Most people don’t go in for a routine day of work expecting to fly in a hot air balloon. But most people don’t work directly with Richard Branson.
For 31 years, Penni Pike, of Hampshire, England, worked as the personal assistant to the founder of the Virgin Group.
Pike got her start with the company as a backroom helper at the first Virgin Megastore, located on London’s Oxford Street, in the 1970s. She told Entrepreneur she quickly progressed to become the executive personal assistant to the golden-haired entrepreneur, a job she held for 31 years.
Pike hasn’t retired, however, even after suffering a “devastating stroke” in 2008. “I refused to sit back and accept it, and I was determined to carry on with my life and career,” Pike told Entrepreneur. She joined Time etc, a 9-year-old company that provides virtual assistants to professionals in the U.S. and U.K., after meeting its founder, Barnaby Lashbrooke. He reminded her “a lot of Richard when he was younger.”
Pike acts as special advisor at the company, helping to design and shape the service it provides, as well as advising its 600 VAs on how to look after clients.
So who better to provide insights into the adventurous British entrepreneur than the woman who was by his side for three decades? We couldn’t resist asking Pike questions about her memories of Branson and the lessons she learned from him. Here’s how she responded, edited for length and clarity.
What were your daily duties for Mr. Branson? How did you help him? What specific projects/duties were your main focus?
There is no easy answer here because every day was so different. You’d go in thinking you were going to do filing or something routine and end up flying in an air balloon! Days were long, often not ending until 2 a.m.
On most days I would get there early, perhaps 7 a.m., see Richard and immediately jump into organizing whatever was on the list. I would coordinate everything — for example, if Richard was traveling I would take care of every part of organizing the trip — and simply hand all the documents and his passport to Richard as he headed to the airport.
Oh, and I took the call that resulted in Virgin Atlantic starting!
Are there any funny anecdotes or stories you can share about your time working closely with Mr. Branson?
One of the most memorable tasks I was given was to leap out of a helicopter carrying Richard in order to read road signs for the pilot, who had forgotten his map.
What surprised you most about Mr. Branson?
Nothing! Because almost everything was a surprise, but I never let it phase me. When you were working for Richard you just did it!
What do you want people to know most about your time working with Mr. Branson?
My time with Richard was absolutely wonderful from start to finish — and something that can never be replaced. It was the time of my life. The only reason we stopped working together is that he wanted to move to and I didn’t want to work anywhere else. As a parting gift, Richard lent me his houseboat in London for seven years.
What did you like best about working with Mr. Branson as his assistant and why? What did you like least and why?
I loved the variety and adventure — literally no two days were the same. The only task I didn’t relish was coordinating the travel plans for the hundreds of friends and family that Richard would fly to his private island, Necker, every summer. In those days people had to fly to New York, then down to Miami, then to an island, then take a private plane to another island and finally a boat to Necker. Organizing that for 300 people was sometimes a nightmare!
What specifically did you do while working so closely with Mr. Branson that taught you how to be an effective virtual assistant? How did these things help you do what you do better?
Supporting one of the world’s most successful business owners for 31 years taught me exactly what successful people require in an executive assistant. There are many things, like learning to be always one step ahead, that you simply cannot learn any other way.
How did working closely with Mr. Branson help you develop the competitive, 10-stage selection process for Time etc virtual assistants?
Because I was lucky enough to work so closely with Richard for so many years, I know exactly what traits a good executive assistant has to have — and I’ve used that unique knowledge to help design the selection process at Time etc. What we look for ranges from specific skills right down to softer personality traits like humbleness — a very important thing to have in this role!
What are the top specific lessons you learned about business and productivity directly from working with Mr. Branson?
I learned so much from Richard, but more than anything else:
I learned that if you look after your people, like Richard looked after me, they will happily work seven days a week and long hours without feeling like they want to stop. He was incredible at keeping me interested and engaged, and I wouldn’t have wanted to work for anyone else.
I also learned about the value of hard work. Richard never stopped and was always on the go — always planning and starting new adventures almost constantly.
What are your top productivity tips for busy entrepreneurs struggling to “juggle it all”?
Firstly, invest the time in planning your week and your day — this is vital to making sure you get the most out of the precious time you have. Secondly, learn to delegate — sooner or later you will have to get some help in order to grow. Delegation takes a huge amount of effort, patience and practice, but when you master it, it’s extremely powerful — just look at Richard Branson!
Finally, make sure you take the time to rest up — whether that’s once a week or a couple of times a year. Richard was always very good at making sure he took time away from the grind to spend with his family, and it’s when he had all his best ideas!
What’s the biggest productivity mistake people make and what should they do to fix it, specifically?
People often end up being busy on the wrong things — so they feel they’re being productive, but it isn’t getting their business or career anywhere. Richard was a master at being productive only on the things that pushed Virgin forward.
What is the key to staying productive?
I believe in short cycles — doing lots of different tasks for an hour or two each helps me to stay productive. I’d really struggle if I tried to do the same thing all day every day!
What was it like to work with Mr. Branson? Are there general impressions or quirky things that stand out from working with him?
In two words: simply incredible. One of the most amazing things in all those years [is that] Richard never lost his temper in front of me — not even once. Considering the pressure he was under — I think that’s remarkable!