When Worlds Collide

The rocky start to Virgin Galactic’s IPO highlights a challenge facing many visionary leaders: sustaining stakeholder support when their idea is out of this world.



It took off like a rocket. And then the IPO very quickly faced the inevitable nosedive amid a skeptical crowd on Wall Street. Welcome to the brave new world of space tourism.

Last week, Richard Branson’s spaceflight company Virgin Galactic made its much-anticipated public stock offering and managed to rise 8% during the first day, brandishing the bold ticker SPCE. But by week’s end, the stock was down 20%.

That roller-coaster event didn’t surprise too many analysts, including one who called it a “grab the popcorn” moment. For many, space travel is an attractive proposition, one that appeals to the far reaches of the imagination. Financing such a celestial endeavor would only bring that possibility closer to reality. But as any leader with a visionary idea that is essentially shooting for the moon knows, sustaining stakeholder support and trust is where all the focus needs to be.

“Space tourism is very aspirational—the last frontier,” says Wills Moore, the sector leader for Korn Ferry’s Professional Search Civil Aviation practice in North America. “But pragmatically, it’s going to be more challenging to pursue for a company accountable to shareholders.”

Indeed, although visionary leaders often sell stakeholders on their grand ideas in the beginning, glitches along the way can shoot down those pie-in-the-sky assumptions, experts say. After all, developers had boasted that self-driving vehicles would hit the road as early as 2018. Yet automakers have run into obstacle after obstacle trying to get autonomous vehicles out of development. The lesson: industry leaders sorely overestimated their arrival.

Eventually, the same could be true for space tourism. Virgin Galactic plans to launch its first commercial space flight next year, with the goal of profitability in 2021, according to recent accounts. But the company has faced years of delays up until this point and is only now in the final stages of testing its spacecraft. “There is probably still a huge technology gap,” Moore says. “As time goes by, there’s a reality check.”

Still, that doesn’t mean visionary leaders shouldn’t reach for the stars, experts say. If they didn’t, technology wouldn’t be what—or where—it is today. “In the beginning, there are always hiccups,” says Raj Ramachandran, a senior client partner in Korn Ferry’s CEO and Executive Leadership Development practice. “But over time, it’s not ‘if.’ It’s ‘when.’” New technologies like autonomous vehicles may be enduring a lot of growing pains, but that’s only to be expected when there isn’t a precedent, he adds.

But the most engaging and inspiring leaders know how to bring the future into the present without it feeling like a quantum leap, experts say. They know how to introduce incremental changes to both gain support and prepare consumers for the big bang. Just think about Apple’s decision to introduce the iPhone before the iPad, even though the iPad concept came first. “The magic is making you realize that it’s not far away, but it’s far enough that it feels like a leap,” Ramachandran says.

Even so, experts advise that when aspirations are as astronomical as commercial space tourism, leaders should be careful to balance optimism with realism. “In this environment, transparency is appreciated,” Moore says. “Everybody is looking for visionary leaders, but they also want leaders who get results and execute that strategy.”