Q: How do you let go? I truly believe in empowering the right people, listening to them, and stepping aside to allow them to succeed. At what point in your amazing journey did you learn that you had to let go?
Jeff Hensley, United States
Q: Do you have any advice on how to create quality time for family? My business regularly takes me out of the U.K. for weeks at a time.
Tunde Akande, England
A: The demands of launching a company are so consuming that the problems of handing over responsibility to others and making time for family can seem insurmountable. Both are perennial issues faced by entrepreneurs the world over.
These questions, both submitted by readers of Entrepreneur magazine and American Express Open Forum, reminded me of Virgin’s early years and our battle to establish ourselves in the music and airline industries, and then expand amid fierce competition. It was an all-encompassing task. I had to constantly watch myself to make sure that I was letting go so my managers could grow, and also that I was striking the right balance between family and work. Fortunately, my strengths have always been in identifying good ideas, attracting great people and ensuring that we maintain our purpose and vision in our many ventures.
One important moment took place when we set up Virgin Records to operate alongside our music stores: I moved out of the office and set myself up in a separate location. This was no grandiose headquarters building but, rather, a houseboat on one of London’s canals. Although it was cramped and sometimes damp, I found it liberating to be away from the hurly-burly of the everyday business. This not only gave me time to plot our next ventures, but also ensured that managers back at the office “owned” their decisions. As it turned out, my efforts to step back from the day-to-day operations of the Virgin Group were key to the lasting success of many of our companies: We would not have been able to tackle so many different sectors and markets if I kept a tight rein on management and development.
But you can’t merely hand over responsibility to others – you need to find and empower the right people. Our success at this is partly due to the devolved management structure we set up, which resulted in a culture of empowerment. Since our CEOs operate their companies as owner-managers, our employees maintain a real sense of pride in and responsibility for their businesses, and the managers are able to hire others who have the right skills and fit with their particular Virgin team. I speak to our CEOs regularly, visit our companies around the world and spend a lot of time promoting our businesses, but I let our managers manage.
It’s interesting to note that a number of our successful CEOs came from large, bureaucratic organizations, but eventually flourished at our nimbler, more dynamic companies. Virgin America’s David Cush is a former American Airlines executive; Neil Berkett at Virgin Media used to work for Lloyds Bank; and Tom Alexander, the founder of Virgin Mobile, was a former British Telecom employee. In each industry, they have used the Virgin brand to shape their particular company’s culture and purpose.
The challenge of making time for one’s family is equally tough, and closely linked to the need to let go. To many just starting out in business, the difficulty of simply surviving can make striking a balance between work and family seem impossible, but spending time away from work is important to helping you maintain perspective on the challenges you face, and thus to the future of your company.
I employ two solutions to help achieve a balance, though they may not be possible for many people. Ever since I first moved into the houseboat, I have always tried to work from home, in order to stay close to my family. After our family became too big for the houseboat, we moved to a house in Holland Park in London, and now we live on Necker Island, in the British Virgin Islands.
Second, I took my family on business trips, especially when the children were younger. This meant that we did not spend too much time apart and I would often see them when the children wandered through meetings – a welcome distraction from the worries of the business world. It is amazing how the bright smile or questions of a child can help relieve even the most stressful situation.
Many entrepreneurs do not have the option of running a company from home or taking their family on long business trips. But finding a solution that works for your situation is crucial to maintaining sound judgment and a long-term perspective. In my case, my off time enjoying my life and family has helped me to build Virgin.
Now, where did I leave my kiteboard?