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Why Richard Branson’s 5 Tips for Success Are Really only 4.5

Hard to have a more successful or more high-profile entrepreneur/winner than Richard Branson, so I clicked quickly this morning from email to the Amex OPEN forum to look at his Top 5 Tips for Entrepreneurial Success .

Lots of people have opinions, lots of people have expertise, but he has Virgin Airlines, Virgin Records, and all of that. His five tips are pretty good reminders:

  1. Find good people
  2. Realize that the employees are the business
  3. Always look for the best in your people. Lavish praise. Never criticize.
  4. Don’t take yourself too seriously.
  5. Screw it, just do it.

I say this is maybe only 4.5 tips because of the “never criticize” part of his third tip. In more than 20 years of building and running a company, one of the hardest things to do, but most important, is managing mistakes.

Richard Branson says:

When mistakes happen – which is inevitable – I always take the position that you have to learn from them and try not to dwell on what went wrong. It’s almost always better not to go over the obvious with the people involved. They know exactly what happened.

I agree with the first sentence there, but I’m afraid that you do have to “go over” what happened, because it’s not always obvious. And I don’t think they always “know exactly what happened.” You and they need to review it at least once, so everybody is on the same page. It’s business, not fun, and you’re supposedly running it. It’s only normal that without the right kind of follow up on poor results, some people will rationalize or gloss over or fail to learn from mistakes. If you, the boss, never acknowledge the mistakes, you don’t optimize the business.

Obviously I mean good constructive criticism. Not back-biting or second guessing when it doesn’t matter.  But there’s that tendency to want to be friend rather than boss, and ultimately if you’re running a business, somebody has to have the backbone required to set expectations and track results, and, the hardest part, deal with results that are less than expected.

I learned that the hard way, by not giving negative feedback. People don’t always correct themselves.


  • RAFairman says:

    I think those people who have commented on Branson’s ‘lack’ of criticising’ kind of miss the point.

    Branson’s point is that you never criticise *in public* but you do lavish praise *in public*. As a leader and manager you HAVE to criticise, but you should not do it in an open forum, but rather behind closed doors…That is not the way to motivate people, however, if you want to priase someone…well, that is fine and dandy to do in public.

  • Oderinlo Oluwatoyin says:

    I think building a business from scratch where there is little or no money for growing the business, is a lot different from conglomerate. Making mistakes that cost the organisation money could be disastrous. Just as suggested training your staff is the best option, but we must realise that training does not equal to automatic change. Changing take time, is a personal thing. Kicking out people that will not fit him sometimes is the only option.

  • Wayne says:

    There is a difference between correcting and teaching and criticizing.
    Always do the first two never do the last. Richard & Dale have it right on. Most of you are also on track but you are relating correcting and teaching (mentoring) as a form of criticism. I believe as I think Mr Branson believes never dwell on the mistake focus on the correction and future.

  • Linda McLean says:

    An excellent article – I am interested in how many of you have become focused on the “never criticise” part.
    He didn’t say ignore mistakes – he just said “never criticise”.
    There is a difference.
    For example, I ran a pilot providing care for a severely disabled and ventilated gentleman in the Community, a similar case to Christopher Reeves.
    I had good staff and they worked hard, but as everyone knows, mistakes are inevitable.
    What was important was the approach. I had very few staff trained to a requisite standard, so I could not afford to antagonise anybody.
    I found that saying :”Now, did you see what you did there? Can you see what happened?” allowed the person to explain,and correct their error themselves. This saved you haranguing them, as they told you the error themselves. With it out in the open, it could be discussed, but there was no need to criticise, as the mistake had been recognised.
    If it was a situation of some urgency, I would try to take the “It’s really better to….” and explain the rationale.
    In this manner you empowered your staff, and made them aware, and hopefully taught them that it is better to maintain your cool and provide an scenario for self reflection.

  • Liza says:

    In small businesses, going over what went wrong and what should have been done is a key success factor. This going over ensures that the same mistake will not happen again, and if it does, then perhaps it is time for that person to be let go. Obviously, he doesn’t it into the overall design of the organization and its goals and objectives.

    I tell you, in small business common sense is NOT so common. Richard Branson might find it very difficult to be an effective leader in such a business given his never criticize advice.

  • Hajo says:

    Interesting approach and article, thanks for covering this topic! Now the key is how to identify and incentivizse the “good people” – often times easier said than done…

    I also agree with Anil and Wilson, i.e. disagree (despite his success) with Richard Branson: it totally makes sense to “go over the obvious with the people involved”. However, this needs to be done in a Dale-Carnegie-way – don’t criticize, show honest appreciation for the good aspects, smile & encourage!

  • Wilson Zorn says:

    I just wanted to say I totally agree with your comments. It’s important as well for people’s development; personally, I have appreciated “going over” issues of my own with people who understand the issues more or even simply in their own way, and also, more to the point, I have seen people’s performance and skills improve greatly by attentive managers who help them work through the learning process, and often (most of the time?) people don’t realize their errors or limitations or what went wrong fully without some help.

  • Anil khemlani says:

    As a director of a company dealing with staff it is extremely important to bring it to the notice of the person who did make the mistake if it clear that they did make it.
    Being too friendly and not going over creates a mis interpretation that the mistake was not a big mistake or it was something that could be overlooked. It could send the wrong signal to your staff that “it’s okay to screw up sometimes”

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