In print, charisma fails to take off |
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In print, charisma fails to take off

Published on Friday, 27 Jan 2012
Book: Screw Business As Usual
Author: Richard Branson
Publisher: Portfolio
Illustration: Bay Leung

Richard Branson is the most shameless name-dropper I've come across in the history of this column (and this writer has come across a fair number of this type, business gurus being the way they are).

That said, Branson does poke fun at himself for this tendency, albeit in the manner of an aristocrat who might comically yell "Get orrf my land!" across a field - bellowed in an exaggerated yokel-farmer accent, to both humour and impress visitors to his country mansion. The message is clear - it's still his land, and he wants you to know it. And so it is with Branson. He'll get his hubris across, even with the pretence of having his tongue in his cheek.

In this amorphous and somewhat autobiographical proposal for a new world economic order, he name-checks most of his high-profile friends, including actress Kate Winslet, Archbishop Desmond Tutu, Queen Elizabeth II, the Dalai Lama, singers Mick Jagger and Phil Collins, and US President Barack Obama.

Well, two can play at that game. When I interviewed Britain's most famous entrepreneur for a Japanese publication a few years ago, I found him to be a gracious, kind and funny soul. It's almost impossible to dislike Branson. And, person-to-person, I also learned what his secret is.

I noticed that he treated everyone with respect and courtesy. And I mean everyone. The hack (me), the photographer, his flunkies, the Virgin airlines staff at Chek Lap Kok airport. Rival British Airways staff, too. By the time the interview was over, I was so awed by his charisma and charm that I contemplated asking Branson for a job with the Virgin Group then and there.

Unfortunately, the magic of Branson does not translate well onto the printed page. Principally, this is because he's not much of a writer. His prose is repetitive and inelegant. As for the message of this book, it's a basic and well-timed manifesto for a more ethical way of doing business.

Branson enthusiastically endorses socially responsible business practices - and in a way that would engage even the stoniest-hearted exploiter of child-labour. It's palpably New Age in its appeal to end the self-destructive behaviours that consumers and businesses are engaged in today.

But Branson also acknowledges that there's a strong existing trend towards more sustainable and responsible business practices.

The trouble is he's come up with a stinker of a title for his prescription: "Capitalism 24902" - a pretty lame moniker from such a famously creative marketing hero.

But, as Branson writes: "Every single business person has the responsibility of taking care of the people and planet that make up our global village, all 24,902 circumferential miles of it."

Branson then spends much of the book ruminating over exactly what Capitalism 24902 involves - and presents a muddled picture of interlocking ideas, bonded by a strong ethical code.

Basically, make your business and make the world a better place. Or as the great - and super well-connected - maestro puts it: "Never has there been a more exciting time for all of us to explore this next great frontier where the boundaries between work and higher purpose are merging into one, where doing good really is good for business."

It's a tad simplistic, but Branson has delivered the kind of goods he's talking about, so we can't not take him seriously.

Back to that time I met with him at a VIP lounge at Chek Lap Kok. At the end of the interview, he asked me what I most liked about his airline. I replied, truthfully, that the free little packets of elderberry eye gel were a great touch. That put the biggest smile I've ever seen on any bearded face. Then he swiftly turned to his staff, gesturing in my direction. "Another satisfied customer!" he announced.

Every customer matters to him, and is respected. This - in my view - is the formula for his extraordinary success. Cool guy, ho-hum book. 

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