Leadership learnings on Necker Island – Part 1

Stuart and I have just spent an amazing four days on Necker Island as part of the Business Chicks & Virgin Unite Leadership Gathering, and while the island itself is beyond beautiful, the company and the conversations, both the agenda’d and those that happened over food, cocktails where what made it a truly remarkable week.

I wanted to share some of my take outs here, which will probably require a few posts – there was no shortage of inspiration delivered.

After arriving at Necker via James Bond-style speedboat, we checked back into the same beautiful cliff set villa that we’d stayed in on our last visit, and headed up to the Great House to join the rest of the Chicks (& a few good men!) for dinner.  One of the things that was especially lovely about this gathering was that all of the speakers were with us for the entire time, so in addition to hearing their presentations we were able to continue conversations with them in the pool, over drinks, dinner, on the beach, feeding the lemurs….. and all of the other fabulous activities on offer.

Our first presentation was from Jean Oelwang, CEO of Virgin Unite.  Jean spoke on the power that business has to make a difference, and of the need to turn the donor-giver mentality upside down into a view of a partnership where both parties benefit equally.  She talked of Virgin Unite’s desire to shine a spotlight on issues that aren’t getting a lot of attention, and build unlikely marriages that challenge society’s thinking.

Sadly her words on one of the great health challenges of the future are so true. For so long we have been focusing on improving health in developing countries, but are now faced with the need to add in the emerging health crisis of the developed world, where many of the diseases are of our own creation as a consequence of the lifestyle choices we are making.  Her view, which I share, is that obesity will be the smoking of our generation, and a couple of my recent experiences really illustrated this.  The level of gluttony on display on the cruise we recently went on was truly horrifying, with so many of the people so enormous that their ability to participate in activities was severely restricted.  As people’s ‘super size me’ mentality is converting them into super sized individuals, societies infrastructure is being challenged.  People just don’t fit into the spaces allocated to them anymore – the guy sitting next to me at the Taylor Swift concert last week took nearly as much of my seat as his own – and the transportation industry in particular is really feeling the squeeze (pardon the pun) as a result.

I digress (you can see why this is going to require more than one post!), but going back to Jean’s messages, she also talked about the obligation on leaders to give people the opportunity to make a difference, and that leaders who reward courageous behaviour make it safe to try new things.  Visible demonstrations of vulnerability by leaders gives teams permission to create, knowing they have the freedom to fail.  These are principles that we’ve always tried to install at Epic (‘seek forgiveness not permission’ is a term well known amongst our leadership team) so Jean’s words really resonated.

Next up was a quick chat from Richard Branson himself, on the islands many wildlife species and the commitment to conservation activities.  This is clearly bearing fruit, with 130 flamingos hatched on Necker just this year, and a population of 1000 giant iguanas now, a significant increase from the original 4 pairs!  

  The walking tour the following afternoon delivered first hand evidence of the success of the tortoise breeding program…

   There is definitely no shortage of incredible wildlife on Necker, but the lemurs are still my personal favourite!

All in all a pretty awesome morning, but it wasn’t over yet.  Next up were Mark Kelly and Gabby Giffords, and while I think most of us were familiar with Gabby’s story (she was shot in the head at point blank range while on official duties as a Congresswomen representing Arizona in 2011), I certainly wasn’t aware previously that her husband Mark was a NASA astronaut who is one of only 4 people to visit the International Space Station on four occasions.  He spoke about applying the decision making skills he learned at NASA during the critical early days of Gabby’s treatment.  We were spellbound as he spoke about the potential danger of group think and collaborative decision making, and that none of us individually are as dumb as all of us together can be.  He asked the doctors for their individual opinions, and started with the most junior doctor in the room so there was no risk of everyone just agreeing with the most senior opinion.

Now he and Gabby work together at the organisation they founded, Americans for Responsible Solution, which encourages elected officials to stand up for laws that make communities safer from gun violence.  With 100 people dying in the USA from gun violence every day, and 85% of children who die from gun violence in the developed world dying in the USA, there is clearly a big need for their work.  Gabby closed out the session with this simple and powerful message ‘Be passionate, be courageous, be a leader, and do your best each and every day’.  These are words she definitely lives by, and she inspired us all as she embodied these over the course of the next few days.

A funny aside, at dinner that night I sat down next to Stuart, gave him a little cuddle and then apologised profusely when Mark turned around and said hello!  Oops, wrong bald bloke…. The two of them were at great pains to point out their different coloured clothes, caps etc each day for the rest of the trip – until the final evenings white party where I was in high alert!

I think this has got plenty long enough so I’m going to pause here, but there’s lots more to come.

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