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Connecting the employer brand to the Virgin story

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How has Virgin Group built and amplified its employer brand across more than 60 companies? We speak to Future Talent 2016 speaker, Virgin’s head of people strategy Amy Sawbridge, about the challenges and benefits.

What’s your personal Virgin story?

I started with Virgin Mobile in 2008. It was an exciting time as it hadn’t fully transitioned into the ‘bigger beast’ that is Virgin Media. People were concerned about the transition, as they didn’t want to lose the culture they had grown, organically. I networked closely with other teams and the change was positive. I moved to Virgin Management in 2011.

My mission is to help create the best employee experience possible, and ensure consistency across the globe.

Tell us about the people team

Seven of us in the people strategy team work across four territories: the UK, North America, South Africa and Australia. Members of Virgin Group’s people team make up 1,000 of the 70,000-strong employee population. Two-thirds of employees are based in the UK; we’re still very much a British brand at heart.

What is Virgin’s ethos?

Our brand purpose is ‘changing business for good’. Essentially, it means that we put people and the planet alongside profit, and we’re focused on how our businesses impact the societies in which they operate. 

Richard Branson’s DNA and entrepreneurial spirit still run through Virgin. He has a desire to make people’s lives better – whether in their careers, delivering services, or using products – and he is prepared to do things differently and take risks. 

He feels very passionately about our nonprofit foundation, Virgin Unite, which unites people and entrepreneurial ideas to create a better world.

What makes a great employer brand?

Being authentic. As author Simon Sinek once said: “First you have to ask yourself ‘why’. What’s your purpose?” Then you can figure out the how. Harness the power of knowledge sharing between employees, learn from one another. Don’t design something that isn’t real, people will leave if it’s not up to their expectations. Treat your employees and customers as individuals, and understand that your internal and external brands are two sides of the same coin. If anyone has a bad experience – a candidate, employee or customer – it’ll put them off the brand entirely.

How has social media made an impact?

Virgin has been around for 45 years, much longer than social media. We have a fantastic content team which works hard to support Virgin businesses in creating their own tone of voice, since there are certain ways of saying things in different sectors and countries. Human-to-human interaction is important. We’re lucky because Richard has always communicated in a fluid, continuous way – very much like social media today; it’s as if he were ahead of his time.

How does your internal platform, Virgin Tribe, connect employees?

Virgin Tribe was originally introduced as a discount scheme for employees, so it was very much about what each employee, as an individual, could get. However, we wanted to create a sense of belonging, of being part of a tribe, a collective. We built a much bigger platform, still with discounts, but also equipped with a ‘connect’ functionality so that employees could share experiences and success stories. It’s one of our greatest employee-engagement and customer-acquisition tools – because our employees are also potential customers. There are zero marketing costs, so it’s a win-win.

What role does leadership play in your employer brand?

When I first moved into this role, we had no articulation of what great leadership at Virgin looked like. So we interviewed 200 Virgin employees around the world to find out what impact leaders were having on culture and business performance. 

We asked them to share special experiences they thought were unique to our brand. We also used an analytics tool to plug into our employee data. We presented our findings to 50 senior executives and it proved really powerful. The comments resonated with them, and from there, we produced our company’s philosophy. We now have six characteristics – to be revealed soon – which we believe create the recipe for leading the Virgin way.

What are your tips for creating a winning culture?

Be authentic, walk the talk and treat people like adults. Offer flexible ways of working. Sometimes, businesses require you to work outside 9am-5pm, and fewer hours can also be more productive. 

We introduced ‘unlimited leave’ in Virgin Management two years ago, as we understand our employees have personal lives. We don’t track the amount of overtime our people do, so why should we enforce how many holidays they take? As long as the work gets done, we’re happy. This works the other way round too, we need to ensure people are taking enough holidays.

My best advice is: be kind, compassionate and show humility. People will choose to follow you if they genuinely believe and trust in you.

Sarah Clark

By Sarah Clark

Changeboard

Online features editor at Changeboard

Changeboard

Changeboard

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