Q: Virgin is a large company with many diversified businesses and a culture of delegating. How do you avoid breakdowns in communication and ensure that good decisions are made?
Shezad Virji, Kenya
Q: How do you deal with the hundreds of emails you receive from readers? I know you are very busy. Do you have any secret?
Harvey Chen, China
A: Reading through recent emails, I was struck by the number of questions from readers about how entrepreneurs can better manage their own time as they manage their complex businesses.
As a successful business matures and expands, bureaucracy usually starts to take hold and members of the senior management team find themselves overwhelmed by the sheer number of meetings and volume of correspondence. At this stage, an entrepreneur faces the challenge of how to effectively manage this new structure – a transition that has been the undoing of many enterprises.
First, let’s look at how to manage your own time, the first step in managing the complexities of a business. I receive 300 to 400 messages a day, so time management is an issue for me. I’m aware that some senior executives simply delete all emails from people they don’t know personally, arguing that most of the messages just create distraction. To them, it is not worth the effort of weeding through the emails to find those that contain useful information. But I find this approach impolite and bad for business.
Recalling a time when I was just starting out and needed advice, I try to respond to as many reader emails as I can. I read through the list every morning and dictate quick answers to my assistants, pass some to my colleagues, and usually write a couple of longer, more detailed responses myself. This is the most effective way of dealing with my inbox, and while doing so, I learn about trends that may affect Virgin businesses or about problems that need my attention.
You must manage your Blackberry; do not let it manage you! Many executives check their smartphones throughout meetings and during their off-hours. This is not good for one’s concentration, and has a negative impact on decision making. Use it only in bursts: check emails for an hour or so and then put it away, so that you can focus on the task at hand.
When you’re thinking about how to manage not just your own time, but all your employees’, the key is to enable everyone to stay focused. I have become more aware of this in recent years, as I have invited groups of entrepreneurs to meetings at my home and resort on Necker Island, where expert speakers discuss issues such as climate change, poverty and peace. I often spend some time talking about my experiences, hoping to share lessons that will help my guests, many of whom find themselves managing that transition from scrappy startup to established company.
The advice that entrepreneurs seem to find most helpful at this stage: give the rest of your team space to work – in many cases, by moving your office out of the building. Remove yourself from the business’s day-to-day functions and find someone to replace you as head of operations so that you will have enough uninterrupted time to look at the big picture and make decisions about the company’s future direction. If you don’t break up the workload, you and your team are more likely to find yourselves struggling to manage the complex and competing responsibilities of running the business, determining strategy and evaluating possible ways to expand.
You must be sure to hire great people who you can trust to run your business. Your replacements may not do everything exactly as you would and might make mistakes, but you must resist the urge to take back control. This is the only way to instil a true sense of responsibility; it will prompt your senior management team to run the business as though they own it themselves.
In previous columns I have spoken about the advantages of staying small, which is one of the Virgin Group’s strengths in terms of communications. Our many small businesses require less bureaucracy, and employees are likely to know who is doing what.
You can build good communications into your company’s DNA by ensuring that discussions are built on openness, clear language, and a demonstrated willingness to listen to everyone who has something to say, from the person at reception to your top manager. Make sure that people’s curiosity is encouraged. If they have made a good suggestion and have seen results in the past, your employees will ask questions and be persistent, which will help them to solve any problems they encounter.
This will free you up to focus on the larger picture: to dive in when you see an issue that needs your attention, to help senior management to sort out a crisis, to lend your expertise when executives are swinging a deal and, importantly, to deal with the emails you will receive every week, from people needing advice on how to launch a successful business.