Richard Branson: lessons from five decades of decision-making

The Virgin Group founder explains why issues such as climate change and the hiring of ex-offenders should play a central role in a business’s decision making process, alongside traditional considerations such as profit and growth...

"As I’ve grown our company over the last five decades, I’ve learned that championing people and the planet, alongside profit, results in businesses that are much stronger and more successful," explains Richard Branson in a recent blog post.

"At Virgin, whenever we look into making an investment, the first thing I think about is whether or not a potential idea will have a positive effect on the world. Whether it’s starting a bank like Virgin Money, an airline like Virgin Australia, or an events company like Virgin Sport, the goal is the same: Don’t just make money - make a difference. These days, all business leaders should understand that prioritizing a 'triple bottom line' - consisting of profit, people and planet, as John Elkington put it in the 1990s - is a requirement, not just an option."

While the business landscape has changed somewhat since Virgin was founded, Richard has noted that there’s still a sizeable percentage of entrepreneurs who are motivated purely by profit.

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"Through my conversations with other business leaders, however, I’m continually reminded that this is not the case often enough. While a shift toward more sustainable practices exists, it’s still piecemeal, lightweight and isolated.

"All types of businesses have the ability to make a difference in their own way. Think of this strategy in terms of circles: For a small business, it’s about concentrating on problems locally, while medium-sized businesses should think on a national scale. Bigger businesses should focus on global challenges. This may sound overly simple, but by looking after those within these circles, the world can truly become a better place.

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"My dream is that through the growth of better business practices we can create a world where the purpose of business is to become a driving force for social, environmental and economic benefit, and one where it’s not acceptable for companies to be solely driven by profit."

For those business leaders who do want to take a leading role in tackling some of the issues faced by wider society, it’s important to choose your battles wisely. Identifying the areas where a business can make a real difference and that are a natural fit mean you’re likely to have a positive impact. For Virgin, two key focuses in recent years have been climate change the ex-offenders.

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"As for the hiring of ex-offenders, I’ve long felt that people should not be judged by the worst moments in their lives. I encourage all businesses to train and employ people who have been released from prison," notes Richard.

"According to data from the Prison Reform Trust, nearly half of all people in prison in England and Wales reoffend within a year of being released. We know that employment is essential to reducing that rate, and we have a responsibility to act on this knowledge. Virgin Trains has been pioneering the hiring of ex-offenders in our company, employing 25 ex-offenders in different parts of the company. That’s 25 people who’ve been given a second chance in life, with vastly better odds of never committing a crime again.

"Beyond the prioritization of climate action and the hiring of ex-offenders, businesses also can offer community service opportunities to the staff, ensure sustainable supply chains and create inclusive workplace cultures."

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