Interview: Rowan Gormley

A Branson protégé on leadership and risk

Everyone knows that Richard Branson, one of the commonest names to be cited when individuals are asked to name leaders, has an eye for a promising business opportunity. It is less common knowledge that he has a knack of spotting leaders. Indeed, a recurring feature of successful entrepreneurs is their role as head of recruitment - after all, they can hardly do everything themselves.

Rowan Gormley, chief executive of Virgin Wine and founding CEO of Virgin Money, comments: 'I had never worked in financial services before, but I approached Branson and asked him why he hadn't got into financial services. I set up and ran that for five years.'

'I come from a venture capital background. I had no experience managing people or in financial services but he [Branson] said that if I was able to come up with the idea let's give it a go. That permeates down through a business.'

The great thing about leadership is knowing when to be confident about an idea. You need to have the opportunity to put that into practice and start to develop that self-belief. Virgin is very good as a group in allowing people that freedom.

This does leave a problem with the Branson approach. What is the difference between intuition and superstition; and how do you tell between confidence and recklessness?

The answer is to monitor the effects of new initiatives and be prepared to alter according to the evidence. Virgin's shorthand for this combination is to be 'tight and loose' on different matters simultaneously. Mr Gormley says.

'There are proven ideas which we know do work, and we monitor and manage very tightly. If we are going to target a particular segment of wine buyers we know very closely, within a few pounds, the price point and how many wines in the box. That's very tight. We measure and monitor that very closely. In the airline context safety is very tightly managed - there is no reward for taking a chance.'

'Then we try to create areas where people can [take risks] but we measure everything. If someone comes along and says that they really believe our customers would be much more likely to buy if we send a message that this is a great wine, the only way we can decide is to take two samples and the message goes to group A and doesn't go to group B and we measure the difference.'

And how does one nurture this habit within leaders and future leaders at the group? Can leadership and intelligent risk-taking be taught?

'I think that with Richard [Branson] is a bit of a gift. It's got a lot to do with not finishing school - he never had his instincts educated out of him. He will combine his instincts and judgement with a group of people who are profound sceptics.'

While Richard Branson is uniquely gifted, there are ways to inculcate this pattern of intelligent risk-taking within the group. But the identifying and nurturing of talented leaders has to be an integral part of the way in which and organisation does business, not the subject of the occasional leadership initiative.

Rowan Gormley was interviewed by Philip Whitely, Times columnist, author and magazine editor.

This article first appeared in the April 2004 edition of HR Business.