I’M OFTEN asked who my biggest inspiration is, and who has had the most profound influence on my business life. Like most people, I answer: my mother.
My mother, Eve Branson, has always been known for her incredible energy. As a girl she loved sports and dancing, and she was very outgoing. During the Second World War she worked for the navy, and afterward became a stewardess, back when the job involved making sure that all the passengers were wearing oxygen masks on particularly high-altitude flights.
After she met my father, Edward Branson, a barrister, they settled in a small village in the English countryside. They were both generous with their time, energy and love, providing me with opportunities to succeed, along with a lot of freedom. I hope that the Virgin brand reflects the values they taught me.
Of all the lessons they imparted when I was growing up, these five from my mother really stand out.
1. No regrets
I’m often flabbergasted by the amount of time some people waste dwelling on their past failures, rather than directing that energy into new projects. My mother always taught me never to look back in regret, but to move on immediately to the next thing.
Our family budget was fairly tight when I was growing up, and I was always fascinated by her money-making projects, which were often craft-based, such as building and selling wooden tissue boxes and wastepaper bins. If an item didn’t sell, she tried something else.
Her activities inspired some of my first ideas, such as breeding budgerigars and growing and selling Christmas trees. Both of those businesses failed: since I went to a boarding school, I couldn’t take care of the birds, and rabbits ate the tree seedlings. But Mum had showed me that a setback is just another of life’s lessons, so I quickly moved on to other projects, following her example.
2. Learn to survive — fast
There is a rather well-known story about my mother stopping the car on the way home from a shopping trip and telling me to find my own way home — about 5km through the countryside, and I was about five years old. She was punishing me for causing mischief in the back seat, but she was also teaching me a larger lesson about overcoming my disabling shyness and learning to ask others for directions.
I got horribly lost, but eventually a neighbouring farmer helped me reach home. The experience made me learn to find the grit to overcome what may seem like overwhelming obstacles.
This has been a key principle in my business life. In a company’s first year, your goal should be simply to survive, and this is likely to take everything you’ve got. No matter how tired or afraid you are, you have to figure out how to keep going.
3. Put others first
There was always a focus on teamwork in our home — working in the garden, helping to prepare meals, cleaning up. I have two younger sisters, Lindi and Vanessa, and Mum always kept the three of us working hard. It certainly instilled a healthy work ethic in me, as many of my staff would point out!
If we tried to escape chores, she would explain how selfish that was by describing the effect on everyone else in our family. We were a team, and we had to be confident that we could rely on each other. This has always informed my business philosophy: people are the most important part of any company.
4. Keep your feet on the ground
When you start to become relatively well known, it can be easy to get carried away with your successes. (It can be especially hard to keep your head out of the clouds if you own a few airlines and have a taste for flying hot air balloons.) But my mother has always kept my feet firmly on the ground — metaphorically at least — partly because she knows me so well, and so she does not believe all the press.
She has rarely praised me in public; I was surprised but pleased when she admitted in a CNBC interview last year that she was proud of me, particularly of my charitable work. But she has always given me quiet, constant encouragement. Everyone in my family shows each other a lot of love, which is far more important than anything else.
5. Every day is a fresh chance to achieve something new
My mother has always seen every day as a fresh chance to achieve something new, fun and exciting. Even today, she is incredibly active, working very hard on all manner of projects. Right now she is working on a memoir, and she recently published a children’s book. We still have to fit our schedules around her plans.
Mum is always looking ahead, focused on trying to improve things and bring about positive change. Following her example, I am always focused firmly on the future too.
© 2013 New York Times Syndication