Fine art of delegation

Q: Your company has hundreds of different businesses in operation – how do you manage to keep them on track and achieve expected output?

Robert Cheng, Taiwan

A: The short answer is that I rely on a terrific team of CEOs and top managers, and on the great people around the world who work for Virgin. But building this group was a long process, so let’s look at how our team arrived at this point.

Virgin’s ability to grow and diversify successfully was set in the company’s early days, with my learning how to delegate and let go. This will probably seem counter-intuitive to anyone who is in the midst of launching a business.

Right now, you are almost certainly motivating your staff by demonstrating your own drive and enthusiasm. Most days, the founder will be the first to arrive at the office and the last to leave.

This is often the only way to survive those first tough years, when most businesses have to scrape by with the minimum number of employees.

The trick is to start promoting from within on day one. I’m not just referring to moving people to new positions, but giving all employees enough flexibility to take on new responsibilities within their current jobs, effectively giving themselves mini-promotions.

Through their daily work, your employees are developing a deep knowledge of the company and industry. If given the opportunity, they are the ones who can take your business further.

So when employees tell you about their good ideas for the business, don’t limit your response to asking questions, taking notes and following up: If you can, ask those people to lead their projects and take responsibility for them, as they will have the passion and drive to see their ideas through.

From those experiences, they will then have built the confidence to take on more and you can take a further step back.

I stumbled across this truth accidentally. My friends and I started up Student magazine and Virgin Records when we were kids, and so we had little corporate experience and knew next to nothing about setting up a bureaucracy.

If someone in our group had the ability and desire to take on new responsibilities, he or she just went ahead and did it.

A few years later, as the number of our employees neared 100 at our record business, I began to fear we were becoming slow and cumbersome. So I split the company in half, which created a new company. We picked talented people from within Virgin Records to run it.

The next time Virgin Records’ number of employees reached 100, I repeated this trick, and I have carried on doing it.

This policy kept our businesses hungry and adaptable and, crucially, we uncovered great management talent – people who otherwise might not have gotten noticed, and would likely have pursued promotions at other companies. This kept our staff motivated.

At Virgin we often promote employees who have energy and determination, even if they don’t yet have a lot of experience – people who at other companies might be considered unproven and not ready for a promotion. We have found that these employees seldom let us down.

They are so buoyed by their promotion and passionate about their work that they make a success of the new job. All we have to do is ensure they have the support they need to carry out their goals.

Over the past 40 years, we have selected many of our most successful CEOs and senior managers from within our organization. Stephen Murphy, who became CEO of the Virgin Group five years ago, was hired 17 years ago as Virgin’s finance director.

Others who have risen to the top jobs include Steve Ridgway, CEO of Virgin Atlantic; Jayne-Anne Gadhia, CEO of Virgin Money; and Matthew Bucknall, CEO of Virgin Active.

Looking back, my decision to work out of my houseboat in West London rather than at Virgin Records’ offices was a very important move. I decided to take a step back to give my managers space to make decisions.

That’s when I learned that the most successful entrepreneurs are those who find people who are at least as good as, or better than, they are at running their businesses.

Stepping back frees the founder to focus on the bigger picture – to dive in when there are problems or to help close a deal. This is how I manage our diversified group: I am not involved in the daily business of any Virgin company, unless I need to be.

When your team is in place and the launch phase is over, take the time to conduct a test to see how well the company performs without your help.

This can be a very revealing exercise: It will show you where the problems are and, most important, how well you have done at learning to delegate.

So make sure you hire great people, then find ways to keep them on your team for the long term. Encourage them to pursue their ideas and then give them the tools that they need to succeed: promotions, assistance, or perhaps a new company!

If you get this right, you will also have more time to look after body, mind, family, friends and children.

Basically, you’ll have the time to have a blast.

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