Richard Branson: Virgin

Richard Branson went from academic under-performer to being the first serial entrepreneur to create eight $8 billion businesses (and many other successful ventures too). He is an adventurer, a risk taker, and a visionary. Above all, he is a business person who sees business as a means to an end or, in his case,many ends. But despite the galactic scale performance of his business mind, there are many lessons we can learn from him, that apply equally to the day-to-day business and management practices of Pocketblog readers.

Richard Branson

Short Biography

Many acres of newsprint (and Branson’s own autobiographies) have documented the life story of one of the world’s favourite entrepreneurs, so here it is in brief.

Richard Branson was born in 1950  in South London, to a comfortable professional middle-class family, which was able to send him to a privileged private school, Stowe. However, Branson was not academically strong, due to dyslexia, despite being evidently highly intelligent, so he left the education system at 16, only to return for a number of honourary degrees in later life.

His first business, so named because he and his staff felt themselves to be business virgins, was a mail order business selling records below store prices, which he set up in 1970. This allowed him to enter the high street in 1972. In the same year, he created Manor Studios where his first recording artist was Mike Oldfield. The Tubular Bells album became (and continues, 30 years later, to be) a massive seller for the new Virgin Records label.

Branson’s achievements span far more than his business ventures, but we’ll leave it to the glossy magazines to cover his record-breaking, kite-surfing, books, island buying and publicity-seeking activities, and simply list a selection from his business ventures.

1973 – Virgin Records record label
1979 – Buys the gay nightclub Heaven1983
1984 – Virgin Atlantic Airways and Virgin cargo
1985 – Virgin Holidays
1987 – Virgin Records to the United States
1987 – The Virgin Group, along with Granada, Anglia and Pearson, founds BSB (British Satellite Broadcasting)
1987 – Virgin Airship & Balloon Company.
1987 – Mates condoms
1988 – Virgin Broadcasting
1991 – Virgin Publishing (Virgin Books)
1993 – Virgin Radio
1994 – Virgin Vodka and Virgin Cola
1995 – Virgin Direct Personal Financial Services
1995 – Virgin Express (a European low cost Airline)
1996 – Virgin Brides (indeed!)
1997 – Virgin Trains
1997 – Virgin Cosmetics
1999 – Virgin Mobile
2000 – Virgin Energy
2000 – Virgin Cars
2004 – Virgin Galactic
2006 – Virgin Fuel, to produce a clean fuel in the future
2007 – Virgin Media
2008 – Virgin Healthcare
2009 – Virgin Money Giving
2010 – Virgin Racing, a Formula One team
2010 – Virgin Gaming, for people to play competitively on popular Video Games
2012 – Virgin Money buys Northern Rock
2012 – Virgin Galactic announces the development of orbital space launch system LauncherOne.

Five Management and Business Lessons from Richard Branson

Lesson 1: Have Fun

It is easy to look at a multi-billionnaire and say ‘of course he has fun; he is rich and can leave other people to run his businesses’. The fact is though, that Branson remains fully engaged with the strategic aspects of his business, and that he prioritises having fun and spending time with his family. There are plenty of comparably wealthy people who do neither. If he can make these choices, so can you.

Lesson 2: Get Things Done

To make these choices, Branson is ruthlessly efficient at making lists and getting things done. He disparages those who write off To Do lists as a waste of time and is a compulsive note-taker and list maker.

Lesson 3: Persevere and Fight Back

Branson’s ventures have often faced opposition from incumbent market leaders and sometimes political figures. Branson has deployed every form of response he can to fight off this contention and see his ventures succeed. His battles with British Airways (on behalf of Virgin Atlantic) and, more recently, with the UK Department of Transport (supporting Virgin Trains) are notable successes.

Lesson 4: Master Public Relations

Brand and public perception are a vital, and maybe central component of Branson’s business strategy. Very few of his ventures have eschewed the Virgin brand. Branson is a charismatic figure who has been adept at using his own personal brand to gain media attention, which of course has assisted in his public battles on behalf of his corporate brands.

Lesson 5: Be an inspirational leader

The central holding business of Virgin is tiny (much like Berkshire Hathaway’s) and there Branson leads, rather than bosses – recently setting highly innovative and permissive HR policies in place, which truly demonstrate exceptional levels of trust in his staff. When Virgin Atlantic won a legal case against British Airways and both he and the company received  significant sums in compensation, he distributed this to the staff as a ‘BA Bonus’.

Richard Branson in his Own Words

Here is Richard Branson speaking at TED 2007.

Robert Greenleaf: Servant Leadership

Robert Greenleaf was a successful corporate manager, who read a book that crystallised his thinking. But he only started to change the world once he retired. His thinking goes against the grain for many corporate and political leaders, who want to exert control. Instead, he argued, leaders need to be servants first.

Robert Greenleaf

Very Short Biography

Robert Greenleaf was born and grew up in rural Indiana, and studied mathematics at Carleton College in Minnesota. He graduated in 1926, and went straight into a career at the American Telephone and Telegraph Company (AT&T as it now is). He stayed there, playing a series of important managerial roles, until his early retirement in 1964.

From the earliest days, Greenleaf was aware that big corporations did not serve their employees well. He strove at AT&T to change that from within, and had some notable successes. But in 1958, reading Herman Hesse’s novella, Journey To The East, Greenleaf had a revelation. The pivotal character Leo, whilst seeming to only serve a group of travellers, is in fact, taking upon himself the role of motivator, teacher and guide. When he leaves, the group flounders. Leo has, in truth, been leading the group.

This led Greenleaf to form his concept of Servant Leadership.

On his retirement, Greenleaf founded The Center for Applied Ethics (which was renamed The Greenleaf Center for Servant Leadership, in 1985). He wrote several books on Servant Leadership, most influential of which was: ‘Servant Leadership: A Journey into the Nature of Legitimate Power and Greatness‘ (1977 – re-issued in a 25 anniversary edition).

He strived to live according to his philosophy of ethical leadership, and died in 1990. The Greenleaf Center continues to promote his work.

The Genesis of Servant Leadership

Arguably, Greenleaf’s work has been based on a mighty misinterpretation of Hesse’s message. For Leo tells the central character that, in abandoning their goal when he left, the group failed its test. Enlightened people need to sustain their own self-leadership.

However, Greenleaf’s interpretation is coherent and would, I believe, have found favour with Hesse. He argues that Leo, is, in serving the group, its leader. From this, Greenleaf goes on to deduce that leaders need to serve those who follow them, as Leo served the group in Hesse’s novella.

Why do I suggest Hesse may have favoured this interpretation? For two reasons:

  1. In the book, Leo does indeed provide leadership to the group, though none recognise it at the time. (I shan’t say more – read the book)
  2. Secondly, in Hesse’s finest work (in my view), the The Glass Bead Game, the central character, The Master of the Game, is called Joseph Knecht. In Hesse’s language, German, Knecht means ‘servant’. The master is servant. Curiously, Hesse is not alone in this insight: etymologically, the English word knight originates from the Old English, Cniht, meaning servant, rather than from the French, chevalier (horseman) or the Latin, eques, also meaning horseman. Knecht and knight are the same word!

What is Servant Leadership?

Servant Leadership is a model of leadership based on the ethical principle that  leaders must first of all serve those who follow them. They have a moral responsibility to help the people they serve grow and thrive, as people. There are therefore a number of behaviours that are characteristic of a servant leader. Thus, Greenleaf’s concept is a behaviours, or roles-based, model of leadership. He argued that we can all become servant leaders by making these behaviours the centre of our practice.

Some of the behaviours a servant leader needs to exhibit are: listening, empathy and healing relationships, awareness, foresight and conceptualising the world, building communities and stewarding resources, influencing through persuasion, rather than control, and finally, a commitment to the growth and wellbeing of the people they serve.

Greenleaf’s Influence

… seems disappointingly slight in the upper echelons of modern business, public service (yes, I know) and politics. Whilst a former British Prime Minister referred to servant leadership, I doubt he will be remembered for it. The current crop of world leaders hardly exhibit any signs of it (and neither do some of the prominent candidates for future roles).

Where I see servant leadership in my work, is in many of the small business entrepreneurs and among middle managers. These people are where deep care for colleagues and staff are most manifest in my experience. It would be lovely if our culture allowed these qualities to thrive as those people rise to top leadership roles on national and global platforms.

Robert Greenleaf in his own Words

I can only find one video of Greenleaf himself. Here he is, in later years, talking about the role of institutions.

Lynda Gratton: The Future of Work

What will work be like in the future, and how will we respond to it? These are big questions being asked by the influential and much respected Professor of Management Practice at the London Business School, Lynda Gratton. The answers she is uncovering are both obvious and important. We won’t know if her work is ‘right’ until the future arrives, but for now, we would be wise to understand the trends Gratton is uncovering, and respond to them.

Lynda Gratton

Short Biography

Lynda Gratton was born in 1955 and, grew up, and was educated in the north west of England, in Liverpool. She gained her BSc in Psychology from Liverpool University in 1976 and started work there on her PhD. In 1979, she started work with British Airways as Chief Psychologist, while continuing her doctoral studies into Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs. She was awarded her PhD in 1981 and, in the following year moved to management consulting firm PA Consulting.

She stayed at PA until 1989, becoming their youngest Director at age 32. But Gratton valued the autonomy to create time to read, think, and be with her family above the high salary. So she took a post as an Assistant Professor at the London Business School in 1989.

Gratton’s academic career has resulted in praise and awards. She has authored 9 books to date (the ninth is due out in June 2016) and many influential papers, the most widely read being two Harvard Business Review Articles: Eight Ways to Build Collaborative Teams (Nov 2007) and End of the Middle Manager (Jan 2011).

Gratton’s best-selling books are Hot Spots: Why Some Companies Buzz with Energy and Innovation – And Others Don’t (2007) and The Shift: The Future of Work is already Here (2007), with her new work looking at one of the five forces she sees as shaping our world for the future: The 100-Year Life: Living and working in an age of longevity (2016)

The Five Forces Shaping our World

We need to start our summary of Gratton’s most important thinking with the forces she identifies as driving change in the world. I think each of us might add one or two of our own, but it is hard to dispute that each of these five will have a big impact. What gives her list credibility is the wide range of big name organisations that collaborated in her research.

Technological Developments

Some of the big developments she points out that will affect us (and some of the other forces, below) are:

  • Cognitive assistants (advanced knowledge systems moving towards artificial intelligence)
  • Cloud and distributed computing – especially linked to mobile devices
  • Advanced robotics
  • Digitisation of knowledge

At some point she projects (as do many computer scientists) connected computers will start to become capable  of creating knowledge without human help. (Note that this is not the same as the potential ‘singularity event’ of computers gaining consciousness, which is at another tier of speculation)

Globalisation

Here we can see trends like labour force mobility, especially in the direction of mega cities that are, increasingly, in the East. This is feeling and fuelled by the emergence of the new economies; the so called BRIC and MINT nations (Brazil, Russia, India, China, and Mexico, Indonesia, Nigeria, Turkey – along with other less acronymed nations like South Korea and Egypt). Many of the new dominant player will bring new cultural and societal norms to the world of work.

Demographic Changes (and increasing longevity)

The biggest changes will be shifts in life expectancy and the struggles of Western nations in particular to meet expectations around retirement. But as populations age and birth rates decline in the presently less developed nations, the same effect could have far greater implications.

Societal Trends

There are so many trends here – many linked intimately with technology, globalisation and demographics. Women’s social and economic power cannot (and should not) do anything but rise. Freelance work will increase to take advantage of technology and meet the caring needs of people with ageing relatives. Predictions of the demise of family life or the increase in attention given to families from home-based workers seem the most confused – but then the future may not yield neat categories.

Energy

The need to shift to a low Carbon economy to protect the world from rising atmospheric CO2 levels and the inevitable devastating consequences of the global climate changes it will drive will increasingly dominate our futures. This will have complex economic impacts – but nothing compared to what will happen if oceans rise substantially and crops fail around the world. I’d like to see Gratton give more attention to the consequences of water stress and the geopolitical impacts of large mismatches of water availability and need that we can readily predict.

The Three Shifts we can Expect to See in our Lives

These are big forces and Gratton envisages three big shifts in our lives.

Mastery

There are too many generalists, so the law of supply and demand will crush their economic value. This will drive a shift to in-depth mastery and narrow specialisation of workers.  We can easily see how she comes to this conclusion, as the five forces combine to drive and facilitate this shift.

Connectivity

Linked to this is the need and increasing ability for workers to connect with one another globally.  She thinks our work lives will become less competitive and more collaborative. Gratton coins two interesting concepts:

  • Your narrow group of close collaborators, whom she calls ‘the Posse’
  • Your wider group of loosely connected working relationships, which she refers to as ‘the Big Ideas Crowd’

Quality of Experience

From my point of view, her third shift is the most parochial: a move from focusing on standard of living to the quality of our experiences. In Gratton’s timeframe of now to 2025, I doubt this will be a major trend outside the wealthiest parts of the world (and, even here, it may only apply to the wealthy middle and affluent classes). The displacement of work by machines has been heralded for over 100 years and the rise of hedonistic society for many hundreds. I’d like to buy into this one, but it feels most like a consumer business driven rehash of an old trope (Sorry Lynda).

The Five Impacts this will have on Organisations

What I do one hundred per cent buy into is Gratton’s assessment of the big impacts these shifts and forces will have on global-scale organisations. Small, local organisations will lag behind, but even they will need eventually to bow to some of these changes.

Leadership

Connectivity will drive the need for more transparent leadership of our corporations (while many will fight it, fearing the impact of consumer reactions). This will need a more authentic style of leadership from individuals throughout those organisations.

Virtual Teams

Cross border, cross timezone working has grown up over the last 20 years, and will increase. From my perspective, real, empirical research in how to drive high performance from virtual teams is still lagging this trend. This is a hard question, because we evolved to co-operate in small, intimate, and geographically contained teams. We need to find ways to optimise our reactions to an alien environment.

Cross Business Networks

‘Social Capital’ is not just something we acquire as individuals, Gratton suggests. Corporations need connectivity to drive innovation and profitability. I predict that these wider eco-systems may yet morph into the dystopian mega-corporations and global cartels of science fiction.

Partnering with consumers and entrepreneurs

As more workers become independent freelancers, and consumers become more savvy about what they want, corporations will increasingly need to extend their relationships to more fully engage with them.

Flexible Working

You didn’t see this one coming, did you? (Joke) If social, demographic, and lifestyle preferences are shifting, then so too will work patterns. And this will require flexibility from employers.

Lynda Gratton at TEDx

Hear Lynda Gratton talking about how to be ready for the future now, at a TEDx event at the London business School in 2012.

Donald Schön: Reflection in Action

Donald Schön (Schon for the rest of this article) differs from other thinkers and managers in this series, because he was more a philosopher than a business thinker. Therefore, his ideas are subtle, but no less important for managers and professionals to understand; at least in outline.

Donald SchönVery Short Biography

Schon was born in 1930, in Boston and grew up nearby. In 1951, he gained his bachelor’s degree in philosophy from Yale and went to France to study music at the Sorbonne. He returned to the US to pursue philosophy at Harvard, where he earned his PhD in 1955.

After a short spell teaching philosophy at the University of California, Los Angeles and the University of Kansas City, he joined consulting firm Arthur D Little in 1957, and remained there until 1963.

From then on, he produced a series of books, joining the faculty of MIT in 1968 and becoming Ford Professor of Urban Studies and Education in 1972. It was in the years that followed this that he collaborated fruitfully with Chris Argyris.

Donald Schon’s Ideas

Within Schon’s writing are three big ideas that are especially relevant to managers and professionals.

The Learning Society

The rapid pace of technological change means that our systems and technologies no longer provide a stable base for society or its organisations. This means that we need to be constantly learning. This idea was picked up by Peter Senge in his writing on the ‘Learning Organization’. We need to be constantly learning lessons as we go and the same is true for society as a whole and organisations within it. Yet governments and organisations both like to centralise their policy making processes, isolating them from the people who have the experiences to understand and therefore solve the new problems that emerge.

Generative Metaphors

Schon wrote about how powerful a metaphor can be in framing the professional response to an issue. Schon suggested that the challenge is often less in problem-solving, and more in problem-setting. How we state a problem dictates the type of solution we find. So, for example, if the problem of poor communication is fragmentation, then we look for a solution of co-ordination. An example he gave from the social sphere was when we refer to the problems of a neighbourhood as a ‘blight’ and therefore frame our response as a treatment for disease. This is something that is the subject of current research, not least by Paul H Thibodeau and Lera Boroditsky. I have written about the dangers of metaphor choice elsewhere.

Reflection in Action

Perhaps Schon’s most important contribution was in thinking about the process of learning. In addition to his collaboration with Argyris – which led to three books and the idea of double loop learning; he also focused on reflection.

He started by setting out reasons why what he termed ‘technical rationality’ is a poor model of professional learning. This is the process of filling new students and professionals-to-be with knowledge at the start of their careers, and expecting them to apply that knowledge. The common response to this approach was then ‘reflection on action’. This is the process of stepping back after each piece of work, project, or experience, and reflecting on what we have learned from it.

We know that this is an excellent route to developing wisdom, but Schon argued that professionalism requires something else, as well: the ability to think o our feet. For this, we require the ability of ‘reflection in action’ – reflecting while we are carrying out our tasks and exercising our skills. This seems to me to be intimately linked with both Csikszentmihalyi’s idea of ‘flow states’ (in which we lose ourselves in activities where we are able to constantly monitor our progress) and Kolb’s idea of ‘Experiential Learning’ (in which we learn through a constant cycle of experience, reflection, generalisation, and application).

Duncan Bannatyne: Investing Up

On British TV, Bannatyne is the cool, aloof Dragon, who says what he thinks, without concern for feelings, flattery or getting a laugh. He never looks like he feels he has to prove himself. Maybe that’s because he has form!

Duncan Bannatyne

Short Biography

Duncan Bannatyne was born in 1945 and grew up on Clydebank in Scotland. His was not a privileged start and so, not having a bicycle, he set out to earn the money he needed by doing a paper round. When there was no round, he accepted the challenge to build one, by knocking on doors and securing 100 new orders. He got the paper-round and bought the bike.

Characteristically, he later observed that the more entrepreneurial approach would have been to sell the list and invest the capital.

Having left school without qualifications, he joined the Royal Navy in 1964, but was dishonourably discharged in 1969. After a series of jobs in Clydebank and a brief move to Jersey in 1974 (where he met his first wife), he moved to Stockton on Tees, where he bought an ice cream van for £450. He later sold his ice cream business for £28,000 and invested in a care homes business, Quality Care Homes, and then in a nursery business, Just Learning. He sold these in 1996 for £26 million and £22 million respectively.

He took that money and invested it in his current primary business, Bannatyne Health Clubs, which is currently the largest such chain in the UK. He gained fame in 2005, when he joined the first cast of BBC Television’s business show, Dragon’s Den, where he remained (as the last but one of the original Dragons) until 2015.

Along the way, he has written seven books, which are much praised for their pragmatic advice.

Business Lessons from Duncan Bannatyne

Here are the lessons I like best from Bannatyne’s various books.

  1. Keep it Simple
    Too many businesses grow and become complex. I think Bannatyne is right to advocate a balance between necessary structure and simplicity.
  2. Invest Up
    Bannatyne’s success has grown by taking a weak businesses, growing it to success, and then cashing in by selling it and using the capital to invest in a new business. This limits the need for debt to start a business, but also avoids the limitations of stagnation from a business that has reached the end of its growth period.
  3. Get Good Advice
    Bannatyne’s books dispense plenty of this, and he is a true believer in the need to seek out specialist help, to avoid making avoidable mistakes.
  4. Take Responsibility, but Delegate too
    Another apparent paradox is his advocacy for taking personal responsibility in your business, but also training and developing people so you can delegate to them. This frees you up to do the true leadership and visionary work. But at the end of the day, if you delegate badly, the fault is yours, so take responsibility.
  5. Get out from behind your desk
    No one can lead or manage a business sat behind a desk. Get out and meet your people, your customers, and your suppliers. You business is dependent on all three, and not on you doing the paperwork.
  6. Make your own chances
    As true entrepreneur, Bannatyne believe we make our own chances, or we do not progress. There is a lot of luck in business success, but with hindsight, those who, like Bannatyne, succeed, are the ones who take the luck they get and convert it into success through hard work, careful observation, learning as they go, and ultimately, applying the acumen they develop.

Mary Kay Ash: Golden Rule

The scale of the organisation that Mary Kay Ash built is impressive. Wanting to test some of the wild figures I found on the the web, I went to the Mary Kay website for their own facts… and found the biggest number yet. But we have to treat that as authoritative. In their words: ‘3.5 million people worldwide are Mary Kay Independent Beauty Consultants.’ Wholesale (not retail) sales are $4 billion per year*.

Mary Kay Ash

Short Biography

Mary Kathlyn Wagner was born in 1918, and grew up in Houston, Texas, graduating high school in 1934. She married a year later, and worked to keep her young family during the war. Shortly after her husband returned, they divorced.

Ash became a salesperson for direct sales business, Stanley Home Products. She hosted parties to encourage people to buy household items. She was good at it and, in 1952, was hired by another direct sales company, World Gifts. There, she spent just over a decade at the company, before she finally quit  – or ‘retired’, as she described it – after watching yet another man whom she had trained get promoted above her and earn a far higher salary.

Ash decided to write a book for women in the male-dominated business world.  The mythology here is lovely: she sat down and made two lists on a yellow legal pad.  One list had things that the companies she had worked for had done right. The other had the things she thought they could have done better.  Looking at the lists, she realized that she had inadvertently created a marketing plan for a ‘dream company’. This was one that could give women every opportunity to achieve personal and financial success.

So, with a small investment from her savings, and hep from her younger son, she formed Mary Kay Cosmetics, in 1963, just months after the early death of her second husband. She opened her first store in Dallas.

The business was profitable in its first year and made nearly $1 million in revenue in the second year. As with her previous experience (do what you know is a feature of many successful entrepreneurs) she sold her cosmetics at home parties and other events. Sales representatives – termed consultants – bought the products from Mary Kay at wholesale prices and then sold them to their customers at retail prices. They also earned commissions from recruiting new consultants.

However, she innovated in the way she organised her sales representatives and, notably, in the way she treated them. Her incentive programs and avoidance of traditional ‘sales territories’ were consistent with her fundamental belief in the ‘golden rule’: treat others as you want to be treated yourself. She also applied the motto: ‘God first, family second and career third’ and emphasised the importance of a healthy balance between work and home life, making her business a highly attractive place to work for women.

Ash wrote a number of books, from which we can learn much about her people-centred philosophy on business.

Her business went from strength to strength, earning itself and Ash (who married Mel Ash, in 1966) numerous awards and honours. She remained active in Mary Kay Cosmetics until suffering a stroke in 1996. Mary Kay Ash died in 2001.

What Mary Kay Taught us

Her books provide a wealth of wisdom about respecting and engaging the people who work for you. It’s easy to think of her aphorisms as easy cliches. The reality is that there is nothing easy about doing the basics well and consistently. Ash did exactly that.

Let’s consider some of my favourite lessons:

  1. The Golden Rule: Treat others as you would want them to treat you. Ash made this a foundation of her business and management philosophy.
  2. Praise People to Success. Ash profoundly understood the motivating impact of recognition in the workplace.
  3. The Invisible Sign. Ash imagined that everyone she met was wearing an invisible sign, which she could read. It says: ‘Make me feel important’. She did.
  4. Build with people. Not only did she believe that ‘people are the company’s greatest asset’, but she prioritised developing those people and promoting from within the business.
  5. Be a Follow-through person. Ash thought it vital for people to feel that they can count on you, especially as a leader.
  6. The Speed of the Leader Is the Speed of the Gang. Lead from the front, roll your sleeves up, and get stuck-in. The pace a leader sets is the pace of the organisation.
  7. People will support that which they help to create. If you want to avoid people resisting change, you need to involve them in the design and decision-making processes.
  8. Less stress. Ash’s commitment to work-life balance was underpinned by a belief that stress stifles creativity.

 


* Facts retrieved from http://www.marykay.com/en-US/About-Mary-Kay/CompanyFounder/Pages/Company-Quick-Facts.aspx on 22/12/2015.

Adam Grant: Natural Giver

So many of the management thinkers we have covered have superlatives attached to them and their achievements. The one most often applied to Adam Grant is youngest… youngest tenured professor and also most highly rated. But what comes out of the numerous interviews and assessments of him I read is ‘most generous’. For a man who has researched and written about the relative merits of giving and taking, he certainly lives up to his admonition to give more.

Adam Grant

Very Short Biography

Adam Grant was born in 1981 and grew up in Detroit. He went to Harvard in 1999 to read for his Psychology degree and, while there, worked at Let’s Go publications, where he became a top seller of advertising and achieved promotion to director. However, his future lay in academia and so, following his graduation in 2003, he went to the University of Michigan to read for an MS and PhD in Organizational Psychology.

After a short spell as a postdoctoral visiting scholar at Britain’s University of Sheffield Institute of  Work Psychology, Grant took up his first academic post, at the University of North Carolina, in 2007. Two years later, he joined the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania, as an Associate professor, gaining tenure in 2011. He became a full Professor of Management and Psychology in 2013.

Grant has been showered with academic awards and plaudits, and his first book, Give and Take: Why Helping Others Drives Our Success, (2013) was a deserved bestseller. His new book, Originals: How Non-conformists Change the World, came out in early 2016.

The two things that comes out from profiles, are Grant’s energetic productivity and his genuine generosity. He gets masses done, moving at warp speed from one thing to the next, yet still finds time to respond generously to a huge number of requests for help from his students and others. He regularly responds to dozens of these emails a day, dispensing advice (informed by psychological research), linking people to contacts (he offers to do this for any of his students, who trawl his LinkedIn account for opportunities) and providing citation references for colleagues (who see him as encyclopaedic in breadth and faster than Google).

In this way, Grant is a role model of his (to date) most powerful idea. (I have not read Originals yet, as I am writing this prior to its publication). He has also served in a number of voluntary roles – currently as a Board Member of Sheryl Sandberg’s Lean In Foundation (Sandberg has written the foreword to Originals).

Give, Take, or Match

Grant’s research, documented in Give and Take, concerns ‘prosocial behaviour‘. This is behaviour motivated more by a desire to contribute than to serve ourselves. He divides people into three groups; those who:

Give
Givers enjoy contributing – whether it is ideas, help, mentoring, introductions, or advice. Givers typically achieve a lot or fail spectacularly, depending on the choices they make in giving. The successful givers, Grant believes, significantly out-compete takers and matchers, and the organisations they work for gain in measurable ways. Successful givers principally give high value help that has a low cost to themselves – what Grant terms: ‘five-minute favours’.

Take
Takers try to get as much as they can from others while contributing as little as they can get away with. They believe that the world – and work in particular – is a zero sum game, wherein if others win, they must necessarily lose. They are therefore focused on each individual interaction as an opportunity for short-term success. Grant posits that Takers will find it increasingly hard, as social media make it ever easier for society to punish them. In the past, this has been the function of gossip. Now gossip is global in reach, open in visibility, and potentially indelible.

Match
Matchers seek to create an even balance of give and take. Theirs is a fair world, but with less initiation of generosity, so therefore less reciprocation and hence less opportunity for real growth in the prosocial economy.

Grant’s interest in motivation leads him to conclude that we are motivated by the opportunity to help others and that, by giving people more opportunities to do this, or by framing their work in this way, we increase overall motivation and therefore productivity. His book and research papers cite many examples of this.

The takeaway, therefore, is clear: it really is better to give than to receive!

The Power of Powerless Communication

Adam Grant at TED