3 Lessons I’ve Learned in My Career—Plus, One From Sir Richard Branson

By David Osborne, CEO, Virgin Pulse

As CEO of a health and wellness company, I’ve had the opportunity to build a team of global professionals all focused on changing lives for good. Along the way, I’ve learned what it takes to be a good leader and how to empower employees and organizations to thrive. I’ve also been fortunate enough to learn from one of business’ most iconic personas—Sir Richard Branson. What follows is a distillation of lessons that have had a big impact on me, and I hope will be helpful to you in your career:

Self-care: the secret to becoming an effective boss.

Sir Richard Branson says, “If you take care of your employees, they’ll take care of your business.” However, you can’t be a good boss and take care of your employees if you don’t first take care of yourself.

If ever there was a time to focus on your personal health and well-being, it’s now. We’re all dealing with the COVID-19 pandemic, and, as flight attendants have reminded us for decades, we must put on our own oxygen masks before we can assist others. Leaders can’t lead if we don’t make it a habit to recharge our own physical and mental batteries, every day.

Personally, I’m running every morning and challenging myself to bump up my step count. Running is training me to focus my energy in productive ways and takes my mind off the negative and distressing news that seems to permeate every aspect of our lives. I’m also meditating and find that it’s helped me reduce stress levels and build mental resilience.

Leaders focus on others.

The most important aspect of what leaders do is serve the people around them by building an environment in which their employees can thrive, love what they do, take on new challenges and succeed in their goals—even during these challenging times.

Right now, every leader’s number one priority should focus on encouraging employees to put their health first. This means attending to aspects of their lives that can be too easily neglected in the midst of an ongoing crisis like the pandemic, including mental well-being, physical activity and nutrition. For example, working from home can be productive but can also lead to declining physical movement. Even walking from one meeting to the next or from the parking lot or train station to the office, as we did before COVID-19 shut down our workplaces, encouraged many of us to move throughout the day as part of our routine. Today, it’s difficult to get steps in as we sit in video conference calls for hours on end (not to mention that it’s mentally exhausting).

A recent study published by the Journal of the American Medical  Association (JAMA), which looked at the connection between movement and mortality, found that every 4,000 steps we take—whether outside or inside our homes—reduces our risk of dying from heart disease and other causes by 50 percent or more. That’s why it’s imperative to encourage employees to schedule—and take—physical and mental breaks. Walking or stretching for even 30 minutes can go a long way toward building positive habits now and into the future.

To become resilient, you must first struggle.

Let’s talk about the importance of failure. No one wants to fail and no one tries to fail, but paradoxically, failure is what inspires innovation.

In today’s pandemic stricken world, leaders in every sector of the world are being forced to operate in ways we never before anticipated—from implementing new technologies to connect disparate teams, establishing new remote working expectations, and trying to manage wildly-disrupted supply chains to keep organizations running. At some point, we’re all going to experience challenges and failure amidst our new normal. And we should.

Strange as it may seem, the pandemic presents opportunities to reinvent parts of our business, to rethink how we collaborate and communicate, and to test new concepts and ideas. At Virgin Pulse, for instance, our marketing team has borrowed the idea of a “daily stand-up” from the engineering team.  When the pandemic has forced us all home, marketing recognized that a daily morning meeting to connect, align and ensure that everyone has the support they need to achieve their goals was an effective way to start the day.

Some ideas may lead to new products and services; some may help us work and operate more efficiently and may even become our new normal.  And some may not work out.

It’s OK to fail, as long as you fail fast. What I mean is, you need to recognize when something’s not working and shift gears right away. As Henry Ford is quoted as saying, “Failure is simply the opportunity to begin again, this time more intelligently.”

As leaders, we must encourage and challenge our people to see failures and crises as a chance to learn, examine and do better. In fact, going through hard times is when real growth occurs; struggle is a key ingredient to building resilience, both personal and organizational.

Bonus lesson from Sir Richard Branson.

Virgin Pulse was founded in 2004 as part of Sir Richard Branson’s Virgin Group, and I’ve been fortunate to spend time with and learn directly from him. Here is one of his insights that I’ve taken to heart:

As a leader, you have to treat your employees like family. If you don’t, they won’t be happy, productive or loyal to your company. At Virgin Pulse, I try to treat our employees the best I can in everything we do. We make it a point to celebrate successes; we look for opportunities to recognize people; we learn by failure; we encourage transparent communication; and though it’s hard to do right now, we try to have fun.

Because Virgin Pulse’s workforce is globally dispersed and diverse, we’re intentional about meeting people where they are and being empathetic to their needs—especially during the pandemic. Some employees are grocery shopping for their grandparents or other family members; many are homeschooling their children; and still others are struggling with their new “office,” which for some may be the kitchen table. Everyone is adjusting and has their own challenges. You have to accommodate for every individual’s unique situation.

It’s also important to recognize that some people will come out of this pandemic broken, less healthy.  Many employees aren’t as physically active now as they were before COVID-19 became part of our daily reality; depression and anxiety are on the rise, as is substance abuse. Those with pre-diabetes will be less likely to reverse their condition during this time. These people are your employees.

Listen to them; hear what they are saying, and be sensitive to the fact that everyone has different needs. By doing so, you’ll garner their respect and loyalty. You’ll help them be more productive at work and in their personal lives. Not only will you be viewed by your employees as a true leader, you’ll find that your empathetic actions during this trying time will become the most satisfying in your career.


David Osborne is the CEO of Virgin Pulse, the world’s largest digital health and well-being SaaS company. Learn more at www.virginpulse.com.

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