What Richard Branson can teach doctors

Part-maverick, part-unconventional, part-smart business owner Sir Richard Branson has business lessons to share in spades. Since I recently read his third autobiographical book Business Stripped Bare: Adventures of a Global Entrepreneur, I wanted to pass on some of what I learned from the book.

Without knowing exactly why, I have long admired his acumen and chutzpah. His story has provided me insights into why I’ve been so drawn to his adventures in business and his larger-than-life personality.

For those of you who don’t know much about him, Branson is the product of a somewhat privileged middle-class upbringing (he descends from a line of barristers and judges) and an English public school (what we in the US call a private school). A self-proclaimed poor student with dyslexia, he failed to complete any college degree, but opted instead to start a business, first as a magazine publisher and then as a mail-order record company owner. He went on to found Virgin Records, and this single venture expanded over the decades to become the Virgin Group, a conglomerate of businesses focused on travel (planes, trains, space travel), entertainment and lifestyle (including humanitarian ventures like fighting HIV, AIDS and climate change).

I came away with many business lessons.  Here are a few.

Branson’s business philosophy is crystallized in these words, when asked why he went into business:

I’ve never been interested in being ‘in business’. I’ve been interested in creating things … Business is creative. It’s like painting. You start with a blank canvas. You can paint anything – anything – right there, is your first problem. For every good painting you might turn out, there are a zillion bad paintings just aching to drip off your brush. Scared? You should be. You start. You pick a color. The next color you pick has to work with the first color … People who succeed in business have swallowed their fear and have set out to create something special, something to make a difference to people’s lives …

Lesson: To thrive in business, it really helps to be passionate about creating something worthwhile. As a relative newcomer to entrepreneurship, I have maintained for years now that being an entrepreneur is a radical act of creativity, and it makes an every day “practice” so much more fun once you think of it as an entrepreneurial venture.

His fiercely independent path to success, in the face of rampant naysayers and critics, is both inspirational and hard to imagine duplicating. His gut instincts have won out many times over the analytics and pompous prognostications of others. He’s a master as staying on course with his vision and sense of purpose and ignoring the conventional wisdom.

I’m not good at theory. Almost everything I’ve learned, I’ve learned by doing.

Lesson: While you may draw insight and inspiration from someone else’s success story, you must rely on knowledge about your own marketplace, along with your inner talents and skills, to forge your own path.

Branson has been driven by the desire to innovate, partly I suspect because it’s in his genetic make-up and partly because he has been an astute observer of his own ecosystem’s evolution.

The best, most solid way out of a crisis in a changing market is through experimentation and adaptation.

Lesson: Healthcare is in crisis and the market is changing. It’s vital that we, as providers in an unstable setting, experiment and adapt. New business models? New levels of customer service? New joint ventures, relationships, partnerships?

His two greatest secrets of business success, in my opinion?

1. His relentless focus on the Virgin brand, along with his absolute clarity about what the brand stands for.
2. His dogged insistence on placing the people who work for him first.  Wouldn’t that be nice, in healthcare?

Philippa Kennealy is a family physician and certified physician development coach who blogs at The Entrepreneurial MD.

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  • http://www.howtobeyou.wordpress.com Julie-Ann Blackmore

    I believe that health and our whole lives are down to our own responsibility. With more education to those who have forgotten, denied or do not comprehend, the NHS may turn its self around to become a thriving business. Richard Bransons ethics are right regarding business being a creative outlet. The fact that he has plenty of money is to me a bonus that he didn’t do it for that. Money is a lovely by product of your passion and dreams being met

  • http://www.drliz.ca Liz Anderson-Peacock

    It all comes down to service. As a doc, I serve patients, as a business owner I have to take care of my staff who are my link to the outside world and are an extension of what my office believes. Together as a business we create a level of service and educate people as to the what’s in it for them – why return, why change a lifestyle or behavior, etc. We can become insular in practice and external reading of others thoughts add a “dose” of new perspectives.

  • http://www.savvypatienttoolkit.com MargoCorbett

    As an entrepreneur on the patient side of health care I appreciate these insights and couldn’t agree more. When “they” say it usually takes five years to get off the ground with a new business, they are right. It is also hard to be the “First” of anything especially if you are constsntly told, “you are ahead of the curve and people aren’t ready for what you are offering” – the second and third into the market you created often reap the benefit. Nothing like a challenge.

  • http://drpauldorio.com Paul Dorio

    I have always admired Sir Richard. What he has accomplished (and that island that he owns!) is quite impressive, to say the least. People like him, Carlos Ghosn, Jack Welch, Steve Jobs, etc., are amazing in that they have the vision, intestinal fortitude and capability in so many ways to accomplish all that they have. It would be an interesting study, from a psychiatric standpoint, to dissect the behavior of these kinds of top producers to really delve into the why and how of their accomplishments. They make it sound like anyone can do what they have done, you just have to (as Branson would say) paint with the right colors. But I think there is so much more to it than that. Otherwise, we’d all be able to figure out a way to do it also! lol

    • Alan

      Paul, it’s natural to agree with your admiration of Sir Richard And that there’s so much more to their success than the stories these heroes tell. The Harvard Business Review blog of late has a note on how great people are ‘overrated.’ Apologies for not linking, but it’s easy to find. There is the halo effect, and plenty of other human cognitive biases that you docs, as people of science, might consider elaborating on. Until rather late in life, I confess to having idolized those in the medical profession. Frankly, momentary sour grapes and fantasies of megalomania aside, I personally would not want to trade places with any of these super business people with their failures and ailments. Do you think someone like Branson can teach docs anything by his example? Isn’t it basic that people have domain specific brilliance, if any? Mozart, for instance, didn’t know diddly about the heliocentric view of the solar system. Hero worship can be a dead end in the real world, and deeply misleading. Does this sound too cynical, or do you think we all have a hard-wired need to idolize and hold up exemplars? Why am I bugging you with this? You’re one of the smartest commenters on the blog IMO!

      • http://pauldorio@gmail.com Paul Dorio

        ” You’re one of the smartest commenters on the blog IMO!” – i’ll take that compliment any day of the week! Thanks, Alan!

        I don’t think that “idolize” is necessarily the issue here. Rather, I try to look at people who have accomplished something and see if I can learn from them. And of course there is a tad bit of “gee I wish I could do that” too. But mostly I want to learn and better myself. I know that I have studied my tail off and learned a great deal to get to where I am. But in my field learning is never complete. There is always more. I think that’s part of what makes people like Branson, Jobs, etc so interesting to me – they seem to continually change and grow also. (Bono and the Rolling Stones fall into that category also, but that’s a different subject!)

        Thanks again for the compliment. Made my day.

  • BobBapaso

    Branson owns his business so they all follow his lead.

    No one owns healthcare.

    And we don’t need a new model for healthcare, we need an old one. Direct payment for service, and Health Care Savings accounts for everyone so it would be possible.

  • William Nuesslein

    One has to be careful about lessons from self made millionaires. Donald Trump made a really,at the time, stupid investment in New York City in the 1970′s, which investment was the highly levered Trump Tower. The City got through its nightmare and prospered, as it should, changing Trump from a fool to a genius, at least in his own mind.

    The general principal is that buying lottery tickets is a poor use of funds except for that lucky winner.

  • http://www.howtobeyou.wordpress.com Julie-Ann Blackmore

    As an ex nurse I believe the nhs has bypassed the consumer of their product to feed the greed of the masses. In ‘times are hard mode’ cutbacks are made whether this is entirely necessary or based on panic only time can tell. To be able to sustain a business and still bring prosperity not just to yourself but to others too, is admirable, not worthy of hero worship as no one is. We all have the same value, some people excel in different ways than others, but no one person is better than another overall.

  • doctor1991

    Nice post. I always feel people don’t appreciate enough the connection between economic freedom and creativity. Unfortunately, we are moving in exactly the opposite direction in the US- clinical practice guidelines, soon to be mandated by the government. I am afraid the government will soon be telling us how we should practice, when and where we should practice. It will also limit the partnerships and associations we can have.
    I also think its funny how we are taught that the “filthy” rich deserve our scorn, except when they are media darlings like Branson or Warren Buffet.

    • http://www.howtobeyou.wordpress.com Julie-Ann Blackmore

      Have no fear. Use your brain to create change. If everyone could do that the world would become such a better place. People spend so much time berating and misunderstanding or filling their head with their own fears, insecurities and judgements. What a waste of our innate creative abilities to go forth and create

  • http://four-health.com Richard Koster

    What Branson does get is the concept of customer service. Most healthcare professionals don’t get this at all. They assume we are privileged to be getting the benefit of their wisdom. As long as Docs are being remunerated by third parties (govt and insurance companies) there will be no pressure to change. In that sense, while the USA doesn’t operate under a social model for healthcare, it often feels like it!