Running a big company as if it were a small one, as we do at Virgin, comes with tremendous advantages. Small businesses can often adapt quickly to changing circumstances; they can bring a personal touch to customer service that big multinational concerns can’t hope to match; and their managers and leaders can foster a real sense of community and commitment among employees. While this structure and style of management is rare among the multinationals, it has proven quite successful for us, and many readers have written to ask how to replicate it at their start-ups and planned businesses. Our experience shows that some specific traits must be built into your company’s culture from the beginning, and nurtured as your company grows.
1. Build an engaged team and foster morale. When you’re running a small business, it is likely that you will do all the hiring yourself and will know whether your employees are happy, how they’re doing and who is ready for a promotion. But as your small business grows larger, you will have to hand these responsibilities to others. To run a large business like a small one, you must continue to find ways to make sure that employees are happy and engaged in their work, and not being treated like cogs in a machine. We have managed this at Virgin, in part, by attracting great people who genuinely enjoy what they are doing—they are not just in it for the paycheck. And then we often promote from within, so that employees who have shown commitment and vision can carry on with their work. In turn, their colleagues and employees see them as role models as they rise through the organisation. This helps a great deal with morale. Hire people for managerial positions based on whether they care about people and know how to motivate them. Great managers know when and how to praise others, and they believe in developing their employees’ talents. Your managers should care as much about the mailroom workers and janitorial staff as they do about their fellow directors. And for a small business owner, it doesn’t take much to build up team spirit—just fire up the barbecue and supply some drinks, and your employees will take the opportunity to talk about something other than work. If you’re running a large company, encourage your chief executive officers, managers and team leaders to throw parties for their employees.
2. If your employees are happy, your customers will be too. When your business is small, you will likely know many of your customers personally. At this level, it can be easy to make good decisions based on each customer’s situation.
As your small business becomes a large concern, you and your employees should never lose sight of your customers. This may seem difficult, but a group of people who genuinely enjoy their work and who are led by caring, helpful managers can accomplish extraordinary things—in our experience, sustaining a corporate tradition of strong customer service.
A company can succeed or fail based on its customer service, as shown by Virgin America’s story—the airline is now in its fifth year. It has proved that while there are countless companies out there that can buy a plane and put in new seats, entertainment and food, to succeed, they must give the customer something different. Much smaller than its American rivals, our airline has won fans, awards and market share by focusing on the customer experience and investing in its staff. I receive countless e-mails and comments from Virgin America passengers who say how pleasantly surprised they were at our staff’s welcoming, helpful care.
3. Delegate, delegate, delegate. This is one of the most important skills an entrepreneur can have—as you hire terrific people, let them do their jobs. With your example and encouragement, managers across the company will do the same, including allowing your frontline staff to bring a personal touch to customer service. And when your business has grown large enough, you must let go the reins, empowering your team to run the company and even to make the odd mistake.
Only a few years after we founded Virgin, I chose to bring in good people to run the companies, but I did not step away from the group. Instead, my job changed. I found that running a large business like a small one means that even after you’re no longer CEO, you must continue to contribute to your company (or companies) in the most essential ways that you did back when it was a start-up: by staying connected to your staff and your customers; by using what you learn from them to think about the next challenges for your business. I make sure that I visit as many Virgin businesses as I can. If I am on plane, I talk to all the passengers, chat with the staff and take notes. When we land at the other end, I go out with the staff in the evening and we have a few drinks together. This is the best way for me to find out what is going on. I take notes and then circle back to the CEOs with ideas. If some suggestions are put into place, it sparks many more, which improve morale and decision-making, making the company more responsive and flexible.
Richard Branson is the founder of the Virgin Group and companies such as Virgin Atlantic, Virgin America, Virgin Mobile and Virgin Active. He maintains a blog at www.virgin.com /richard-branson/blog. You can follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/richardbranson.
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© 2012 Richard Branson (Distributed by The New York Times Syndicate)