Q: As much as I agree
with you and think of you as a role model, I find some of your recommendations
rather unrealistic, especially for businesses just starting up.
For example, I would
like to keep my employees happy and having fun, but find it a great challenge
due to limited resources. I am not able to pay my employees well, nor provide a
good working environment.
My priority right now
is to make more money and turn this business into a reality. On the other hand,
my employees want good salaries and to work in a slick environment.
We have conflicting
priorities, therefore I am forced to micromanage my staff to get results.
Please advise what I should do to make my employees happy.
Emily Bosco, Kenya
A: Emily brings up an
interesting and challenging dilemma for entrepreneurs: During a business’s
precarious launch stage, can one truly afford to be generous, foster an
atmosphere of fun and caring, and give employees freedom?
It is not only realistic, but vital to your new business’s long-term success.
When I look back at
our early days at Student magazine, I did not have much money to pay my staff
or improve our premises. In fact, we worked in a basement flat, with the
furniture limited to a few beanbag chairs and some desks and phones. But the
thrill and promise of possible success united us and ensured that we all worked
long hours in those cramped conditions. Despite the low pay, no one complained
– everyone was intent on making the magazine work.
The same was true of
our first Virgin companies – a mail-order business selling records, and later,
a few record stores. Again, we tried to keep the vibe relaxed, maintaining
small, uncomplicated and friendly offices. This decision paid off, attracting
great team members who were drawn by the flexible working conditions and lively
We always strove to
create an atmosphere of team spirit and mutual appreciation. At Student, we had
a party or at least a few drinks whenever a staffer brought in an important new
advertising account, and we celebrated the publication of every edition. We
tried to make sure everyone had a great time at work, which generated great
My philosophy has not
changed since then: Do something you enjoy and your enthusiasm will rub off on
others, ensuring that you have a committed and spirited team.
Emily talks about
having to micromanage her team. I find this counterproductive: Employees will
not take responsibility for their own actions if they feel the boss is looking
over their shoulders all the time. They will not take the initiative to work
that extra hour, make that extra call or squeeze that little bit more out of a
The credit for
Virgin’s enduring and varied success is often attributed to me, but it’s
actually due to the people who piloted those businesses. My decision to give
them autonomy and responsibility and encourage them to take risks has allowed
us to grow in many directions while keeping costs down.
When things do go
wrong, you must teach yourself to listen to your employees and encourage them
to find solutions. If you are worried by the business’s finances, share this
with your team and then listen to their suggestions for improving the
situation. Your employees should never feel like hired hands, but your fellow
Finally, it sounds as
though some employees are not working out at Emily’s business. If you find
yourself in this situation, take a long, hard look at yourself and how you are
treating your employees. Then look at your senior team (rot starts at the top),
and whether direction is being effectively delivered. Letting people go should
be your very last lever.
Managers should never
rule by fear. I find enthusiasm, genuine openness and camaraderie with your
people are far better. Successful entrepreneurs usually have excellent people
skills that exponentially increase their ability to make things happen.
encourage, enthuse, try to make work fun. Practice these skills at your small
business; work on them every day. If you do, perhaps you will someday have the
opportunity to continue practicing – at your large business!
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
You can follow him on Twitter
at twitter.com/richardbranson. To learn more about
the Virgin Group: www.virgin.com.