Entrepreneurs and executives inspired by the superhero myth must understand that in business, it’s better to have a Robin than to go solo.
“One thing I’m very certain of is that no-one does anything great alone,” says Jean Oelwang, Founding CEO and President of Virgin Unite and Co-Founder of not-for-profit initiative Plus Wonder.
“The superhero myth is one of the most dangerous myths in the world. It’s pushed us into a corner of hyper individualism, feeding into a tsunami of loneliness and isolation in the world.”
If those stakes sound high, they are. Not only is the lonely-at-the-top CEO alive and (un)well, but those working hard behind the scenes to support those executives who appear to be a force of one – think Jobs and Musk – are unknown and often underappreciated.
“One thing I’m very certain of is that no-one does anything great alone.”
“Of course, Steve Jobs and Elon Musk have achieved great (and some not-so-great) things in their lives, and they’ve been able to do this by surrounding themselves with extraordinary people who often don’t get the recognition and acknowledgement for their unique skills that added to the electric current of difference to create those great things,” Oelwang says.
A true superpower, argues Oelwang, is the ability to forge deep connections and collaborations, a skill that’s at the heart of her work with Virgin Unite, the Virgin Group’s not-for-profit charitable foundation.
Virgin Unite has encouraged, inspired and fostered radical collaborations in the name of positive change since its founding in 2004.
Whether it’s opening gyms in South Africa, supporting young women in Morocco or providing increased science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) education opportunities around the world, Virgin Unite has partnered more than 25 Virgin businesses with willing allies and helped to incubate and grow 18 collectives, all aimed at the betterment of people and the planet.
For Oelwang, Virgin Unite is the latest in a series of vital partnerships in a career filled with “disruptive detours”.
“These happen when I truly step out of my comfort zone to get proximate to issues and opportunities,” she says.
“Have the humility and openness to understand you don’t have all the answers.”
One was a stint as a VISTA volunteer in a Chicago teenage homeless shelter; another saw her work with Australia’s National Parks and Wildlife Service to better understand how to reimagine humanity’s partnership with nature.
Inspired by her experiences, in 2022 Oelwang authored Partnering: Forge the Deep Connections That Make Great Things Happen.
“With all these detours, I always heard the same thing,” she recalls. “They’d say, ‘Don’t do it – you’ll ruin your career by stepping off the career ladder.’ The best thing I ever did was to consistently ignore this advice.”
None of Virgin Unite’s success – or Oelwang’s – would be possible without collaboration, however. The tremendous power of relationship management to bring about transformational success will be showcased by Oelwang when she takes the stage at the World Business Forum this November.
At its global events, WOBI brings together some of the most influential business leaders – including former Saatchi & Saatchi CEO Kevin Roberts, Olympic champion Michael Phelps, former Hewlett Packard CEO Carly Fiorina and filmmaker Francis Ford Coppola – to share their expertise and build collaborations that can literally change the world.
“The magic happens when one plus one equals a million,” Oelwang says. “I’m thrilled to be a part of WOBI this year to help reimagine how we partner and collaborate toward way bigger things than we could ever do on our own.”
In a world that is growing more and more complex and increasingly connected, Oelwang believes the only way to embrace interconnected opportunities and solve issues is through a level of radical collaboration as yet beyond imagination.
“This might mean being courageous and opening your arms to competitors to work together to transform an industry for the better, or building a collective of representatives from the communities in which you operate to help you understand how to make an outsized positive impact there.”
“It is the people we surround ourselves with who make us who we are and who help us build great businesses.”
For those hoping to achieve so much and feather their nest with stronger partnerships, Oelwang suggests a mixture of humility, values and time.
“Have the humility and openness to understand you don’t have all the answers,” she advises. “Take the time to co-create a ‘something bigger’ that can act as a north star, something you can give back to the world through a relationship. Live a set of values that keep you connected: trust, unshakable respect, united belief, compassionate empathy.”
And to combat the inevitable conflict that arises when two or more people collaborate, Oelwang suggests learning to “celebrate friction”.
“You want to always lift above the drama back to your something bigger,” she says. “These could be as simple as playing the hard question game where you each reverse your position, coming up with a third way that brings together the best of both of your positions, or even remembering the other 99 things you love about someone.”
Relationships take time and hard work, but the payoff is beyond anything we can achieve on our own, she believes.
“We don’t make ourselves, and we don’t make our businesses,” she explains. “It is the people we surround ourselves with who make us who we are and who help us build great businesses.”
Jean Oelwang will appear at the World Business Forum in Bogota on 8–9 November, Madrid on 14–15 November and Milan on 15–16 November.