To succeed in business, you must learn to be a good listener. And then you should learn to bounce every idea you have off numerous people. One of the positive byproducts of learning the real importance of consultation and listening in business is that it will benefit many other aspects of your life.
Major medical decisions, for example. When I was 22, I was playfully swinging a young girl around, only to have my knee give in. After a couple of days on crutches, I saw a surgeon who told me it was the worst ligament tear he’d ever seen and that he wanted to do a major operation on my knee right away. Though I was young, I already had seven years of business experience, so I knew that at the very least I should get a second opinion.
I made sure that I didn’t tell the next surgeon what the first had told me, and I did get completely different advice – but it still involved an operation.
I decided to go for a third opinion. I searched out the one group of people that would be sure to get excellent advice: the English national soccer team. I looked up their number in the phone book and asked to speak to their physiotherapist, who kindly agreed to see me. He said there was no need for an operation, and if I followed the right exercise program, I’d be back on my feet again in three weeks. Indeed, by the projected date, I was skiing! It’s been 38 years since then, and I’m running the London Marathon at age 60. Would I have been able to run the marathon if I’d taken the first advice that was given to me and undergone that major operation? Unlikely, I fear.
Two weeks ago, my wife, Joan, woke up to find that one of her legs had swollen to three times its normal size. Our family doctor told us that he believed she had suffered a major blood clot. We rushed her to the hospital, where we were told that she had a series of clots that led from her ankle right up to her groin, and that it was the worst case of such clotting the doctors at that hospital had ever seen. She was in great danger of a pulmonary embolism, as bits of the clot threatened to break away and travel to her lungs. The doctors put her on a drug called warfarin, pulled a compression stocking over her leg and told her that over a number of years the leg would gradually improve, but that at any stage she might suffer a major pulmonary embolism that could kill her.
Surely, we thought, there must be a better answer than for Joan to drag around her swollen leg and live with all the inherent risks. We rang up numerous doctors, and slowly we started working our way toward a much better conclusion. We found a recently invented treatment that would have seemed like science fiction only a few years ago, but would radically improve Joan’s chances of a successful recovery.
The first doctors we took Joan to see did not know much about this method and told us that it was far too risky. But soon, after speaking to a number of experts in the field, we realized that the risks of her current condition far outweighed those of taking the new approach. So we signed on for the new solution, which was to temporarily put a tiny umbrella inside her leg so that if any clot did break off, it could not enter Joan’s lungs – a potentially fatal development. During this time, the doctors would also inject the clots to break them down and get the blood flowing again, and drain any stubbornly congealed blood from her leg.
We moved her to another hospital that was willing to do this procedure. Two days later, she nearly skipped out of the building! Her leg was completely back to normal, the clots had disappeared and, apart from taking warfarin for a while, she can now lead an almost completely normal, risk-free life. This procedure can only be done within the first 10 days or so after the original clot forms. Apart from asking questions – lots of them, and of many different experts – you often need to drop everything and act fast.
In business, asking questions may not save lives, but it can save you a lot of time and money. Don’t impose your own thoughts on the conversation until you’ve gotten plenty of feedback and feel that you are close to a decision. Don’t tell people about others’ suggestions until you’ve heard what they have to say. In the end, you may decide that the best advice is to walk away – and later find out it was the very best solution.
You may decide to push on, and it’s likely that after all your probing and listening to others’ advice, your original idea may be distorted almost beyond recognition, but it will probably have improved considerably. Whatever happens, you’ll have fun learning from other people, and the end result will be a lot better if you’ve kept an open mind and sought out what’s right. And if you use this approach in your personal life, it just may help you keep a loved one alive and well for many years to come – one whom you would have otherwise lost.
Richard Branson is a philanthropist, entrepreneur and founder of the Virgin Group