Simon Wright Featured

7:00pm EDT December 31, 2006
The entertainment industry is filled with people who subjugate their personalities to succeed, but Simon Wright, CEO of Virgin Entertainment Group International, says that never works. Wright oversees some 700 employees in the U.K.-based Virgin Group’s U.S. division, which has annual sales of about $200 million. The entertainment arm of Virgin encompasses music, radio, books, megastores, electronic gaming and even a music festival. Smart Business spoke with Wright about the role of a CEO and the importance of leading by example.

Listen to your people. One of the most frustrating things is not getting feedback for one reason or another.

I like to think, most of the time, I adopt an approachable style that allows people to talk to me readily. That allows me to understand them and to understand the situation.

I like to lead on the basis of fact, not supposition. I deal with the reality of the situation, which can sometimes be tough because reality can often not be easy.

Be yourself. When you get a person who is very effective and they’ve been promoted, they got a better job. Suddenly that person, who’s had an incredibly effective style up to that point, starts throwing their weight around in a way that’s not them. They can become incredibly ineffective.

You’ve got the CEO who stands up and says, ‘I’ve got an open door policy. Just come and talk to me whenever you want.’ If, in reality, his office door is closed all the time or [he] is very difficult to talk to, then it doesn’t ring true. You’ve got to watch your behavior every second to get a particular leadership style across to people.

Every little action you make, every little thing you say or don’t say can get picked up, and people take their views from that rather than what you say.

Don’t change your approach. Power corrupts. I’ve seen people where they get in that ultimate leadership position and they do not follow the principles they followed to get there in the first place.

They become arrogant. That’s always a shame, when you see somebody who should be able to do a brilliant job and they let it go to their head and they’ve lost track of all the reasons why they got there in the first place.

Be honest. We did some layoffs. ... My approach is, make a lot of the [positive business] results, address the issue of the layoffs absolutely square on and be very clear life is going to change. We’re going to have to adapt and move on all the time if we’re going to keep our results how they are.

You sacrifice the feel-good factor, but you gain more in the long term. The feel-good factor only lasts until they hear something to the contrary.

Get all the information. You shouldn’t make fundamental decisions on the back of an envelope. You do have to analyze things properly. A lot of basic business views can be developed on the back of quite a small bit of information.

Certainly you can get it to the stage of yes or no. You can’t necessarily get it to the stage of actual investment.

I’m not talking about making the final decision too quickly. I’m talking about a process whereby you can get things to a relatively advanced stage without too much analysis-paralysis. When you’re at the point where you’re actually making the decision, or a choice between two things, at that point you’ve got to do the analysis carefully.

Most important you’ve got to have the right people doing the analysis. The analysis is no good unless it’s hitting the right issue. Make your decision and have regard for the downside.

Keep everybody informed. We hold two companywide conferences every year. I also supplement that with meetings for all the staff and talk about what’s happening and so on, every six weeks. I send our HR department around before that meeting to canvas views on what people want to hear about so you’re communicating what people want, not just what you want.

I always finish off with a Q&A. A good way to get the Q&A going ... is [to] directly answer some of the questions you know people would ask.

Lead by example. If you are a CEO, you are a leader. The most effective leaders are quite understated.

You can identify sometimes the most high-profile leaders, the ones who seek all the glory and the credit for themselves, but the best leaders are the ones actually who lead fundamentally by example, are really all about what you’re getting done rather than what you’re saying you’re getting done. People respond to that.

‘Is he doing what he says he is going to do. Do I believe him? Will he listen to me? Is he hearing what I’m saying?’ All those things are fundamental leadership skills.

Be persistent. If you push hard enough, things will go the way you want them usually. The important thing is not to give up at the first hurdle.

Life can get pretty tough. People can be pretty tough with you at times. You can think that your options are diminishing by the minute, but if you keep pushing forward, you usually find the right route through it.

It’s when you throw your hands up in the air and go, ‘I can’t control this, it’s all the other people’s fault.’ That’s when it all goes wrong.

HOW TO REACH: Virgin Entertainment Group International, www.virgin.com/us/entertainment