The power of delegation

Kaspars Parfenovics
of Latvia, who reads the weekly magazine Lietiska Diena, sent in the questions
that follow about business, motivation and project management. Enjoy, and
please keep those e-mails coming! There are just too many messages for me to
respond to all of them personally, but I will answer a few questions in this space
every month.

Q: I have read that
you believe in trusting people to perform their duties at a high level and
giving them a great degree of autonomy, and that those beliefs have been key to
both Virgin’s creation of new businesses and its tremendous overall success. I
know from my own experience that the average employee works less efficiently
for someone else’s company than when in business for himself. How do you manage
to achieve the opposite?

A: One of the key
skills I learned as a young businessman was the power of delegation. That was
prompted me to bring in strong managers to build the Virgin companies, which
allowed me to focus on our latest ideas and projects, and on finding the next
businesses to start up. Along with my ability to listen to other people and to
realize when their suggestions are better than my own, this has helped me to
attract and retain the excellent people on our team.

Our people are
creative and innovative and, above all, they have a great sense of fun. If I
set them challenges, keep encouraging them and create a dynamic environment, I
find that people will always work hard.

Q: Do you lay out a
detailed strategy for accomplishing every one of your aims, or do you mainly
follow your intuition and react according to the situation?

A: I research new
ideas very thoroughly, asking a lot of people about their experiences and for
their thoughts. But on many occasions I have followed my intuition – you can’t
make decisions based on numbers and reports alone.

It’s important to
have the courage to follow through on a project if you truly believe it’s worth
pursuing. We all have an intuitive sense of what’s best – follow it! This
approach has made a great difference in my life and has never let me down.

Q: Virgin operates in
various sectors. How do you manage to focus your attention solely on the
project you’re working on? Do you start a new project only when the previous
one is launched or you develop several ideas simultaneously?

A: At Virgin, we are
always working on several different projects simultaneously, all in various
stages of development, and with employees based in many different countries.
This is what keeps the brand fresh and exciting. We have teams in each sector
that focus on the ventures in their area; this allows us to work on a number of
new projects at the same time. In the last few months we have invested in a
U.K. health business, launched Virgin Mobile in Qatar and Virgin Bank in the

My senior management
team, led by CEO Stephen Murphy, keeps everything moving along. My role allows
me to dive in and out of situations, ensuring we keep challenging the orthodoxy
in every sector we’re competing in.

Q: Do you ever lose
faith in a particular project? Do you ever have doubts?

A: No, not at all. I
like to remain positive. A huge part of building a business is about taking
risks that may or may not work out. You need to be resilient and confident –
but not overconfident.

I learned two things
about new ventures early on. First, limit the downside and control the risks.
For example, when I started our airline, I made sure I could give our plane
back to the manufacturer if things did not work out. Second, it’s important to
change tack quickly if things do not work out. Never be too proud to say you
got it wrong and move on to the next idea.

Q: Do you believe
that every person has a task to fulfil in life? If yes, have you already
fulfilled your own?

A: I am not sure
about everyone’s having a mission in life, but I do feel you will do better if
you follow your passion and work at something you really enjoy.

Over the last 40
years, I have been able to focus on building Virgin. It has been a great
journey and I have made some wonderful friends. I definitely don’t feel I have
accomplished everything I want to. I’m spending a lot of time on issues such as
climate change, peace and health through my foundation, Virgin Unite. This has
given me a great sense of purpose.