is true of companies. Initiatives spawn meetings, ecommunications and reports, which all lead to organisational drag.”

What the research revealed: Talent

According to Michael, the biggest element in their research that explained the 40% differential in productivity is the way that top performing organisations manage talent.

“We conducted research in 2017 that revealed the productivity difference between the best workers and average employees. Everyone knows that A-level talent can make a big difference to an organisation’s performance, but not everyone knows just how big that difference is.”

To put it in context, the top developer at Apple writes nine times more usable code than the average software developer in Silicon Valley. The best blackjack dealer at Caesars Palace in Las Vegas keeps his table playing at least five times as long as the average dealer on the Strip. The best sales associate at Nordstrom sells at least eight times as much as the average sales associate walking the floor at other department stores. The best transplant surgeon at Cleveland Clinic has a patient survival rate at least six times longer than that of the average transplant surgeon. And the best fish butcher at Le Bernadin restaurant in New York can portion as much fish in an hour as the average prep cook can manage in three hours.

It doesn’t matter what industry you investigate, A-level talent is exponentially more productive than everyone else.

This is why Michael thought that the obvious answer to why some organisations perform better than others is the mix of talented employees they’ve attracted.

“When we asked senior leaders to estimate the percentage of their workforce that they would classify as top performers or A-level talent, the average response was slightly less than 15%. And that’s despite the fact that most companies have spent vast sums of money in the so-called war for talent.”

The big difference, as Michael and Eric discovered, is how that talent is deployed. “It’s what they do with that one in seven employees that makes the biggest difference,” says Michael. “Most companies use a model called unintentional egalitarianism, which basically means that they spread star talent across all roles. The best on the other hand, are more likely to deploy intentional non-egalitarianism. They ensure that business-critical roles are held by A-level talent.”

The challenge is that approximately 5% of the roles in most companies explain 95% of a company’s ability to execute its strategy, and very few organisations articulate which roles those are — but the ones that do tend to be top performers.

“There’s an excellent historical example of this at work,” says Michael. “Between 1988 and 1994, Gap was a high-flyer in the retail sector. They performed globally on all levels — they grew faster than anyone else, were more profitable, had higher shareholder returns, and were the most admired company.

“During that time period, the organisation was led by Mickey Drexler, and his strategy was to focus on what he believed was Gap’s critical role, which was merchandising. He wanted every merchandiser to be a star. ‘No one will tell us what the colour is this year — we’re going to tell the world. We’re going to determine which styles are in and what everyone will be wearing.’

“And they did. If you want proof that Gap’s merchandisers were in fact stars during that period, you can look at today’s CEOs and COOs of the world’s largest retailers. Most of them were merchandisers at Gap during those years.”

The challenge of course is that everyone is always trying to hire stars, and yet only 15% of employees can be described as A-level talent. What can organisations do to utilise their stars wisely?

“First, move a star into a different position if they’re not in a business-critical role. To achieve this, how you define a star might have to change. Some companies hire for positions, and others hire for skills across positions. Stars, in my view, are more the latter. They can learn different skills and fill different roles.

“Second, start defining your business-critical roles. If you ask executives what percentage of their roles are business critical, most say 54%. They’re not discerning. It’s unintentional, because they don’t want to signal to their workers who aren’t in a business-critical role that they’re not as valuable to the organisation, but the reality is that people figure it out anyway, and you just end up with business-critical roles that aren’t filled by the right people, and stars in positions that anyone else could fill.”

Related: Entrepreneur Erik Kruger On The Importance Of Clarity And Embracing Failure

Teams perform better than individuals

To understand how important teams are when deploying talent, Michael uses an example from the world of racing — Nascar in the US to be precise.

“Between 2008 and 2011, there was one pit crew that outperformed everyone else on the track,” he says. “A standard pit stop is 77 manoeuvres, and this crew could complete them in 12,12 seconds, which was faster than any other team. However, if you took one team member out and substituted them with an average team member, that time jumped to 23 seconds. Substitute a second team member, and it was now 45 seconds. The lesson is simple: As the percentage of star players on a team goes up, the productivity of that team goes up — and it’s not linear.”

Michael and Eric also discovered that the role leadership plays on team productivity is both measurable and exponential.

“In 2011, the National Bureau of Economic Research wanted to quantify the impact of a great boss on team productivity. They found that a great boss can increase the productivity of an average team by 11%, which is the same as adding another member to a nine-member team.

“If you take that same boss and put them in charge of an all-star team, productivity is increased by 18%, and this is with a team whose productivity was exponentially higher to begin with. Great bosses act as a force multiplier on the force multiplier of all-star teams.”

According to Michael and Eric’s research however, what most organisations tend to do is place a great boss with an under-performing team in the hopes of improving them, when what they should be doing is pairing great bosses with great teams.

“We did a survey that asked a simple question: When your company has a mission-critical initiative, how do you assemble the team? A: Based on whomever is available. B: Based on perceived subject matter expertise. C: We attempt to create balanced teams of A, B and C players to foster the development of the team. D: We create all-star teams and we put our best leaders in charge of them.

“We thought everyone would answer D. We were wrong. 30% of our bottom three quartiles answered B, closely followed by C, and then A. Only 8% of them answered D.

“The results were very different in our top-performing quartile though. There, 81% of respondents answered D. In other words, the 25% most productive companies in our study set were ten times more likely to assemble all-star teams with their best players than the remaining 75% of the organisations in our research.”

How talent is deployed makes a difference. “I recently had this highlighted for me through another sporting analogy. The world record for the 400-metre relay is faster than the 100-metre dash multiplied four times. How is that possible? When your role is clear and your position is clear, the handoff is seamless. Under these conditions, the best teams outperform a collection of the best individuals.” Michael does offer a word of advice though.

“Don’t fall into the trap of believing that if you do have the best talent, you don’t need to worry about anything else. I don’t believe that’s true. There are always higher levels of performance that can be achieved because there are always areas you can improve on.”

What the research reveals: Energy

According to Michael, employee engagement and inspiration is a hierarchy. “There are a set of qualifiers that have to be met just to feel satisfied in your job: You need to feel safe, have the resources you need, feel that you’re relatively unencumbered in getting your job done every day and that you’re rewarded fairly.

“To be engaged, these all need to meet, and more. Now you also need to feel part of a team, that you’re learning on the job, that you’re having an impact and that you have a level of autonomy.”

Inspiration takes this a step further. “Inspired employees either have a personal mission that is so aligned with the company’s mission that they’re inspired to come to work every day, or the leadership of their immediate supervisors is incredibly inspiring, or both.”

Why does this matter? Because how satisfied, engaged or inspired your employees are has a real, tangible impact on productivity. “Engaged employees are 45% more productive than satisfied employees. An inspired employee is 55% more productive than an engaged employee and 125% more productive than a satisfied employee.”

The really scary statistic is that 66% of all employees are only satisfied or even dissatisfied with their jobs, 21% are engaged, and only 13% are inspired. “These statistics are pretty constant, although top organisations can improve their engaged and inspired ratios,” says Michael. “What we found amongst those companies that did have more engaged and inspired workers was that they all tended to believe that inspiration can be taught. It’s not innate. You can become an inspirational leader with the right attitude and training.

“For example, one organisation surveys its employees every six months and specifically asks workers to rate how inspirational their leaders are. If you’re rated uninspiring by your team for the first time, you’re given training. If, six months later, you’re still rated uninspiring, you’re given access to a coach to evaluate why the tools aren’t working for you.

“By the third, two questions are asked: Should you be a leader, and should you be at the company? Many productive employees can be effective individual contributors but aren’t necessarily leaders, or aren’t happy as leaders, and would best serve the organisation in a different role. The second question is tougher, but even more important. If an inspired employee is 55% more productive than an engaged employee and 125% more than a satisfied employee, an uninspiring leader is a tax on the performance of the company, and there has to be a consequence to that. We have to constantly enrich our workforce and leaders need to be included in that.”

The problem is that very few organisations are asking how inspiring their leaders are. “If you don’t know if your employees are engaged or if your leadership is inspiring, you can’t address it,” he says. “You can take a satisfied employee and make them engaged, but you can’t inspire someone if they aren’t first engaged — that’s the hierarchy. Employee engagement is largely achieved through the way you manage teams. You have to give people the sense that they are having an impact, working within a team and learning. Get that right, and you’ll unlock a powerful level of discretionary energy that will drive productivity in your organisation.”

Related: How Yoco Successfully Secured Capital And The Importance Of A Pitch

Time, Talent, Energy: Overcome Organizational Drag and Unleash Your Team’s Productive Power, by Michael Mankins and Eric Garton, focuses on the scarcest resource companies possess — talent — and how it can be utilised to drive productivity.

Visit www.timetalentenergy.com to find out more.

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Entrepreneur Profiles

7 Foundational Values Of Brand Cartel And How They Grew an Iconic Business From The Ground Up

Marco Ferreira, Renate Albrecht and Dillon Warren built Brand Cartel, a through-the-line agency, that delivers exactly what they wanted — and has grown exponentially as a result.

Nadine Todd

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Vital Stats

  • Players: Marco Ferreira, Renate Albrecht and Dillon Warren
  • Company: Brand Cartel
  • Launched: 2013
  • Visit: brandcartel.co.za

“We’d never worked at agencies, which meant we had no idea how much you need to run an agency. We grew into it. It’s made us really good at what we do.”

When Dillon Warren, Renate Albrecht and Marco Ferreira launched Brand Cartel in 2013 they were in their early 20s with zero agency experience between them. The idea had started when Marco recognised that social media was taking off, but no agencies were playing in that space yet. It was a clear opportunity.

Printing flyers that said ‘Your social media is so last season’, Marco and Renate went from store to store in Sandton City, pitching their services. When Dillon joined them a few months later because they needed someone to handle the company’s finances, they had two laptops between them, R6 000, which Dillon had earned from a Ricoffy advert, and sheer will and tenacity.

“We shared a house to save on rent and split everything three ways,” says Renate. “At one point we hadn’t eaten in two days. My mom lent me R500 so I could buy Futurelife and a bag of apples for the three of us.”

The trio hired their first employee soon after launching Brand Cartel, and after prioritising salaries and bills, there wasn’t much leftover. “Dillon actually paid us R67 each one month,” laughs Marco. “That’s what was left — although I still can’t believe he actually sent it to us.” It was at this point that the young business owners realised they needed credit cards if they were going to make it through their start-up phase — not an easy feat when your bank balance is under R100.

Related: What Comfort Zones? Get Comfortable With Being Uncomfortable Says Co-Founder Of Curlec: Zac Liew

“Looking back, those days really taught us the value of money,” says Dillon

We spent a lot of time with very little, and we’re still careful with money today.” Through it all though, the partners kept their focus on building their business. “It almost didn’t work for a long time. We were young and naïve, but in a way, that was our strength. We didn’t have any responsibilities, and we’d never worked at agencies, which meant we had no idea how much you need to run an agency. We grew into it. It’s made us really good at what we do. All of our business has been referral business. It takes time, but we focused on being the best we could be and giving everything we had to our clients. Our differentiator was that we really cared, and were willing to offer any solutions as long as they aligned with our values.”

This is how Brand Cartel has grown from a social media agency into PR and Media Buying, SEO and PPC Strategy, Digital and Print Design, Web Development, Campaign Strategy and now an Influencer division. “It’s an incredibly competitive space with low barriers to entry, which meant it was easy to launch, but tougher to build a client base,” says Renate. “I’d sometimes cry in my car between sales pitches, and then walk in smiling. We had no idea if we’d make it.”

The perseverance has paid off though. Strong foundations have laid the groundwork for exponential growth over the past year, with turnover growing almost ten-fold in 2017 thanks to relationship-building, strong referrals and fostering an internal culture and set of values that has driven the business to new heights as a team.

Like many start-ups, Renate, Dillon and Marco have made their fair share of hiring mistakes, but as the business grew and matured, the young entrepreneurs began to realise that the success of their business lay in the quality of their team and the values they stood for.

This meant two things: Those values needed to be formalised so that they could permeate everything Brand Cartel does, and they needed a team that lived, breathed and believed in them.

“We’ve had some nasty experiences,” admits Dillon. “You should always hire slowly and fire fast, and for five years we did the opposite. We’ve hired incredible people, but we’ve also ended up with individuals who didn’t align with our values at all, and that can destroy your culture.

Dillon, Marco and Renate realised they needed to put their values on paper. “We did an exercise and actually plotted people based on a score grading them against our values, so we knew where our issues were. We knew what we wanted to stand for, and who was aligned with those values. We were right; within a few weeks resignations came in and we mutually parted ways.”

The team that stayed was different. They embraced Brand Cartel’s values, and more importantly, it gave the partners a hiring blueprint going forward.

“Values are intangibles that you somehow need to make real, so it’s important to think about the language you use, and how they can be used in a real-world work context,” says Marco.

The team has done this in a number of ways. First, they chose ‘value phrases’ that can be used in conversation, for example, ‘check it, don’t wreck it’, and ‘are you wagging your tail?’ Team members can gently remind each other of the value system and focus everyone on a task at hand simply by referring to the company’s values. “In addition, when someone is not behaving according to those values, you can call them out on the value, which is an external thing, rather than calling them out personally,” explains Dillon.

Related: How Matthew Piper And Karidas Tshintsholo Launched Their First Business From Their UCT Dorm Rooms

Second, all performance reviews are based on the values first. This means everyone in the organisation begins any interaction from a place of trust, knowing they are operating according to the same value system.

“When you’re in a production environment with jobs moving through a pipeline, there can be problems and delays,” explains Marco. “Instead of pointing fingers when something is over deadline or a mistake is made, our team can give each other the benefit of the doubt and work together. They trust each other, which creates cohesion. We all work as a team, which impacts the quality of our work and the service we offer our clients.”

The system is simple. Coaches will step in first if there is an issue before it escalates to the Head of Team Experience, Nicole Lambrou. If Nicole is called in, she will address the problem head on. “Inevitably it’s something fixable,” says Marco. “By addressing it immediately and in the context of our values it can be sorted out quickly. Ultimately, the overall quality of our team improves, and we are a more cohesive unit.”

The founders have seen this in action. “I recently arrived at a client event and three different people came up to me and complimented my team on the same things — all of which aligned with our values. Everyone at Brand Cartel lives them, internally and externally,” says Renate.

The value system has also shaped how the team hires new employees. “We used to meet people and hire for the position if they could do the job,” says Renate. “But then we started realising that anyone can hold up for an hour or two in an interview. You only learn who they really are three months and one day later.

“We need people who walk the talk, and we really only had a proper measurement of that once we articulated our values. Our interview style has changed, but so has what we look for.”

brand-cartel-south-african-agency

Here are the seven values that Dillon, Marco and Renate developed based on what they want their business to look like, how they want it to operate, and what they want to achieve, both internally, and in the market place.

1. Play with your work

Our goal is for everyone on our team to become so good at what they do that it’s no longer work. Once that happens you love your job because you’re killing it. It’s why sportsmen are called players, not workers, and it starts with the right mindset.

2. Wag your tail

The idea behind this value stems from Dale Carnegie, who said ‘have you ever met a Labrador you don’t like?’ In other words, we all respond well to people who are friendly. It needs to be genuine though, so again, it’s a mindset that you need to embrace.

We live these values whether we’re at the office or meeting clients. If you go into each and every situation with joy and excitement, from meeting someone new to a new brief coming in, you’ll be motivated and excited — and so will everyone around you.

3. Check it, don’t wreck it

The little things can make big differences. Previously it was too easy to pass the buck, which meant mistakes could — and did — happen. Once you instil a sense of ownership and create a space where people are comfortable admitting to a mistake however, two things happen. First, things get checked and caught before there’s a problem. Second, people will own up if something goes wrong. This can help avoid disasters, but it also leads to learnings, and the same thing not happening again.

4. What’s Plan B (aka make it happen)

We don’t want to hear about the problem; come to us with solutions, or better yet, already have solved the problem and made it happen. We reached a point where we had too many people coming to us with every small problem they encountered, or telling us that something wasn’t working so they just didn’t do it.

That wasn’t the way we operated, and it definitely wasn’t the way we wanted our company to operate. We also didn’t want to be spoon feeding our team. It’s normal for things to go wrong and problems to creep in — success lies in how those problems are handled.

Ignoring problems doesn’t make them go away, so we embrace them instead, encouraging everyone on our team to continuously look for solutions. For example, the PR department holds a ‘keep the paw-paw at Fruit & Veg City’ meeting every morning, where we deliberately look for where problems might arise so that we can handle them before they do. We start with what’s going wrong and then move to what’s going right. You need to give your team a safe and transparent space to air problems though. We don’t escalate. We need to know issues so that we can collectively fix them, not to find fault.

Related: The 5-Hour Rule Used By Bill Gates, Jack Ma And Elon Musk

5. Put your name to it

It’s about pride in work and making it your own. When someone has pride in what they’re doing, they’ll not only put in extra time and effort, but they’ll pull out all the stops to make their creative pop, or go the extra mile for a client.

We need to find the balance between great quality work and fast output though. One way we’ve achieved this is by everyone reviewing the client brief and then committing to how long their portion will take.

When someone gives an upfront commitment, they immediately take ownership of the job. It took time for us to find our groove with this, but today we can really see the difference. Our creative coaches also keep a close eye on time sheets and where everyone is in relation to the job as a whole to keep the entire brief on track. If someone is heading towards overtime we can immediately ask if something is wrong and if they need assistance.

We also celebrate everything that leaves our studio. Every morning we have a mandatory 15-minute catch up session where we check in on four core things: How am I feeling (which allows us to pick up on the mood in the room and the pressure levels of our teams); What’s the most important thing I did yesterday; What’s the most important thing I’m going to do today (both of which give intention and accountability); and ‘stucks’, issues that team members need help with. We then end off with our achievements so that we can celebrate them together.

6. Keep it real (aka check your ego at the door)

We believe in transparency. At the end of the day we’re all people trying to achieve the same thing, but it’s easy for ego to creep in — especially when things go wrong. You can’t be ego-driven and solutions-orientated. If clients or team members are having a bad day, you need to be able to focus on the solution. Take ego away and you can do just that. It’s how we deal with stucks as well. We can call each other out and say, ‘I’m waiting for you and can’t do my job until I receive what you owe me,’ and instead of getting a negative, ego-driven reaction, a colleague will say, ‘sorry, I’m on it.’

7. Walk the talk

For us, ‘walk the talk’ really pulls all our other values together. It’s about being realistic and communicating with each other. If you’ve made a mistake or run into a problem, tell your client. Don’t go silent while you try and fix it. Let them know what’s happening and fill them in on your plan of action.

Walk the talk also deals with the industry you’re in. For example, if you’re a publicist, you need to dress like a publicist, talk like a publicist, and live your craft. In everything we do, we keep this top of mind.

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