Sue-Ellen Watts, our Founder & CEO, and I recently returned from a four day leadership gathering at Sir Richard Branson’s Necker Island in the British Virgin Islands. The gathering was called ‘when bold minds, big thinkers and brave hearts come together’ and that was the perfect description for what unfolded.

For most of us this was a large, speculative investment in our futures, and it did not disappoint. Run by Virgin Unite and Emma Isaac’s Business Chicks, about 25 entrepreneurial brains from Australia along with 10 world class and phenomenally successful speakers, and Richard Branson, immersed ourselves in what can only be explained as a magical, collaborative mixing pot of learning. The mornings were structured, intentional presentations that blew our minds and stimulated priceless afternoon interactions, bonds and collaboration.

I will blog further on the amazing speakers, incredible participants and amazing learnings in coming weeks, but due to the genuine interest; I would like to discuss the mythical man behind the brand.

“Use yourself for marketing” – Richard Branson

There is no doubt Sir Richard Branson is a branding genius. But beyond the brand and when the cameras are off; his charismatic and spirited behaviour is on constant display. The photo above depicts his cheeky nature. Always welcoming his staff with a kiss and when the music starts he is the first to dance on the bar. Yes we know the Virgin brand, but this guy has a genuine, fun loving outlook on life!

“Learn by doing and surround yourself with incredible people”- Richard Branson

People intrigue me and Richard the person; is a special human being. Arguably the modern day ‘entrepreneurial god’ worshiped by dreamers worldwide; so what is he actually like?

When Richard first welcomed us to the island, there was no fan fair, no inspirational address or business advice. A quietly spoken introverted man spoke of his love of conservation and went into detail around the species he had introduced and bred on Necker Island. Extremely passionate about reintroducing species which had become extinct from the Caribbean like; Flamingos, Galapagos Tortoises, Scarlet Herons and Giant Iguanas. We later learnt of the conservation projects he supports like; stopping shark fin soup, halting the trading of rhino horns and lobbying for more marine reserves. Who knew that Necker Island had more biodiversity than the famous Galapagos? The late evolutionist Charles Darwin must look down lovingly on what Richard has created out of authentic empathy for the environment.

When you think Sir Richard Branson, adventurous balloon adventures, airlines and ambitious domestic space travel come to mind. Not conservation.

A local Caribbean employee called Randy told me the story of how he got a job on Necker Island. He was disgruntled with his job on a neighbouring island, and while the team was pulled into a management meeting, he jumped on a little catamaran and sailed to Necker. On arrival (still in his resort uniform) he walked up to the main house on top of the hill, went inside and asked for a job. Richard applauded his courage, spirit and attitude and offered him a job on the water sports team. On the spot….even though Randy couldn’t swim! The kid had the right attitude and made an impression, nothing else mattered.

“Bold risk is important” Richard Branson

We were the last to depart Necker after the checkout time and noticed a small group of tourists that were getting a tour of the local wildlife as we were waiting to be picked up. This was unusual as we had the run of the Island during our stay; we asked one of the staff who they were? With a huge smile she said, “Richard lent him the money for a boat a few years back and he now runs tours to the island in between group bookings. Not only has he repaid every cent, but he is doing business is doing really well!”  I was left with a lump in my throat, the generosity and willingness to back an entrepreneurial idea with no personal benefit speaks volumes of the man.

“I don’t think of work as work or play as play, it is all living”- Richard Branson

Richard is a fascinating individual. I observed him notice Sue-Ellen could not find a plate for her breakfast and personally run to the kitchen to retrieve a new stack of plates. He could have asked one of the ten staff nearby, but didn’t. We were lucky enough to be invited to his family home on nearby Moskito Island where his family had flowin for his upcoming 65th birthday celebrations and saw him dote over his gorgeous grandchildren. He went out of his way to shake the hands and introduce himself to two new bar staff that had started the previous day. When we left Moskito Island I put out my hand to shake his and thank him for his incredible hospitality. Instead of shaking my hand he reached out and embraced me with serious warmth. It was like we had been friends for years.

Ordinary acts you might say, but this was Richard Branson, not an ordinary human?
Could it be that we; society, build people up to be untouchable and mythical superheros?

When thinking about the experience I brain stormed the words that described Richard based on my experience and observations:

•    Humble
•    Shy
•    Nervous
•    Generous
•    Polite
•    Curious
•    Kind
•    Thoughtful
•    Awkward
•    Loving
•    Genuine
•    Authentic
•    Vulnerable
•    Family
•    Interested

Hardly words you would expect to describe a highly successful businessmen and the unofficial leader of the entrepreneurial brotherhood. This guy doesn’t need to run these workshops for brand or money, he does it because he wants to give back. He knows bringing the right people together makes a difference to the world.

I am extremely grateful for the opportunity to learn and collaborate with this amazing group and the business lessons and relationships built were priceless!

Richard Branson made a lasting and unexpected impression on me. A genuinely good human being and a somewhat accidental hero. He understands the responsibility bestowed upon him as the entrepreneurial face of hope. Behind the brand there is no ego, no corporate drive or arrogance. There is an understated, socially and environmentally responsible human being that is kind and even more impressive than I could have possibly imagined.

Sir Richard Branson was far more human than me……and in there lies the lesson!



Author: Ben Watts
Ben is a veteran in the HR space- a forward-thinking leader specialising in functional business structures and people performance techniques. With twenty years’ experience managing large ASX listed corporates across multiple industries, Ben adds depth and expertise to our clients' strategy solutions, genuinely providing a commercial result for their investment.

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