Sir Richard Branson, the billionaire founder of Virgin Group, is known for his wild lifestyle. Branson may be 64, but you can still find him kite surfing in the Caribbean and developing a commercial space airline called Virgin Galactic.
So when he proclaims a technique to be “one of the most powerful tools” he has in his “bag of business tricks,” as he does in his new book The Virgin Way: Everything I Know About Leadership, you’d probably expect something esoteric or complicated.
But, in fact, his secret weapon is carrying an old-fashioned notebook with him everywhere he goes.
It’s a habit he says he developed growing up with dyslexia. If he were to have a chance at remembering anything, he says, he needed to write it down. And as a businessman, it’s what he chooses to write down that’s made his deceptively simple habit so valuable.
He says in his new book that one of his favorite things to do as chairman of Virgin is to be his own customer and take notes from his own observations and questions. For example, when he took a Virgin America flight out of Las Vegas on a hot day, he made note of how both he and other customers had no desire to use the routine hot towel that an employee presented to him. He read his observations to the proper people and got the hot towels for similar flights changed to cold ones.
The handwritten note habit has come in handy in management, negotiation, and even legal situations—he’s submitted his notebooks as evidence in lawsuits. He writes:
“A typical situation would be when someone says, ‘Well, Richard, as I recall when we last spoke in early March, we agreed to get a draft proposal to you by the end of April,’ and they are totally discombobulated by a response of, ‘Well, no, at least not according to my notes of our last conversation. At 3:15 p.m. on 7 February you promised you were going to have the complete business plan to us by 31 March at the latest.’ Nailed!”
Branson particularly prefers putting pen onto paper rather than finger onto keyboard because a sheet of paper doesn’t have tempting distractions to divert his attention in a meeting.
And he also uses notes for his own amusement. When his daughter Holly was little, he would make note of all the funny things she said, like “Daddy, Daddy, I know what sex is! And you and Mummy have done it twice,” he writes.
He says those archived notebooks came in handy on his daughter’s wedding day.