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Five lessons I learned from two years with Richard Branson

In December of 2011, I made the best deal of my life with Sir Richard Branson over a game of pool: he'd share with me a big idea he really wanted to come alive, and I'd donate the next year of my life to make it happen.

That idea became The B Team, a global leadership force that's on a mission to catalyse better ways of doing business for the wellbeing of people and our planet.

As soon as we finished the game, I walked over to my wife to tell her what I'd gotten us into.

I knew I had made a huge gamble with time, but the right one with fate.

I knew that in trying to wrangle a powerful group of amazing people from all around the world to share in and drive a new vision for business that the mission itself would mark me deeply forever.

I knew that I'd learn about the challenges we face and the solutions we have at hand and in our heads; and I knew that I’d have a chance to work alongside some of the brightest and most inspirational people on earth who are trying to shape a better world for our children and their children.

But to be honest, what I couldn't predict was what I would learn from Richard himself.

Now, two years on, if you cornered me in a bar somewhere in Auckland, New Zealand, stripping away all the 'screw it let's do it' and the lofty goals of how we spend our time in the world and how we want to leave it after we’re gone, here are some of the simplest things I would share:

  1. Just speak English. I have learned to strip all jargon from my life - if a school kid can't understand it, then you're just saying it wrong. And that goes for all the acronyms we drown in to the overused phrases from "lean start-up" to "lean-in", and words that just shouldn't be used in the first place - like "resources" when we mean people. There is a constant drive now within me to crush all language out of my mind that can't be relayed to the common person.
  2. Have conversations not presentations. No matter what the idea or proposal that you are trying to get across, eliminate as much supporting paraphernalia as humanly possible - minimise the 'decks', the Powerpoints, handouts and yes, even the Keynotes (just because it looks better doesn't mean it works better). Recently, Richard sprang back from his chair in horror in response to the solitary 'diagram' I had put up on a screen in three days of meetings. I fought back determined that we "needed" it to illustrate a point, so he reluctantly pretended to look at it ever so briefly. But he was right - we didn't need it at all.
  3. Always be positive. I used to find occasionally being negative or 'challenging' was a way to get attention on an issue, or to 'raise a flag' - but I've learned that really it's just your own inability to see the positive, and the solutions, and it’s always a less desirable tone-setter. That's not to say that if there is something negative going on that you shouldn't attack it in some way - but there always needs to be a solution to what you're reacting to.
  4. Don't show anger. Never be rude. In many cities around the world in all sorts of situations I've seen Richard tired, frustrated, elated, mischievous - but never angry or rude to anybody. Anger seems to be a wasted emotion on him, and impoliteness seems impossible. I've tried to embody this inspiration as much as I can train myself to, to tread more gently among my fellow man and woman; to constantly be mindful of turning anger into answers, and responding to rudeness with empathy.
  5. Care about everything that matters. Despite what we may think and how busy we believe we are, we as human beings actually do have the capacity to care about many different things, even if we initially don't. There would have to be very few people in the world busier than Richard Branson, but somehow he manages to care about a large number of very important issues for our generation. Spending time with the Virgin Foundation and The B Team family has inspired me to care and think about how I can help on issues ranging from endangered sharks, to transitioning ex-prisoners into the workplace to the failing war on drugs.

And lastly, no matter how many amazing things we are doing, and how great we think they are – there is always more we can do, there is always more to be done.

Derek Handley stepped down as CEO of Sir Richard Branson's The B Team in January 2014 to become the organisation's "entrepreneur-in-residence". The co-founder of The HyperFactory (a mobile ad agency sold to US media giant Meridith in 2010 in a deal worth up to $US16 million) is also chairman of Snakk Media, a recently appointed Sky TV director, founder of the Iliad fund,  an adjunct professor at AUT University and a budding space cadet with Virgin Galactic.

Comments and questions

Easier said than done but great advice. Good article.

Fair enough. After reading Derek's book I have one major question. How in the heck did he manage to walk away from Feverpitch with so much money (something like $1 million), when the entire Feverpitch business failed. It was something to do with a weird deal with Kidicorp, but I would sure like to know how to make $1 million from a business that has completely failed.

Great article. Point 2 is very insightful. Working on al 5, not getting angry about things that are not done "right" and that need to be addressed in particular.

Much makes sense when you realise that Richard has dyslexia. Of course he does not want anything in writing and prefers conversations. So its more like know your capabilities and work to them. Hence Richard's view is that whenever something goes wrong or you find yourself at a disadvantage, often the best way to handle it is to turn a negative into a positive.

He left school when he was 16 years old partly because of the dyslexia. He had the intellect to realise he had to go into business and to employ those around him who can help. That is what he has done here with Derek. It seems Derek has much more to learn.

Absolutely. Every problem is an opportunity in disguise.

I've learnt that one size fits all does not work for everybody and you should play to your strengths and weaknesses. I have seen great leaders who ooze charm and great leaders who are utterly charmless but command respect and loyalty in equal measure.

The same goes for other traits such as details people vs big picture etc etc

Pigeonholing yourself on one mans approach, while it seems like a great approach, is not necessarily a good thing.

Be clear
Be conversational
Be positive
Be nice
Be caring

Very few people manage to be all of those things. It's a working template of a nice person. Most people are interesting, but very few people fit this definition of nice.