"I’m happy to say I’ve never read a book on HR theory or people management,” said Sir Richard Branson in an interview with HR Magazine in July 2010. Yet, if we think of companies where we might instinctively feel it would be ‘a great place to work’, Virgin would surely be up there, if not at the top.

Much has been written about Richard Branson’s style of leadership. His early risk taking, his battles with British Airways in the 1980’s – right up to his quest for space travel with Virgin Galactic. But there is one aspect of his ethos that underpins everything that Virgin has achieved – it’s his philosophy that if staff are happy, customers will follow.

In that one line you have the business case for employee engagement in a nutshell. But while creating happy and engaged people can be supported by good HR practice, embedding it to the extent that Virgin has is based on a surprisingly simple philosophy.

Putting employees first

Richard Branson might not have read a book on HR – but he has built a hugely successful global business on the principle of putting employees first.

The appeal of Virgin’s employer brand is down to a leadership style that recognises that happy employees equal happy customers. And, with an eye on the bottom line, that an unhappy employee can ruin the brand experience for not just one, but numerous customers.

Re-shaping the role of HR?

What’s more, the people values at the core of Virgin are finding their way into the HR thinking of many other businesses – and are possibly re-shaping the role of HR in the process.

Airbnb have recently announced that they are redefining their HR function with the appointment of a new Global Head of Employee Experience. It’s a move that supports the long held Branson view that employees – and what they experience in the business – really shapes how they treat customers.

So, what are the secrets of Virgin’s employee engagement success?

Authentic leadership

“Having a personality of caring about people is important. You can’t be a good leader unless you generally like people. That is how you bring out the best in them.”

Throughout his life as an entrepreneur and leader, Richard Branson has made an effort to connect with employees on a personal level.

Whenever he visited the Virgin offices where I worked he’d always make an effort to say hello to every single person. 1,500 people worked there. You would also hear stories that Sir Richard had rang them, often or not when they were out shopping on a Saturday morning to thank them for something they had done.

What’s more, imagine my surprise on my last day at Virgin when I receive an envelope and inside is a personal reference from Sir Richard which also wishes me well in the future.  A very personal touch from a very engaging leader.

An engaging culture

“Some 80% of your life is spent working. You want to have fun at home; why shouldn’t you have fun at work?”

If you ask candidates what attracted them to any Virgin company – ‘culture’ would probably be high on their list. However, if you are looking for the ‘magic formula’, there isn’t one. As Richard Branson says, it really comes down to that simple philosophy. "There is no magic formula for creating great company culture. The key is just to treat your staff how you would like to be treated."

Of course, it also helps if the workplace is fun. And the knock on effect is that it will act as a huge attraction to others who will only add to the employee experience. As he explains, “If you hire brilliant people, they will make work feel more like play.”

Learning from mistakes

“If I can help it, I never let good people go. I feel people should be given more than one chance within the Virgin Group.”

This is something I have experienced first hand during my time at Virgin  – being given the freedom to put my own ideas in place – and to learn from any mistakes. As an employer you have to be prepared to let your people find out if they can – and help them if they can’t.

As Richard Branson says,  "One thing is certain in business; you and everyone around you will make mistakes. When you are pushing the boundaries this is inevitable – but it’s important to recognise this…. we trust people to learn from mistakes; blame and recriminations are pointless.”


“If people are properly and regularly recognised for their initiative, then the business has to flourish. Why? Because it’s their business”

Recognition and involvement runs through the Virgin Group – from parties for individual employees right up to the chance to spend a week on Branson’s Necker Island. As Richard Branson describes, “We give our people real autonomy, and celebrate their achievements by identifying star contributors and highlighting brand ambassadors. We also facilitate peer-to-peer nominations to recognise top performers around the four Virgin values of innovation, customer service, community and environment.”

Listening to feedback

“I am a firm believer in listening to your staff at all times. The moment you stop doing this, you are in danger of losing your best people.”

Research on employee engagement shows that one of the main reasons for disengagement is not being listened to or feeling that opinions don’t count. Richard Branson is renowned for talking to employees and customers – and listening to what they say.

Whenever he takes a Virgin flight he chats to airline staff and the other passengers. As he puts it, “One of the key attributes to being a good leader is listening – and very importantly, make sure you act on that feedback when you get back to base.” At Virgin Mobile he spent time taking calls from customers and talking to the Customer Services Advisors. As he said in an interview with Inc. magazine, "The people out on the frontlines know when things are not going right. If you listen to them, you can soon improve all those negative things.”

Passion for your work

"The best advice I could give anyone is to spend your time working on whatever you are passionate about in life.”

Passion is key to employee engagement. And business leaders need to be passionate about what they do – something that Richard Branson has in buckets – with the benefits to the business being clear to see.

As he explains “Finding gaps in the market, and creating products that make a real difference to peoples lives, can only be accomplished if you have passion for what you are doing."  And, "You are far more likely to be inspired and have great ideas if you love what you do, and can instil that spirit of fun throughout your company.” The clear message being that if business leaders do something they are proud of, this filters down through the workforce and then on to customers.

A different priority list

In conclusion, no matter how vast it has become, Virgin has never lost touch with the importance of its people and, through the leadership and values of Sir Richard Branson, well treated and engaged employees still remain at the core of its success.

"If the person who works at your company is not appreciated, they are not going to do things with a smile" he says. And, in a business world where the interests of shareholders so often tops the corporate priority list, Virgin continues to grow by doing things in a different order, putting employees first, customers second, and shareholders third – because they see the ROI on engaged employees.

That’s employee engagement the Virgin way – and ultimately the whole organisation is better for it.

Richard Roberts was Head of Resourcing and Engagement and then HR Director at Virgin Mobile. He now runs en:Rich HR helping organisations create engaged, inspired and productive teams with a positive, can do, values based culture.