I’m often asked who my biggest inspiration is, and who has had the most profound influence on my business life. Well, I’ve got a lot of good advice over the years, but – like most people I suspect – my mother is the person who has advised me most wisely.
I was very fortunate that from a very young age my parents were always very open with guidance and prepared to give up their time, energy and love to provide me with the opportunities to succeed. Although neither of them had experience in most of the industries Virgin entered, the values they infused in yours truly are hopefully plain to see in the Virgin brand today.
It was my mum’s 95th birthday on Friday and we spent a wonderful weekend together surrounded by family.
I thought it would be very fitting to celebrate all the things I have learned from her. Here are six lessons that really stand out:
1. Have no regrets
My mother always taught me never to look back in regret but to move on to the next thing. From an early age I was fascinated by mum’s money-making projects, from creating wooden tissue boxes to wastepaper bins. If something didn’t work, she moved on to the next idea. The amount of time people waste dwelling on past failures, rather than using that energy to fuel new projects, always leaves me flabbergasted. I love running every single Virgin business. Mum showed me that a setback is never a bad experience, just another one of life’s lessons.
2. Before you criticise anyone, look in the mirror
My mum’s advice if I ever wanted to criticise anyone was to go and look in the mirror for 10 minutes first since it reflected badly on me. It soon taught me to always look for the best in every person I met. Try to never fall out with anyone and if you do, make a real effort to befriend them again. A good example of this is when we won the legal battle with BA regarding their ‘dirty tricks’ campaign 20 years ago. I invited BA’s CEO Sir Colin Marshall to lunch and we remained friends until he sadly passed away in 2012. I truly believe if everyone made friends with their biggest enemy, or with their ex or with anyone they have fallen out with, the world would be a much better place.
3. Learn how to survive – fast
There is a rather well-known story about mum throwing me out of a car and telling me to find my own way home. On the face of it, mum was punishing me for causing mischief in the back seat. But really she was teaching me several lessons. After getting horribly lost, I quickly learnt how important a good sense of direction is! But more than that, mum made me realise how vital sheer survival is. This has been a key principle in my business life. In the first year of any company, the goal is to survive. From there you can build. But if you don’t make it through the early days, you’ll never have a chance to see your plans ever come to fruition.
4. Put other people first
There was always a focus upon teamwork in my home growing up. Mum always kept us working hard and would never let any of us become idle. It has certainly instilled a very healthy work ethic in my life, as many of my staff would be only too quick to point out! She would berate us for being selfish if we tried to escape chores by saying we had other plans, which helped make it clear how important putting other people first is. This has helped inform my business philosophy – people are the most important part of any company.
5. Keep your feet on the ground
When you start to become relatively well known, it can be easy to get carried away with your successes. It is especially hard to keep your head out of the clouds if you own a few airlines and have a taste for flying hot air balloons! But mum has always kept my feet firmly on the ground (metaphorically at least). She has rarely praised me in public; I was surprised but pleased to see her in a CNBC interview admitting she was proud of me. But she has always given quiet, constant encouragement. My family has always shown each other a lot of love, which is far more important than anything else.
6. See every day as a fresh chance to achieve something new
I had parents who wanted to see me do things, not watch others achieve things. Mum not only told me but provided the perfect example of seeing every day as a fresh chance to achieve something new, fun and exciting. Even today, she is incredibly active and works very hard on all manner of projects around the world. We still have to fit our schedules around her plans! Mum is always looking ahead, and always trying to make change for good. With that example, my eyes are always focused firmly on the future too.