Arguably one of the world’s most famous entrepreneurs attributes much of his success not purely to luck, good planning or hard work, but to other people – his intrapreneurs. Sir Richard Branson, Chairman and CEO of Virgin Group, is a self-made multi-billionaire and firm believer in the importance of intrapreneurialism for future-focused, successful business.
“Virgin could never have grown into the group of more than 200 companies it is now, were it not for a steady stream of intrapreneurs who looked for and developed opportunities, often leading efforts that went against the grain,” he commented in his article Sir Richard Branson on Intrapreneurs: The business icon talks about empowering employees to break the rules which was written for entrepreneur.com.
“While it’s true that every company needs an entrepreneur to get it underway, healthy growth requires a smattering of intrapreneurs who drive new projects and explore new and unexpected directions for business development.”
Sir Richard is well-known for innovation and outside-the-box thinking, beginning his entrepreneurial pursuits at just 16 when he founded Student magazine. At age 20 he set up a mail-order record business, then two years later opened the first store for Virgin Records (later known as Virgin Megastores). In the 1980s, he took his love for travel to the next level by expanding Virgin into the airline business, and in 2004 he took the bold step into spaceflight with Virgin Galactic. Virgin Mobile began in 1999 and Virgin Blue (now Virgin Australia) in 2000. He has since also bought into entertainment, healthcare, hotels, radio stations, Formula One racing and become a patron for a range of charitable organisations.
In his autobiography, Sir Richard writes of his decision to start the airline: “My interest in life comes from setting myself huge, apparently unachievable challenges and trying to rise above them … from the perspective of wanting to live life to the full, I felt that I had to attempt it.”
This courage, drive and determination forms the cornerstone to Virgin’s intrapreneur programs. Sir Richard sees the incredible power in those wanting more from their careers; those willing to go the extra mile and make a real difference – those also wanting to live life to the full. It takes bravery, perseverance and fortitude to step forward and approach leaders about a new idea, and sadly, these qualities are not always supported within business.
Virgin stands apart from other business models by encouraging ‘rule breakers’, rather than punishing those who dare to sidestep organisational bureaucracy. As a corporation, they believe in empowerment, freedom, creativity and openness to innovation.
A beautiful example of intrapreneurialism at work is detailed in Sir Richard’s Entrepreneur.com article, from Virgin Atlantic:
“None of the big expensive seat design firms seemed able to solve the design problems posed by our specifications for our Upper Class cabin, but a young designer, Joe Ferry, volunteered (insistently) to give the project a go.
“We set him loose, and the herringbone-configured private sleeper suites that resulted from his “outside the box” creativity put us years ahead of the pack and made for millions of very happy horizontal fliers.”
Intrapreneurialism was also paramount to Virgin’s success with the development of their telecommunications arm, Virgin Mobile. The company had no previous experience or on-ground expertise in the mobile phone industry, so instead set to work finding exactly what they needed through a group of highly skilled and passionate industry managers. These newfound staff members were charged with the responsibility and freedom to set up their own ventures within the Virgin Group, and ultimately became very successful themselves.
“Perhaps the greatest thing about this form of enabled intrapreneurship is that often everyone becomes so immersed in what they’re doing that they feel like they own their companies.”
In closing, Sir Richard’s question to leaders is:
“What if CEO stood for “chief enabling officer”? What if that CEO’s primary role were to nurture a breed of intrapreneurs who would grow into tomorrow’s entrepreneurs?”
If one of the world’s richest and most successful people isn’t afraid to let others take the lead and advocate for a more flexible, liberated business model, perhaps there is change ahead for many more who strive live life to the full.