What makes Richard Branson so successful at creating companies that dominate dozens of different niches?

I recently heard his answer to the question.  Someone had asked him how he was able to create so many successful companies, in so many unrelated fields.

The crux of his answer?

“I go to the best company in the industry, and I hire the #2 person in that company.”

Now, you might assume this is just a people play.  And perhaps even Sir Richard thinks so, too.

But I think there’s more to this move than meets the eye.

It’s one thing to poach top talent.  But why doesn’t he go after the #1 player?  I’m sure it’s not just that they’re harder to get — even though that’s probably true.  Sir Richard has a powerful enough aura right now that if he wanted to get the #1 at many of the companies, I think he could lure them away.

There’s something else to be said for Richard choosing the #2.

It’s about different roles, and different strengths…

I’ve been re-reading the book Traction, which lays out an “Entrepreneurial Operating System” meant to be installed into almost any business.  I’m actually using it to plan and build my business, so I’m really digging into the details.

In the book, Gino Wickman talks about the people that lead a business.

In analyzing and directly working with thousands of different companies, Wickman has come to an interesting conclusion about the people at the top of a business.

Specifically, he’s identified two very distinct (and often conflicting) personalities that exist at the top of most very successful businesses.  And my experience bears this out, so I’m inclined to agree.

The Visionary and The Integrator…

The Visionary…

The visionary is the classic entrepreneurial stereotype.  Someone with a grand vision to change the world, and build a company to both foster that change and make themselves wealthy.  They always dream big, and have a new idea every day.

The upside of a Visionary is that every grand idea can inject new life and new direction into the business.  The downside of a Visionary is that their new ideas don’t stop, and a new direction every day is counter-productive to actually building a business.

I’m definitely most comfortable in the Visionary role, and this is definitely Richard Branson’s strong suit.  He has a customer experience in an industry that is beneath his standards, he comes up with a grand vision of how to transform it completely and delight customers, and a day later he has the entire framework for a business.

The Integrator…

On the flip side of the Visionary is the Integrator.  This is the consummate manager.  They get all the pieces of the business working together, like a finely-tuned machine.  They make sure the vision is fully executed, and the business stays focused on its big goals.

Their biggest strength in most businesses is an ability to offset the Visionary’s daily deluge of grand ideas.  To put all the new ideas in the context of the 101 priorities the business is already pursuing, and figure out how the new idea fits with other initiatives that aren’t fully executed yet.

The upside of an Integrator is they keep everything on track and make sure things get all the way done in a business.  The downside of an Integrator is that they’re often so caught up in working in the business, that they don’t step back and work on a business, and develop a big vision of where the business could go and what it could accomplish.

The grand dance of tomorrow and today…

The Visionary lives in the tomorrow.  The Integrator lives in the today.

Imagining a bright tomorrow without getting today’s work done leads to a business full of false starts, under-delivering on its potential.

Focusing on today without thinking about where to go tomorrow leads to a business that never seems to go anywhere, but it runs really well within its limited scope.

Combining these two is magical.

It creates a business that combines grand vision with how to actually get in there and execute, and runs well while in pursuit of a big goal.

Since it’s incredibly rare for one person to be able to fill both roles, you’ll often see a pair behind most really great business successes.  In some cases, it’s incredibly obvious who fills what role.

But even if it’s not visible to the public, behind the scenes there’s usually a clear division of roles, based on each player’s personalities.  One person thinks about tomorrow.  One, about today.  One focuses on where the business is headed.  The other, in making it run well while it gets there.

Back to where we started…

Why recruiting a #2 can be such an effective strategy…

Take a clear visionary like Richard Branson.  From what I understand, he couldn’t run operations in a business to save his life.  It’s not what he does.

But he has a crystal clear vision of what a business would have to look like to dominate a niche within just a few years.

So as soon as he gets a vision like this, he goes and finds the Integrator who will turn that vision into reality.

In most companies, the #1 person is the person with that Visionary role.  But just underneath them is the #2 role, who serves as a buffer between the Visionary and the rest of the organization — the Integrator.

That person knows how to get things done.  They know how to translate the grand vision into an on-the-ground reality.  And they know how to deal with a Visionary, which can be a tough enough job in itself!

So Branson picks off that person, and gives them the role of executing a new vision.

They’ve proven themselves.  They’ve risen to the #2 position in the #1 company in the niche.  They know the industry, and how to make a company within that industry hum.  This is everything a good Visionary needs to know to trust that they’ll be able to execute a new vision for the industry.

It gets personal…

One of my original mentors in business is, I see now, the perfect Integrator.

Visionaries have a tendency to get a company off the ground but then hit a ceiling, often around $1 million per year.  Because once you hit a certain point, if you don’t have that Integrator, your business is not supported by the systems and processes it needs for growth.

What my friend and mentor has a history of doing is stepping into a business at this point, and getting everything in order.  Getting all the pieces working well and consistently.  Building a team that’s all working together to execute.  Developing systems and structures that support growth in the $1 million to $10 million and beyond.

And, profitability skyrockets.  Because a Visionary creates a mess that’s a bit expensive to maintain.  An Integrator cleans up that mess, which makes it run better and more efficiently.

Without speaking too much out of turn, I know when he moved on from the company we worked at together, profitability plummeted, and they had to hit somewhere around 2X to 3X revenue before they even has the same net profits.  Their revenue per employee hasn’t ever recovered, to the best of my knowledge.

Here are questions to ask yourself…

A lot of my readers are solo-entrepreneurs.  If that’s you, you have to play both of these roles in your business, at different times.  You have to plan for where you want to go, then spend a lot of your time making sure you get there.

But if you’re either building a bigger business, or want to, you need to ask yourself…

— What role or personality best represents me?  How can I embrace that role and make that the core focus of my contribution to the company?

— Does my company already have someone else that is filling the alternate role?  How can I help them fulfill that role even better?

— Or, do I need to more proactively seek out someone to hire or partner with to fulfill the alternate role, to create a bigger future for the company?

(Oh, and if you have two people filling either role, that will be a cause for stress, strife, and will likely significantly hamper business growth.  In this case, there either needs to be a separation of ways or a repositioning of roles so there’s no overlap.)

Having the right people fulfilling the right roles in your business can be a tremendous breakthrough.  And it starts with these two roles and personalities at the top.

Yours for bigger breakthroughs,

Roy Furr

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