Virgin Trains too; I promise this blog isn't becoming an ode to Branson's empire, but this week I was lucky enough to attend the University of Wolverhampton Crystal Lecture. CEO of Virgin Trains, Tony Collins, was talking about Leadership the Virgin Way. As expected, he impressed.
He gave his four top tips for leadership:
Tony told a story about how when he first started in the Virgin job, he was fortunate to be given enough time to spend three days out of five on the front line. He spent the time getting to know staff, listening to the things that mattered to them, developing trust and asking them questions. The questions he asked were:
- what would you do differently?
- what do you think would work better?
- tell me more
His advice was to finely tune your listening skills to the point where you can sense when people want to tell you things. I would add in here that it's not enough to just listen, you've got to respond too and show you value their ideas.
When Virgin Trains took over the franchise from British Rail, the staff were tuped across and as such many of them had previously worked their whole careers in a command and control culture, where leaders were to be obeyed and feared. Tony has kept a British Rail carpet policy (!), which outlines the distance one's carpet could be from the skirting board. If one had a fitted carpet, one was extremely senior. It seems absolutely laughable now - like something from a world where the Chief Executive would have a reserved parking space or would refuse to make their own tea.
At Virgin Trains, they wanted to break down all those barriers, build trust and excite the employees about the future of the business. They began a huge exercise to develop the mission, vision and values by going out to the 3,000 staff and holding workshops. It took a long time but Tony felt that the value of employees developing their own vision was well worth it. He said this also encouraged people to challenge upwards and disagree with managers which is priceless for keeping an organisation 'real'.
Tony's view was that to be able to succeed the leader needed to assemble a team with passion. He re-shaped the recruitment policy to recruit for attitude because he believes that you can give people skills but people either have a great attitude or they don't (I believe this too). He reiterated his assertion that 'people are good business'.
4. Screw it, let's do it.
This phrase is Sir Richard Branson's motto to live by and similar to one of my faves: Just Flipping Do It. Tony said this was about being courageous, going with your gut instinct and having fun. Once you've done the research and you've analysed the business case, all you've got left is your gut: trust it and be brave.
Tony's approach to leadership has taken an old-fashioned, poorly regarded company to one where customers love it so much, they campaign to keep it running routes. It has been a remarkable turnaround and shows the true value of employee engagement in transforming business performance.