12 July 2011

Exploding stereotypes: My recent breakfast with Sir Richard Branson

On Friday last week I had the good fortune to be a guest of one of my clients, On The Ball Personnel at the Business Chicks Melbourne Breakfast event featuring Sir Richard Branson.

Could there be a more high profile, successful and respected business person to address a gathering of 1700 of Melbourne's mostly female business community?

I had never heard Sir Richard speak live. The closest thing being my recent listening to his narration of, Losing My Virginity, his best-selling autobiography, originally published in 2005.

In his book, Sir Richard talks about his dislike of public speaking and how his nerves make him a less-than-confident speaker. Last Friday Sir Richard was in town to promote the not-for-profit Virgin Unite foundation which is committed to tackling ‘tough social and environmental problems with an entrepreneurial approach'.

Sir Richard was introduced with a brief spoken profile and then a very slick Virgin Group corporate video. Sir Richard took to the stage and sat in a chair opposite host, Carrie Bickmore, ready for his Q&A session.

What followed during Sir Richard's 40 minutes on stage was a revelation. Far from being the charismatic, charming, loud and articulate star performer the audience might have reasonably expected, Sir Richard was quietly spoken, frequently stammered and sometimes seemed lost in answering a question.

To some in the audience, this was obviously a let-down. One woman at the table next to mine said that she was very disappointed by what she experienced.

To me, it was almost the opposite. I thought Carrie Bickmore's questions weren't very well thought out and given the host organisation and the composition of audience I was expecting many more questions about women in the corporate and organisational world (there were only two questions on this topic).

Sir Richard's performance at the front of the room simply confirmed what all recruiters should know and educate their clients about; that performance in an interview is generally an ineffective indication of a person's capability. By performance I refer to the Lou Adler definition of ‘interview performance' which he summarises as the four ‘A's', ie articulate, attractive, ambitious and affable.

If you were judging Richard Branson's interview performance on the four ‘A's', then he would not have scored at a level that equates to his actual performance as a business leader and entrepreneur.

Granted, it was a celebrity interview as distinct from a job interview but I would argue that my point is still valid.

The job of every interviewer is to go beyond the superficial and fully explore the capability and motivation of the person sitting in front of them regardless of the person's age, gender, nationality, religion, ‘local' experience, industry experience, appearance or anything else that is not demonstrably relevant to job-specific criteria.

Sir Richard also revealed something else that I did not previously know; he does not work at the Virgin Group head office. He works from home, only occasionally visiting the various Virgin offices, on an as-needs basis.

I am sure that my stereotype-view that the Virgin Group's unique brand and work culture was due to the dashing, dynamic, charismatic and inspiring everyday presence of Sir Richard Branson, would have been a common one.

As Sir Richard said, he works better alone. He focuses on hiring the right people to work for him, people who are best left to do what they do best, without his constant physical presence.

So there you have it - contrary to the stereotype, one of the world's most well known entrepreneurs is basically an inarticulate public performer who prefers to work alone.

What stereotypes are you being fooled by?

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3 comments:

  1. Thanks for your excellent articles, Ross. I have also experienced this 'disconnect' between the public perception and the reality of Sir Richard, albeit via this TED interview http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DudfBIxw6do
    It only made me admire him more as an entrepreneur. He is also a perfect example of how failure (in several of his business ventures) can teach us how to focus on our strengths, hire the best and succeed.

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  2. What a great example Ross. It will only help to strengthen the case when discussing with clients the need to look at the "whole package" when reviewing someone for a role.

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  3. Voice of reason13/7/11 12:18 PM

    Just as University examinations predominantly measure how well students performs in examinations, not how well they understand the material or apply the concepts in the "real world", interviews are biased to measure interview performance. Knowing this, we coach our candidates for goodness sake, so it's not exactly a revelation!

    If there were to be a stereotype to observe, it would be the one that I often hear when I talk about some of the seriously brilliant minds I've encountered through academia and industry - the one which people by reflex offer as "Oh I bet they are inept with social skills."

    It's all relative. Vis a vis they are all engaging and delightful. Can they "work the room"? Not a chance. Do they let in get in the way of their pursuit of excellence? Never!

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