One of the most challenging aspects for any business owner is balancing your goals with those of your employees. Your priority is most likely to make more money and turn the business into a profitable, growing entity. On the other hand, your employees want good salaries and to work in a slick environment. These conflicting priorities often lead business owners to micro-manage their staff to get results.
And herein lies the problem. During a business’s precarious early years, can one afford to be generous, foster a fun and caring atmosphere, and give employees freedom?
Here’s the short answer: it’s realistic to answer yes to that question, and vital to your business’s long-term success.
During our early days at Student magazine, I did not have much money to pay my staff or improve our premises. We worked in a basement flat, with a few beanbag chairs, some desks and phones. But the promise of success united us and we all worked long hours in cramped conditions. 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, friendly offices. This decision paid off, attracting great team members who were drawn by the flexible working conditions and lively industry.
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 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 loyalty.
From start-up to high growth
My philosophy has not changed: Do something you enjoy and your enthusiasm will rub off on others, ensuring a committed and spirited team. For more than 40 years, I have felt that one of my most important jobs is to attract and motivate great people who genuinely feel their job is more important than just money.
I find micro-managing a team to be counterproductive: Employees will not take responsibility for their actions if the boss is looking over their shoulders all the time.
The credit for Virgin’s enduring 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 encourage them to take risks has allowed us to grow while keeping costs down.
Giving my employees room to work has often meant my moving out of the business’s headquarters. In the early days I used a houseboat as my office, and later my home in Holland Park, to give my managers the space and authority to make their own decisions.
When things go wrong, you must listen to your employees and encourage them to find solutions. If you are worried about the business’s finances, share this with your team and listen to their suggestions. Your employees should never feel like hired hands, but your fellow entrepreneurs.
Review your actions
Finally, take a long, hard look at yourself and how you treat 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. So remember: encourage, enthuse, and try to make work fun.