Ask any group of outsiders to
list the values that best represent the Virgin brand and you’re likely to be met with clusters of similar answers.
The Virgin spirit is so strongly and coherently articulated through its businesses that you’d suspect many of us would offer identical guesses: ‘customer-champions’, ‘risk-takers’, ‘disruptors’ and so on.
It’s therefore hard to imagine Virgin employees and teams going through phases of finding it hard to capture those values and express them in their actions.
But when Jess Lonsdale made the move from Managing Director of Virgin Care to the role of Internal Communications Director at Virgin Media in May 2019, she heard a very clear message from across the business: “We’ve lost a bit of our ‘Virginness’, can you come and help us bring it back?”
Luckily for Lonsdale, she says, she and her Virgin Media colleagues are “incredibly lucky” to work for CEO Lutz Schueler, who began in post at the same time.
“I don’t think I’ll ever work for anyone like Lutz again. He’s an incredible leader who’s constantly reminding all of us who report into him that he only wants to see strategy that easily fits into and informs our key purpose which is building connections that really matter. I’ve seen him stop meetings if he thinks we’re inadvertently straying; if we’re letting anything else become the focus – if we’re not building connections that really matter for our people or our customers, then we’re trying to answer the wrong question.”
One of the tools Schueler brought with him to the job was a leadership and development programme he’d used as a Telefonica executive earlier in his career. Built and facilitated by Oxford Leadership – a boutique leadership consultancy founded and led by Brian Bacon, the programme that was tailored and adopted by Virgin Media was known as Leading With Purpose (LWP).
Now every leadership team, championed by Lonsdale, has undergone the Leading With Purpose programme with, she says, incredible results. “Working with Brian and his Oxford Leadership team has helped make a difficult shift – seeing everything we do through the lens of purpose – very simple and achievable,” says Lonsdale. “From a macro perspective, I see it in action how we make decisions. From a people perspective you’d be hard pressed to find someone in the business who doesn’t know our purpose.”
Lonsdale says her experience in brand, marketing, people and customer engagement is all valuable in the internal communications job at Virgin Media.
“I haven’t seen a ‘Rolls Royce level’ internal comms function like the one that I’m in,” she says. “I’m involved in everything, literally. When I met Lutz, he asked me what my biggest concern was. I told him: ‘the noise’.
“We’re a massive business. We turn over five billion pounds a year. We have 12,000 employees. We’re fast moving and full of ideas so my biggest worry was the noise.”
Lonsdale says she’s been through countless purpose and vision exercises throughout her career but none have ever matched the Leading With Purpose process for genuine “meaning”, team alignment and focus and a useful filter to all that ‘noise’.
“We worked to produce this brilliant purpose which is “building connections that really matter”, she said. “It works on both an operational, transparent level but also on a higher level with what we’ve all faced in 2020, with bigger questions like: ‘how do we actually help solve loneliness?’”
Virgin Media was considered an essential business during the COVID-19 lockdowns so was able to keep operating. “The dire situations faced by many of our customers,” says Lonsdale, “saw us renew our obsession with keeping them connected to the people they loved, the entertainment they loved and the things that really mattered to them.”
That business-wide renewal of mission didn’t happen at the right time through luck or serendipity.
Lonsdale says that just in terms of her team alone, the Learning With Purpose programme was the “best ever investment of time and budget” that she’s ever committed to as a leader.
“To be as passionate as we are at Virgin Media about the values we hold, each individual has to understand why they exist and the role that they and their team play. I really wanted my team to come together and understand each other as people – our strengths and weaknesses, how our superpowers fit together and what that means for the business.”
Lonsdsale’s leadership team took Learning With Purpose so seriously that it made the decision to dedicate its entire weekly team meeting to sitting together with Brian Bacon and his Oxford Leadership colleagues to work through it together.
“We said we’d trust each other to get our jobs done in the meantime in order to use those two hours every week, on Leading With Purpose. We figured it was the most important thing we could be spending the time on, over and above anything else we were delivering.”
The passion for driving a leadership reset into Virgin Media wasn’t confined to Lonsdale’s internal communications team.
Since the company’s leaders took to Learning With Purpose Lonsdale’s team has recorded incredible scores in levels of motivation and engagement.
In 2020, Virgin Media boasts a 31% eNPS score, up 17% from 2019. Companywide engagement score sits at 87%, an 8% increase from its 2019 score. The score for employees who believe senior leaders have a clear vision for the future is up 7% at 82% and 84% say the organisation aligns everyone around a clearly articulated purpose. Perhaps most impressive of all, 94% of employees are proud to be associated with the organisation.
Lonsdale’s internal communications team has launched its own manifesto on what they’ve developed and learned and how they can use it to their advantage. “I called it ‘From Purpose to Practise’,” she says. “I wanted to operationalise what we’d learned to make sure we always remember how we need to show up as a team rather than lots of talented individuals.”