I have often said that a company is simply a group of people, and that the most important part of any business is its people. At Virgin Galactic, our space tourism venture, this has never been truer – especially in the days since last month’s tragedy over California’s Mojave Desert.
As the National Transportation Safety Board’s investigation continues, our thoughts remain with the families of the two pilots: Michael Alsbury, who lost his life when SpaceShipTwo broke apart in flight, and Peter Siebold, who parachuted to safety but was injured.
This has been an incredibly difficult time for everyone connected to Virgin Galactic and our partners, including The Spaceship Company, Scaled Composites (who Alsbury and Siebold worked for) and Northrop Grumman. However, this flight test accident has also brought out the best in people, as challenging situations often do. We have been overwhelmed by the incredible outpouring of support we have received from people around the world.
I hope that none of your companies ever goes through an experience like the one that the Virgin Galactic family and the space tourism community are dealing with now. But if you are ever faced with a tragedy or a crisis, it is crucial to first honor the memory of those who have been lost, with dignity, respect and togetherness. On Oct. 31, as soon as I heard the tragic news that there had been a problem with our the test flight, my immediate reaction was to get on a plane and join the team in California.
Along with offering a public display of solidarity and providing clear information, it usually helps a lot if a leader can be on the ground. And it is surprising how much a simple group hug can do to lift a team’s morale (and, in this case, that of yours truly). We are fortunate at Galactic to have an extraordinary leader in CEO George Whitesides. His calm, compassion and determination should be a model for any aspiring chief executive Virgin Galactic’s unwavering focus and culture of teamwork, which George has helped to foster, are the foundations of any strong business.
In the early stages of a crisis, confusion and misinformation can spread quickly, prompting some media to publish hurtful speculation. In the case of the flight test accident Virgin Galactic tragedy, George faced the media within hours, during which he related to the public exactly what was known and what was being done, while providing direction and comfort to his staff. Although he and his team have hardly slept since the tragedy, George’s leadership has preserved confidence and hope within the company.
And while it’s true that George makes key decisions, he doesn’t make all the calls – he listens intensively and delegates responsibilities to a trusted circle. George also listens to his customers, as every leader should. Our extraordinary group of Virgin Galactic clients, who we call “Future Astronauts,” has been particularly supportive of the company. Deposits made for Galactic’s first reservations are fully refundable, yet so far we have had very few customers request refunds. On the contrary, we have had many inquiries about purchasing tickets since the accident – new Future Astronauts are signing up to show solidarity with the team and the project.
Our Future Astronauts have become a tight-knit group, committed to each other as well as their desire to travel to space. In the years since we at Virgin embarked on our journey toward making commercial space flight a reality, we’ve met consistently with customers to provide them with updates on our progress, and we’ve listened to them every step of the way.
Of course, this spaceflight endeavor is not a one-size-fits-all experience: Some customers like day-to-day conversations with the team, and we are happy to oblige others prefer less contact and are catered to accordingly. Some customers have not publicly mentioned that they’ve bought tickets for a Virgin Galactic flight others have gotten tattoos to demonstrate their support. We welcome them all and adapt to their needs because we know that paying attention to our customers will build loyalty, and that will allow us to keep looking to the future.
Staying the course
As I said in Mojave, we owe everything to those people who have taken on the risks and given so much to stay the course and deliver on the promise of creating the first commercial spaceline. I know that in a time of shock and sadness, there is a tendency to seek the comfort of the known – but what propels humanity forward is seeking the unknown. That’s what Mike and Pete were doing, and what many more people will continue to do.
We think of ourselves as one big family at Virgin, as well as part of the wider space community. In the worst of times, it is amazing how people can pull together, offer love and support and demonstrate the very best that a business can be.
Mr Branson is the founder of the Virgin Group. Email: RichardBranson@nytimes.com.
SOURCE: Daily Monitor