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The Future of Work

Why Holly Branson Says Businesses Need to Find Their Purpose

Holly Branson on set while recording a BBC Sounds podcast with spoken word performer George the Poet | Photos courtesy of Virgin Group

As Virgin Group’s chief purpose and vision officer, Holly Branson focuses on empowering the company’s employees and making sure the business makes a positive impact every day. She shared how other organizations can find a purpose that’s meaningful for them, and how that will help workers and the business succeed.

What does being a purposeful business mean to you? And how can purpose lead businesses and their people to success?

As chief purpose and vision officer at Virgin Group, it pretty much means everything to me.

 After beginning my career as a doctor in London, my career path took a major pivot when, in 2011, I joined our family business, Virgin, full time. Once I started working on developing and embedding our purpose into the very DNA of our business, I knew I had found my calling. Working within the Purpose Team, I found my “why” and also realized that Virgin’s purpose (Changing Business for Good) was and should always be our “why” as a global brand. 

Defining our purpose has been a journey of discovery. If your company is on a similar journey, you’ll have many ups and downs, but by involving your people, your customers, and all stakeholders, you’ll be off to the right start. You’ll also want to test your purpose, ask for advice, and then follow through with action. I believe you truly will put your business on a successful future path.

Your purpose will give you clarity of thought when it comes to decision-making that will bring profit while also creating a positive impact. It will encourage your people to innovate, to be creative, and to have a sense of pride and drive that no other company initiative can achieve.

 Thankfully, it has been a long time since most businesses existed to create profit at any cost. For me, a purpose pushes you to consider the role and meaning you want to play in people’s lives, and the impact you want to have in the world. It also ensures that you think about the long-term consequences of the decisions you take today.

Purpose is a strategy, not just a statement, and it must actively drive your decisions. However, it is so much more than that: Purpose is an attitude, a mindset, and an approach. I would go so far as to say it is a way of life and it’s how you show up every day. It is always striving to do the right thing, even when it isn’t the easy thing.

How can employers build a culture that empowers employees to succeed for themselves and the organization?

Our people have been our No. 1 priority from Day 1 at Virgin, and I genuinely think we have led by example on many exciting areas when it comes to well-being, inclusion, and sustainability. I’ve always been proud of the fact that our head office has embraced fully flexible working from Day 1. My dad [Richard Branson] built Virgin on the ethos that it’s not where you work, but how you work best, and how passionate you are about it.

When thinking about building a culture of empowerment, it must come from a place of trust. Trust your people when they come to you with new ideas. Instill trust in people by being open and human yourself. And trust that your people will get the job done, with passion, creativity, and pride, when they feel seen, valued, and empowered to succeed in their roles and other areas of their lives, too.   

Seeing your people as humans who have lives outside of work and who should be nurtured by their employer is the foundation you need to build a true sense of well-being, empowerment, and inclusion.

Living and breathing your company’s purpose every day is another effective way to build an empowering culture for success. If you live up to your purpose, your people will feel more motivated. They will feel their contribution really matters. They will leave work feeling fulfilled with a real sense of achievement. They’ll feel valued and, importantly, committed to helping the company succeed through its purpose. 

Staying true to your purpose will see you through the toughest of times — not just at a boardroom level but at every level. Staying true to your purpose in the bad times and the good will empower your people to stick with you and weather any storms that may come your way.

Holly Branson holds her daughter, Lola, while sitting next to Richard

Why is purpose a key driver of a company’s success and what do you foresee for the future of the workplace?

Regarding the future of work, the pandemic precipitated a workplace revolution, and we know that everyone is re-evaluating the role of work in their lives. People are reimagining what they want to do, where they want to do it, and how much of their life they are prepared to dedicate to it. People are thinking about what they really value and how they want to feel valued.

In addition to this, we know people came out of the pandemic thinking about purpose, too. Our people often say they chose to work for Virgin because of our heritage as a challenger brand and our commitment to purpose. We think purpose is table stakes for the next generation.  

We weren’t at all surprised by a LinkedIn Survey from earlier this year that found that 60% of Gen Z and Millennials said values are a deal-breaker when considering job opportunities, and that 9 in 10 respondents in Europe said they would leave a job for a company with a better value-fit.  

As to why purpose drives future success, purpose can provide businesses with the competitive edge when it is done well. The next generation are highly principled, brave, creative, and energetic, and their ideas are exciting. They are demanding greater accountability from businesses, and this can only be a good thing.  

What did you do to prepare for a leadership role in the family business? And what makes family-run businesses successful in your opinion?

Truthfully, having trained as a doctor, I did nothing in my education to prepare for a leadership role in the family business. But when I took a year off from medicine to learn more about the family business, I started as an intern across our companies. I worked my way around the largest Virgin businesses and decided to stay on another year (it’s now been 15!). I learned everything I could from the different sectors we operate in and the different functions within those businesses. I loved it.

The best bit by far was meeting the incredible people who power the businesses. I was hopeless in some roles — operations and finance were not my forte, but I took courses to develop those skills, and my colleagues were so patient and generous in teaching me the ropes. When I launched our Vision and Purpose team, I realised I had found my long-term passion, but I’m so grateful for those years at the beginning.

For anyone joining their family business, big or small, make sure you gain an understanding of what every team in the business does to make your company tick, learn from all your colleagues, and you won’t look back.

As for what makes a family business successful, I believe it’s the same as with all businesses: A strong purpose that is deeply embedded in your decisions, putting your people first, transparency, compassion, low ego, and prioritizing well-being. Understand that, as a business, you have a responsibility to be human, be brave, and be bold in all that you do to make a positive impact in the world.

From left to right, Richard Branson, daughter Holly, wife Joan Templeman, and son Sam

How do you balance work and family life? 

It can be tough! As a mother of three children 8 years old and under, it’s hard to juggle work, life, play dates, homework, fun family time, and quality time with your partner. Every parent or guardian reading this will know exactly what I mean. Everyone’s situation is different and there is not one hard-and-fast way to find that balance — for many working mums and dads, they may never find it.

A couple of things that might help is to admit that it’s not easy, open up about your challenges, and don’t beat yourself up when things don’t go to plan. Being open, honest, and accepting that it’s normal to feel like you’re failing at parenting some days, and it’s normal to feel like you’re failing as a colleague or a friend the next day. It simply means you’re human and you’re doing your best. 

The only thing that keeps me sane is meticulous scheduling to make sure I try and fit in time with everyone, including time for me each week. That’s easier said than done though!

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