Partnering with purpose to create a better world

Jean Oelwang, CEO, Virgin Unite

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About the podcast

Jean Oelwang, CEO of Virgin Unite

Listen to Jean Oelwang, CEO of Virgin Unite, relate how she was instrumental in creating the foundation of Richard Branson’s Virgin Group, which brings together the business and not-for-profit worlds to scale change and create a better world.

20 years on Jean recounts what drew her from telcos into the impact sphere, how she observed and had a few ‘’light bulb’’ moments whilst incubating groups of great leaders, like Nelson Mandella, which became the inspiration to write her book on Partnering. Jean shares stories of people and companies who have connected with purpose and the rituals they maintain for success. She highlights the opportunity for businesses to change the world, how this impacts the bottom line, and shares advice for smaller businesses starting their journey.


Matt Heine (MH) (01:13):

Hi Jean, welcome to the show.

Jean Oelwang (JO) (01:14):

Hi, Matt. Thank you for having me.

MH (01:16):

Always fantastic to catch up and for some reason the last three podcasts that I've done with people dialling in from America, everyone seems to be at the snow. So you're in Park City at the moment

JO (01:27):

In Park City and there is an incredible storm right now, which is just beautiful to see all the snow. Really incredible.

MH (01:33):

And you've had a good start to the year.

JO (01:34):

Yeah, it's been pretty crazy. We went to Davos and did a big thing with one of our new initiatives, planetary Guardians, but it was really great. How about you?

MH (01:43):

I had a good start to the year, although it started very quickly, so absolutely back on the treadmill and feeling good about this year. Now Jean, you're over in Australia for our summit tour. It's probably getting close to six months ago, 400 of our clients got to come along and listen to your story. But for the benefit of those, just hearing from you for the first time, I thought we might go right back to the beginning if that's all right. And hear a little bit about your career and how you went from, I think it was working at dairy, be through to what you're doing now. We're working with some of the most incredible leaders of our time,

JO (02:15):

And firstly, just thanks for having me at the summit. What an amazing community. You could just feel the energy in that room. It was extraordinary. And so thank you for that. And yes, my very first job was actually at a place called Dairy Queen and I was a server there and then I was a cocktail waitress at Binny and Flynn's, a Mexican, kind of a very strange mix, a Mexican Irish pub and then from there into mainly telecommunications and then Virgin United.

MH (02:43):

That's quite a big leap. Had you always planned to go into telecommunications or how did you end up there? Yeah,

JO (02:48):

I was really lucky, Matt, in the university that I went to Penn State. I got the job right out of university and it was this amazing telecom, it was called GTE and they had an opportunity where you could work in three different parts of the company over 18 months. And so it was a fantastic opportunity and then I worked with them for a while and then I had a really exciting opportunity to work for a company called Cable and Wireless where we were building mobile phone companies all over the world out of London. And then I started my own company and worked with a partner and we went and helped people set up mobile phone companies.

MH (03:22):

What year was that? That was mid nineties was it? Or earlier?

JO (03:26):

It was the late eighties and into the nineties, and I did that for probably, it was probably about 16, 18 years. And we moved from country to country. It was kind of the wild west of the mobile phone industry. And we moved from country to country to help build mobile phone companies and would stay anywhere from a year up to five or six years helping build the company, get it set up, and then help bring in an incredible management team.

MH (03:52):

We've talked about it a couple of times in the past, but for you coming into that industry as a younger person and a female, I think it created some challenges for you along the way. And I'd just love to hear some of your stories about how you actually faced into that and how you dealt with it.

JO (04:05):

It was an incredibly exciting industry. It was so new, but there wasn't many females sitting around the table. I think usually I was probably the singular female at the table or maybe there was another one. And so that was just something that for me was a learning experience about how probably just not to lose myself in not having many female role models around me at the time and how to make sure that I could hold my grounds. And especially because I was working so many different cultures and they all were radically different whether it was Bulgaria or in South Africa or in Columbia or in the UK or the us. So it was also about learning how to keep who I was and what my true authentic self was within those cultures. And as a female being one of the only females at the table.

MH (04:55):

And when you think back on some of those times, did you have strong mentors that helped you develop into your career or what were some of the lessons that you remember?

JO (05:03):

That's a good question. And I think I was really fortunate that I had some fantastic bosses along the way. I was actually just in South Africa with a team of people that we all worked together in 1995, and there's about 30 of us that still stay in touch. And I think that was in large part because an amazing mentor and boss I had named Steve Goody. And so I was very fortunate to have these leaders along the way, whether they were part of the company or whether they were outside of the company that were always a great sounding board. And for me that was really important, Matt, because I feel like I lost my way a little bit over those 18 years. I think I was so focused on proving that as a female I could break every glass ceiling on my own and the more and the higher and higher I got up in the company, I think the more and more when I got to CEO level or board levels, the more I felt more alone and less myself. And I really kind of had to recalibrate. And I think those mentors around me helped me to recalibrate. And I would recommend to any leader that's going up in a company to have that handful of mentors like this, almost like this trusted advisory group that is there to really give you an outside perspective because sometimes when you're in the middle of it, as we all know, it's really hard to see the solutions.

MH (06:22):

And I've heard you talk about this before and that idea that you had to do it alone, that you could do it alone, and ultimately that that led to burnout. At what point did you realise just how important it was to actually have a team around you and to rely on those with you? I

JO (06:35):

Think I probably realised it in a significant way when I had moved into the Virgin Group working at Virgin Unite, the not-for-profit of the Virgin Group. And I was watching, we were incubating this group called the Elders, and it was people like Mandela, his wife Grassa, Archbishop Tutu, president Carter, and now Helen Clark is part of that group from New Zealand. But I was watching these leaders and I was thinking how did they become who they were in the world? And for me it was this big light bulb moment that they became who they were because the relationships they'd formed around themselves, whether it was their romantic partner, whether it was their business partner, whether it was their family. And I think for me, Matt, before that, and I don't know about you, but I think for a lot of us, right from the time we're in grade school almost, we're taught that we have to get that gold star, we have to be the top of the class, we have to be the top of the sports game, and we're not really taught how to partner.


And it was at that moment in sitting there watching these leaders and I had put them up on a pedestal thinking they were these superheroes and in reality they weren't superheroes. They were this really this beautiful mix of all the relationships that they'd shaped and nurtured in their lives. And that's really what success is about. And the more I've seen people that have been really successful, really incredible companies, really incredible business leaders, they have this secret power at the centre that's around how they collaborate and how they partner. And for me, that was that awakening moment. And I think before that I thought particularly as a female, that I had to prove it and that I had to do it myself and that I had to have all the right answers that I couldn't fail. And that was just this awakening where also it's this group that when you fail, you fail together. And so it makes those failures a much shorter fall. And when you're on your

MH (08:23):

Own, you've obviously written a book about this and you move from the telco industry into Virgin Unite, how did that happen and at what point did you realise that maybe you needed something more with purpose?

JO (08:34):

And it was interesting because when I was in the telco sector, my first major job, GTE and I had a chance to become a Vista volunteer, which is a domestic Peace Corps volunteer. So working in America and I ended up in Centre City Chicago working with homeless teens and with refugees from Vietnam. And that was a massive turning point for me in my life. It was only, I was there for about a year and a half, but it was such an awakening call, Matt, that our systems are so broken. We were letting the kids that I was working with in that shelter, they were as young as 13 years old, 17 years old, and it was government failing them. It was business failing them. It was a not-for-profit sector, they were just falling through the cracks. And we had hundreds of them living with us in the shelter.


And so for me that was this moment of wow, how do we change these systems? And that's when I became really passionate about going back into the business world to really understand how business can play a major role. And I was fortunate at that stage to have a chance to work in South Africa, helping start up a mobile phone company. And this is going to tell you how ancient I am, but it was one of the first prepaid services, but we launched, we were all excited and we launched our first prepaid service in South Africa and we made our annual sales target in one month. And we went into the townships and realised that people had taken these prepaid phones and they started businesses out of a trailer selling phone calls out of a briefcase on the street corner. And it was again this light bulb moment around the power we have as companies to really drive scaled change in the world. And there's no way that we're going to drive the change we need to, unless businesses play a great role in that. And the good news is that research companies just capital and others have really proven that it's also fantastic for our bottom line to have that purpose front and centre.

MH (10:29):

Yeah, it's really interesting just to see how important having a community involvement and footprint has become for our staff, certainly for retaining great talent, but also attracting new talent. And I think that's to your point about the bottom line, it's an unintended consequence, but an important one,

JO (10:44):

And it's so inspiring. I remember watching you at this gathering we were at and you jumped right in to help support this extraordinary architect doing amazing work in Africa. And that's the kind of stuff that also makes your team and your staff so proud to be part of something bigger, to be part of something that really matters. And I know you're doing a tonne of work also in Australia, and I think weaving that in as part of a company, it allows people to bring their whole selves to work as well, not just a piece of them, only the mind side. They're bringing their heart side too, which is really important. It makes them want to engage more in the company. And

MH (11:20):

So you came up with the idea to have a bigger impact and get business involved in the community and having an impact. How did Virgin Unite come about?

JO (11:28):

Yeah, so I was really lucky in Australia actually. I went to work for Optus and then I went to work for the National Parks and Wildlife Service in Australia. And I was there for about a year and I got a call from Virgin saying, would you help us start up our mobile phone company in Australia? So I went across and did that with Virgin Mobile, an amazing team there. And then I was happened to be, and Richard Branson was on our board, but he never really came to board meetings. I don't think he came to one, but he did come to Australia. I remember being in a car with him and overhearing him talk about, oh, that he wanted to do more philanthropically. I went home and I'd been with Virgin Mobile Australia for about four years at that stage, five years. And so I went home that night.


I talked to one of my board members who knew Richard well, and I said, Hey, what if I put an idea together to create a foundation? He was one of my mentors and he encouraged me to do that. So I did that and I sent the plan to him and to Richard. And then Richard called me one day, and I'll never forget Matt, I was in my house in Australia in Rosell. He answered the phone and we talked a little bit about the plan and the idea, and then he said, let's do this move to London. So I hung up, the phone danced around the entire house. For me, this was my dream. This was like, how do you put together the business world, the not-for-profit world and really scale change and how do you bring together this community of extraordinary people to do that? And so I quickly found someone to replace me. I was joint CEO at the time at Virgin Mobile and then moved to London. And that was 20 years ago. Exactly this year.

MH (13:05):

An incredible effort. Congratulations on the 20 year anniversary.

JO (13:08):

Yeah, well thank you. And so many people that we've partnered with in Australia who've just done amazing work.

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MH (13:13):

So Virgin Unite, I think people will have heard about it but not necessarily know the work that you're doing. And in particular, I think the work that you've done with the elders and now with the planetary guardians, it'd be great if you could just talk a little bit about that.

JO (13:26):

And Matt, we're a strange little, I guess an entrepreneurial engine rather than a foundation. And we wanted to start when we started 20 years ago and run ourselves like a business. So one of the things we really challenge ourselves to do is we never do anything alone. So we always leverage whatever funds we put in by seven times by bringing together other partners, and that way we can have way more impact than if we did it on our own. So we kind of started out with that principle that we were going to hold ourselves accountable to impact and to building partnerships. And we became really this little engine that changes unacceptable issues and systems for good. So we do that sometimes with our voice and advocacy. We do a lot of standing up against unacceptable issues like ending the death penalty or L-G-B-T-Q rights. So we do a lot of that type of work.


We do a lot of supporting frontline entrepreneurs, which you see on the ground with our amazing partner Jane Touson from Igniting Change where we support all different kinds of issues, whether that be Aboriginal issues like with Jane Vlu or whether that be refugees. So a whole host of things in Australia. But one of the other things we really got passionate about is how do we bring together these amazing collectives of leaders that can then help drive systemic change in the world? And the first one that we incubated was something called the Elders. And it was an idea that Richard and Peter Gabriel had and they thought, what if we brought together a group of leaders who have no other agenda but that of humanity and the planet because they're out of office. And so they came together with Nelson Mandela and Grassa Michelle and brought together 12 extraordinary leaders to work on behalf of humanity for peace and human rights.


And that initiative now has gone from strength to strength over the last 20 years. Sadly, it's probably needed now more than ever in the world with all the issues we're facing. After we did that one, then we started to think unless we change the way we do business, then we're still having these conversations for years and decades to come. So we built the B Team, which is a group of business leaders working together and changing the way the world does business. And then the most recent one was Planetary Guardians where we really looked at bringing together, now it's 17 incredible leaders, really lifting the science to help us live with planetary boundaries. And it's really interesting, Matt, because I think one of the things that I've learned over this journey of building 18 of these is very often when we're in companies and we're in our industry, we don't realise the power we have to convene others and bring together are sometimes our competitors, sometimes our partners, to really drive some type of systemic change within our industry.


And what I've learned through this process is just that power when you bring partners together that come across divides in particular the extraordinary things that we can do. So I think for your amazing group that you bring together at your summit, the power in that room to change the world by coming together across different issues, across looking in the finance sector, how can we build companies that have more shared ownership? How can we look at how we change the boards to put more purpose at the centre? And everyone in your extraordinary community has the power to do that.

MH (16:45):

It's an interesting point, and certainly I think the nature of the industry in which is about helping people live better financial lives and better financial futures, they're inherently already having an impact on the people that they work with. But a lot of the conversations we're having now, and certainly what we're seeing businesses do is trying to understand how they can have a bigger impact, typically smaller businesses, what advice would you have for smaller businesses that are starting on the journey?

JO (17:08):

I think for a smaller company, obviously they need to make sure that they're sustainable and they're going to be there for the long run, the most important thing for their clients. So making sure that they have a well run business. But I think the beauty of that small business, sitting with their team members and figuring out what makes them passionate, what makes their hearts sing, what builds that bonfire in their belly and figuring that out. And then also then sitting with the people in their direct community and their customers and figuring out what their passionate about and then creating in the start something magic with those communities around them so that they can start to drive change that links back to their core business. It doesn't have to be something distinct separate, but that will help them build a better business and a better company because build better relationships with their customers, with their team members, more retention.


And so I think it's starting like that. And then I think over time as they get to be bigger organisations, it's thinking about, okay, can I team up with three of my competitors or three people that we partner with or that have a similar industry and maybe look at how we change incentive structures that really encourage more purpose at the centre? Or how can we look at creating pathways to look at how we live with planetary boundaries? So for me, those are the opportunities of our lifetime. They're aware new businesses are going to be created, they are aware the growth is going to happen because we're going to have to drive that change as human beings and businesses and entrepreneurs, particularly in the finance industry because they're going to be the ones financing it, and they also have the ones, the power to drive that change. There is such an opportunity to create that future that we all dream about.

MH (18:55):

Is that really the premise behind the B team as well? I think from memory, the B team comes from the fact that the Plan A didn't work. And it was really important that businesses started to think about what are the other options and alternatives and how do we, to your point, get together with other businesses to make an impact?

JO (19:10):

And I have to tell you a funny joke about that name because I remember sitting in a car and it was Richard and Jochen sites who was the founder, Puma, who was helping us start the B team. And we had all of these different names and we were literally stuck in traffic in Brazil on the way to cop for three hours. And so we had a three hour argument about what this name should be, and they ended up on the B team mainly because they wanted to show humility that they were the B team, not the A team that the A team was all the other partners, et cetera that they're going to work with. So that's where they landed on the B team. But it was a heated debate to get there. Yeah, the B team started because we started to think about we were doing all this work around peace and human rights and we were doing all this work around health, but then kind of all roads led back to business because the way we do business is driving so many of the opportunities and the issues in the world.


And so if we change the way we do business to really put people in planet at the centre, it will create better businesses and it will also create change in the world. So that was kind of the premise of it. And we got together this extraordinary collection of leaders in the beginning who dreamt about that, who had done that in their own businesses and really started focusing on how do we move companies towards net zero? How do we look at building transparency in companies? Ibrahim had a beautiful line when we launched the B team. He said, if we're going to be naked, we better look good. And that was kind of the transparency, Dawn, which we're coming into even more now with AI and with, so it's how do we figure out how we build those businesses that are going to be strong, they're going to be transparent, but they're also going to be good for the bottom. And just capital has shown that again and again and again, that companies that deliver to people in the planet, particularly people are outperforming financially. Those that

MH (21:27):

One of the things that's also very apparent is that you can save the world but also have a lot of fun doing it. How important is fun in everything that you do? It's

JO (21:34):

Super important, Matt, because I think if we don't wake up and want to jump out of bed and want to do what we do every day, then we need to really reassess that. And I think part of that is having joy and fun. And I'll tell you two lessons I learned from two people that I deeply respect, and one of them is Richard, and I remember Matt, I came from corporate America, so blue tie, high white shirt stocking completely buttoned up. And that was my career and my life really until I came to Virgin. And I remember having these meetings with Richard and we went to these gatherings, which you've experienced these as well. And I remember when we first started, I had us working from eight in the morning till six at night with maybe a break for lunch. And so I had this agenda and I was, okay, let's go.


And I remember meeting with Richard and he just laughed at me and he ripped up my agenda and he's like, no way. He's like, we are only going to work from eight in the morning till noon. We're going to have playtime in the afternoon and then we'll come back together for a meal. And I was like, no way. These people are coming so far, they're going to want to maximise their time. And he's like, no. And it was one of the best decisions. And he made that decision almost 19 years ago now. And it was probably one of the best decisions that we've made and a huge learning for me because it was that joy and that fun and that play in the afternoon where really people got to know each other and trust each other, and that's really where the magic happens. That's where the people came together and came up with ideas and thought about things that they could do together, was in those afternoons.


And the other person that I learned about joy from was Archbishop Tutu because every single room that he went into, he just lit it up with his laughter and his dancing and his playfulness, and he wasn't afraid to be silly. He wasn't afraid to be vulnerable and be silly and filled with joy. And he said something to a friend of mine once, which I was standing there with her and it stuck with me, which is joy is a discipline and we often think joy should just be always spontaneous and we should never manufacture it. But he really made it a discipline where he really thought about it and brought it into the room. And I think it's something so important to think about because if you don't do that often, the joy doesn't spark. Often you're just sitting in meeting after meeting after meeting and not bringing in that joy and that laughter and that love. And we all get into those places where we forget that. But then tutu's little laughter always rings in my head and reminds me that joy is a discipline and it's our responsibility, each one of us, particularly in leadership roles, to bring that joy into the room.

MH (24:20):

And you say joy is a discipline, but not necessarily always easy. When people are busy, the kids are screaming, you are running from meeting to meeting. What are some of the things that you do to make sure that you do bring joy to the room?

JO (24:31):

And I first have to say, I don't always get it right. I go into periods where I'm in my work mode and I won't do that for ages. But I think a couple things that we do now as a team, particularly during Covid when we were really vulnerable together is we made sure that we had these really ridiculously silly moments where we would do karaoke on our zoom calls or we would have something else really ridiculously silly or fun to do. And we again made sure that we kind of cook that in. And even in our gatherings right now, we will make people dance. We will make people do something that's out of their comfort zone. I can't tell you the number of people that come to me afterwards and they say, my God, I would never have dreamt of thinking doing that, and it was the most fun I've ever had.


And so it's like it's just creating that space for it I think is really, really, really important. And no matter how silly or how trivial it is, but it's just creating that space for it. And the other thing that my team actually told me yesterday, because we've been so heads down building planetary guardians that we haven't had enough joy and they were like, okay, we need to start coffee breaks now where we all just come on a zoom call and we just have time to laugh and be together. And so it's just, again, making sure that you build the time in and the space in or it won't happen, and that you also build that time and space and moments where people really can let their halo down and relax and have fun,

MH (25:58):

Which can be difficult when you are working remotely in different places of the world.

JO (26:02):

Absolutely. Which is why, again, Jess on our team yesterday said, okay, we're doing coffee breaks. We had a little goodbye session to someone on Friday, and we got into this mode, we were all giggling and laughing, and we were like, wow, that was so nice to have even 15 minutes just of fun and relaxation. And so I think she was right that we need to book that in because we haven't had that for many months, just as you said. We've been so head down, launching it, building it, but I think it's really important to build that in

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MH (26:33):

Jen. So far we've had some fantastic insights and learnings. If you could maybe spend sharing some of the stories from your book and some of the things you've learned from the power partnerships.

JO (26:43):

The book was a journey too, because it was something that started out just as a, like we were going to look at 10 romantic partners in the beginning and leave it at that. And then we interviewed Ben and Jerry and everything changed. And so I'll talk about them a little bit first. They were the ones that really made it from a nice to have romantic book to a book that really looked at all of these extraordinary successful partnerships and people and realised that their secret power was their ability to partner and to collaborate. And I think sometimes we miss that, Matt. We build boards, we build teams, and very often we think of people's expertise and skills. Maybe they're influencing power, but we very often don't often think about their relationships with one another and making sure at the centre of that team or that board or that you have people that have relationships that can actually model great values and model of the behaviours to help speed up that process of building a great team.


And when we did all these interviews, I became obsessed with how do we code this wisdom? So we literally coded thousands of pages of transcripts from 65 plus partnerships and came up with this six degrees of connection framework that can be used in a company, it can be used in your individual life, it can be used to build these big collaborations. And these were these incredibly beautiful patterns that were common amongst all 65 plus of those partnerships, whether they were friends, family, business leaders. And so as I mentioned, one of them was Ben and Jerry, and they helped us really model some of these six degrees because they didn't build just an ice cream company. They built a company that they wanted it to change the world. They wanted this ice cream company to make a massive difference. And that was the genesis of them building this.


And so there's something bigger, as they called. It was really an ice cream company that was going to really stand up for human rights and really stand up in the world to try to j drive change. And that was at the centre when they built it. And I asked them, I remember sitting in their interview and asking them, how did you make Ben and Jerry successful? And they both just burst into laughter and they just kept on saying We were all in with each other. And I've never, I think in my life, heard in a business setting the word love so much and how they talked about how they had a deep love for each other, for their teams, how they built the company from the start. And so the second degree really came out of that conversation with them, which was being all in.


And to them that meant a hundred percent having each other's backs. And you can see even when you're together, they've been business partners for decades, but you never see a slight bit of language or a moment of body language even that betrays the other one. They have this deep friendship that again, and I think building that type of trust in our organisations, and that really was the third degree, which was this sense of this. They all had these extraordinary values and we ended up calling the ecosystem of virtues because they were things that they lived every single day. Trust and respect were the two top ones at the very beginning. And again, you could see that with Ben and Jerry is that they had such trust and respect for each other that they were never going to betray one another. But they also had deep generosity and humility.


They used to giggle and laugh and say the beautiful thing was is neither one of us could have done the other one's job. They were so good at it. One was the ops guy and one was the visionary guy, and they had these rituals where they came together as a team, Ben and Jerry, every single weekend when I was there, I was a Friday and we finished the interview and they went and they literally picked up this cooler of ice cream to take with them. And then they were going to go on a boat trip that weekend. They bought a shared boat together, so they had these rituals of play that they came together with as well. And then they also had these kind of modes of when they got into a fight, how they would make sure that that disagreement didn't ruin the partnership.


And one that always sticks in my mind is something they called veto power. So if one of them couldn't agree on something when they were having an argument, but it was really important to the other one, they could raise a veto card and they would just stop the discussion and not move forward. And they said they used that really rarely, but when they used it, it actually saved their company. And so they were an amazing business partnership that built this trust and this friendship. And there was another business partnership called Draper Richards Kaplan, and they were an amazing group of partners that came together. They were an impact investing house and they also had a financial investment house. And they talked about how they looked at their incentive structures in their company and they took out all the incentives that actually had people competing against one another, and they replaced those incentives so that instead of competing with each other, they were competing with how they could make altogether as a collective, how much difference they could make in others' lives.


And they said that that simple thing of changing their incentive structures moved them to what they called play like a symphony. So they would each play their part in their role and used their skillset to create this extraordinary business and extraordinary company. And again, a key factor in that interview was around humility. And all of them were a top of their game, top of their industry in the investment sector. But they all had this deep humility to understand that they could learn from one another and from their partners. And the other beautiful thing about them is they looked at their investment portfolio not as a separate customer far away from, they brought them in from a proximity perspective and had them as part of their family and as part of their company. And that drove the significant change too, where they said that their founders then had much more open and vulnerable conversations with them because they felt that they were in a much safer place that was built based on trust and respect.

MH (33:01):

I think the rituals is a really interesting point, and as you've said a couple of times in those two examples, they're actually very different people from what I read in the book. So Ben and Jerry, I think you talked about how, I can't remember if it was Ben or Jerry, but they would literally follow each other around the factory cleaning up the mess after one of the other ones.

JO (33:17):

Yeah, they had this really funny line where they talk about how Ben used to walk around the store floor, the manufacturing floor, saying he used to swear left, right and centre and say, that's broken, that's not working. Fix that. And then you'd have Jerry coming behind him and saying, what Ben really meant to say was, this is how you do it and this is how you do it. So they just complimented each other so beautifully. And we saw that Matt, in so many of the 65 plus partnerships where you had these opposites that were radically different, we ended up calling it the electric current of difference that came to together. And that's really where the sparks and the magic happen. And we talked to a lot of people that are frightened of conflict, but what these partners found is that they could take that friction and turn it into something that was what they called the sparkles, these incredible moments of learning. And they all learned how to disagree without being disagreeable. And I feel like today in today's world, we are so far from that we are just, you can see everywhere you go, whether it's in business or in politics, people are in their corners and we've not held that space of respect where you get people across divides to really listen to one another and you don't have to agree with them, but you can hold that space of respect Still,

MH (34:35):

Jenny, some of those circumstances, I think there's probably serendipity or luck that comes to play that those two people actually came together at the same time, I guess through all the interviews, once that sort of magic was identified, how did they go building a team around them that had that same energy and the same sort of natural conflict, but also cohesion? Yeah,

JO (34:54):

And what was really interesting is, I think you're right that a lot of it happens just when partners come together. It happens just out of serendipity. But one of the things that really stuck in my mind that two partners that are radically different, Cornell West and Robert George, there are political figures in America that are opposite end of the spectrum. They said something really important at the interview, they said, go out and find a friend that unsettles you. And what a lot of these folks did is they went out and built these partnerships with people that were radically different, that made them feel uncomfortable. So they helped them challenge them to their better self and learn from them. We saw that again and again. Then how they built these teams. One of the most important things that came out of all these interviews on how they built beyond themselves as a partnership into something wider was this concept of something bigger and really, really as a company, for example, all the companies that we interviewed really had clearly defined what was that something bigger?


Why were they in this world? What was the importance that they were going to bring to this world? The difference they we're going to make to people? And that didn't have to be like if you look at an ice cream company, you may think, oh my God, that's not a world-changing company. But it was because they built that into their philosophy and how they marketed their products. So I think that was really important for the cohesion because then if you have disagreements, they all seem almost non-relevant, just so small when you put them against what your purpose is. And then I think the second thing that all of them did is they really live their values. And this goes back to ideally in a company having partnerships at the centre who have those deep connections, who can live those values and model those values. So if others then are going out of line or they're doing something that's disruptive that isn't good for the collective, those people can call them out because they hold that centre and don't allow that kind of BS, to be honest around the edges.


But the other thing they all had were these rituals. And the one that I love the most is from the founders of Airbnb, Nate and Joe and Brian. And one of the things that they did with their team is they started something called Elephants, dead Fish and vomit. And they brought their team together at least once a month, and they had people talk about the elephants in the room that no one was talking about, but that we know were there and they needed to address them. They had them talk about the dead fish that everyone was talking about, but no one was doing anything about. Then the vomit was just purely to let people get things off their chest. And when I talked to Joe about this, he talked about how that ritual actually brought them all closer because it allowed them to have this safe space to have honest conversations.


It stopped the back chat when they were out of the room because they had this chance to have conversations. And so those rituals, and some of them were also just pure fun rituals, like innocent drinks in London and other set of co-founders that I love, they had a tonne of rituals where they made sure once a quarter that they took the team somewhere extraordinary fun, and they just had three days of just play together. And a lot of them had, or they had once a month, they had the open CEO door where they had three shared CEOs. And so anyone could come into that room and talk, have a conversation with the three CEOs directly. So a lot of it was about proximity. But I think one of the biggest lessons that I learned about proximity and listening and kind of that cohesion of how you really build a company and keep it across different divisions together is probably from Richard.


And I remember with Virgin Australia, we had just launched the business in Australia. We were all excited as a leadership team. We went running back up to the boardroom and we were waiting for Richard to do a debrief. He never came to the meeting. And so we're like, where is he? And we're looking all over the building. We're thinking, oh, maybe he just is in the pub. He didn't want to come back. And then we found him sitting in the customer service centre with a pair of headphones on and he had his notebook and he was listening to the customers and he was listening to the customer service stuff. And he then came back to the boardroom for our meeting with his notebook of 30 things about what we needed to change and what we were doing wrong. And that was such an important lesson about when you're building a company and when you're building these partnerships at the centre, who you build the partnerships with and who you listen to and not forgetting that some of the most important people in your company are the ones that are approximate to your customers, to the people that really matter.

MH (39:33):

I remember hearing him tell that story, and I think it's actually quite a common trait of his, where he's happy for people to make mistakes as long as it's fixed within 24 hours.

JO (39:44):

I remember I had this moment of panic. He literally ends out of his 30 points, I'd say that 25 of them were spot on and right. And you're right, he has an expectation, but it wasn't 24 hours. So we had this meeting in the morning, and by the time we all went to lunch, he's like, why isn't that fixed? Why isn't that fixed? Why isn't that fixed? So I think his set of time is just a little bit shrunken.

MH (40:07):

Jane, every time I catch up with you, it's like drinking from a fire hydrant of ideas, information, and inspiration. Where can our listeners get some further information on many of the things that you've talked about? What are the best resources they should look at?

JO (40:21):

And thank you, Matt, and thanks for letting me share. I know I get overly excited sometimes because I'm so excited about the work I do. One place you can go is plus where you can get, there's videos there, there's stories there from all 65 plus partnerships, and then also to the Virgin Unite website as well. And there is, again, a lot of the projects I talked about, like the elders, the B team, and across everything. We're always looking for wonderful partners to work with and really excited to scale this work because with Plus wonder, our mission is really how do we move this world away from being so hyper individualistic to really creating these partnerships of purpose and collaboration.

MH (41:01):

That's wonderful. Jane, thank you so much as always, for your time. Look forward to keeping in touch, and hopefully we'll see you in Australia soon. Yeah,

JO (41:07):

Thank you Matt, and thanks for all you do.

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