Advice from Richard Branson: give your employees freedom

By Jack Preston of Virgin

Richard Branson

You won’t come across many people who have never had a boss. The thought of not having someone to answer to at work is a peculiar one for most people, however for Richard Branson it’s a natural state of affairs.”Having always worked for myself, I’ve never had to play by anyone else’s rules, and I wouldn’t want to. This attitude has shaped my approach to management since Virgin’s early days, when I decided to grant our employees many of the same freedoms that I enjoy,” wrote the Virgin Group Founder in a recent blog.

Without a rule book to adhere to or a rigid company policy to bear in mind, Branson and his Virgin staff have managed to shake up countless industries over the years. A company defined by a ‘Screw it, let’s do it’ attitude towards tough decisions, Virgin has seen its refreshing outlook pay dividends and win the faith of consumers.

“Today the Virgin Group is made up of dozens of companies headed by CEOs and managers who have the freedom to run their businesses as they see fit. This philosophy goes against the usual rules of business and may seem unmanageable, but it has turned out to be one of the keys to our success,” explained Branson. Who went on to highlight how this played out for one of the Virgin Group’s newest companies in 2012.

“Our newest business, the global touring company Virgin Live, had a great launch for this reason. Although the Virgin brand is well respected within the music industry given our roots we had no history of promoting global tours. However, our small, enthusiastic team at Virgin Live beat competition from giants within the industry and won the right to promote The Rolling Stones’ 50 & Counting series of shows. This was a very proud moment for us: If you are going to enter this business, there really isn’t a bigger or better way to show your intentions.

“Before their show at London’s O2 Arena, I caught up with Mick Jagger to have a word and take a few photos with him and my family. After we were chatting he jokingly asked me if I was going to disappear, because ‘That’s what all the other promoters do.’ I had no intention of doing so. ‘I’ll be seeing you down the front,’ I told him.

“My family and I watched the show standing in front of our seats near the stage. It was a fantastic night – they put on a marvelous show. Why anyone would have passed up the opportunity to see it is beyond me. I thought later that Mick’s question showed why we had won the contract: Our employees love what they do and throw themselves into the work, so they achieve much more than anyone would expect.”

Men want freedom, women want security. Give it to them, and life is easy.

Jeremiah Josey

Jobs, Kevin Rudd, Taxes

I met Kevin Rudd once a couple of years ago before he was the Prime Minister of Australia.  It was at a local restaurant in his electorate in Brisbane.  He’s a sharp chap.  Clean dress.  Quick mind.  Academic type.  I like him.  We spoke about general things and he asked me how many jobs my company would give.  I said about 30, but I was thinking to myself, “I’m planning to have the manufacturing done in either Malaysia or Singapore.  It’s much better there: lower costs, higher quality.  The headquarters I’ll be moving to the US just as soon as I can. That’s where the market is”.  But this didn’t need saying.  It was a pleasant exchange.  He knows what he is doing and the woes of Australian manufacturing industry is for another time, Insha Allah.

I’ve been thinking about what he was most concerned and interested about in our conversation: jobs.  “How many jobs will I give?”  Why?  Why the focus on jobs, on money, on being busy?  Well there are two reasons that I have worked out.  One is cynical and other one is naïve.

The naïve view:

That people need to be busy to have a “satisfactory” life.  Really?  Working 40 hours a week doing something you don’t really have a say in, or doing the same repetitive task over and over?  Computers and robots can replace most jobs in the world now, and they will eventually – in manufacturing they already have.  So who wants a job where they’re just a robot?  No one.

The cynical view:

The present western system of social infrastructure (i.e. Government and the services provided) relies on taxes to exist – contributions from the people in the society served by the Government.  Tax on income (income tax) and tax on things you buy (sales tax) give all the funds needed to pay for the roads; the health care; the education and the entertainment.  Sell a few bonds to cover the difference when it’s needed.  Tax comes from peoples’ pay.  Pay comes from their jobs.  They pay their income tax before they get paid.  They pay their sales tax when they spend their pay.  So people need a job to keep the government going. Simple really.  Why is this cynical?  Because a “job” is no longer a “nice” thing, and a “government” is no longer efficient at providing what it’s supposed to give.  It’s a very expensive service.  Health care in the UK anyone?  Legal support in the US my friend?  Roads and communication systems in outback Australia?

So where does Kevin Rudd get his view-point from?  Being cynical again,  “Jobs” is easy to sell to get votes.  “Job” is only a three-letter word.  It’s easy to explain.  It’s security for you and your family: if you don’t work you don’t eat; if you don’t eat you don’t shit, if you don’t shit you die!!  So: get a job or die!!!  Everything is set up for this: our education system, our financial system, our employment system.  Everything.

A Job “works” in our current society.  It’s the basic fundamental unit that makes everything function. Get more jobs, and everything will be all right.

However that only applies if you have an infinite amount of everything to consume, to make, to be busy in a “job” with!  We don’t.  We’re reminded every day about how small this little planet of ours actually is.  Global warming, water pollution, land pollution, overcrowding, slums, dying soils, E.coli deaths from hamburgers, anti-biotic resistant bacteria – super bugs, mad cow diseases from feeding cows dead chickens… and so on and so on… This is what has been created: the consuming, un-conscious monster, stemming mainly in the US in the 40’s, 50’s and 60’s, mainly to provide more jobs, mainly to provide more taxes, for more Government!  More, more, more.  More profit, more food, more cars.  More everything.  But is this still working?

The average American – the average westerner – consumes about 90 kg of meat each year.  Such a high meat consumption is way above what a human body needs and leads to all sorts of long-term social health issues (besides being overweight, there’s slow bowel movements leading to bowel cancers, transferring diseases from animals to humans and I don’t want to go on).

If the average western person simply halved their meat intake, all the current overproduction, animal mistreatment, pesticide pollution, over subsidization and everything else associated with this industry would stop.  Over night…..  So why doesn’t it?  The need for more, more, more, and the program we have in us that drives this. Besides, what about all those “jobs”  What will people do???  :o)

To pay for government you need taxes, for taxes you need jobs, for jobs you need business, for business you need consumers…  So the western economic system, lead by America, has become the best consumer-job-tax-government model in the world.  Around and around and around we go!  What a ride!  Stop I’m getting dizzy and want to get off!

It’s a dangerous little trap we have caught ourselves up in.

The irony of it all: mediation, the key to a fulfilling, happy life, takes almost zero resources to carry out.  That’s the Universe laughing at us!

“JOB” ends up being a pretty dangerous little word.

Don’t get me wrong, I don’t worry about this stuff.  I just ponder it, working out how it all works.  How we work.  We, people, will always do what we have always done: our own thing.  So, don’t stress.  Just become aware, conscious – really conscious – of what you are doing and you can decide if you want to keep doing it or not.

Oh, yeah, and the solution to all of this is two 2 things.  The first is to pay for government budgets entirely with tax on company revenues (not profit, revenue) and hence cancel all personal and sales tax. This will put the soul back into the company,  and give people the freedom to grow and expand as they wish, as we have always done.  The second thing is to create democratic, participation  workplaces.  This makes your job a nice thing to do.  Train people in what this means, at school, in companies.  Everywhere.  (BMW and GE already do it)


My turn.

Jeremiah Josey

The New Frontier: Adults in the Workplace

I often think about what is coming next, with instant world wide communication, and access to information from anyone, any time, any way. Personal choice and satisfaction is now more than ever the key question for everyone in all countries, people are seeking – and obtaining – answers from all around the globe.

I think what is next is that marvellous final bastion of time consumption for the majority of us on this little blue planet: employment – trading our time for money.

This is being questioned more than ever – just talk to your parents about getting a “safe secure job”. Perhaps we feel that being gainfully employed means more than money, like “something to do with our time”, but recent studies show that employee disengagement is the epidemic of the 21st century: most employees have switched off. We are running in neutral; idling; bored; tuned out; not interested; keen to move on. The UK has one of the lowest levels of employee interest.

That’s most of the work force not happy to be there / here / anywhere!!

No viral influenza outbreak has nothing on the misery and suffering caused by that amount of chronic disengagement.

That’s why I’m excited. With all this untapped human potential, just sitting in idle, what does it take to re-engage, re-motivate and obtain excellence from them? That’s exciting: that potential. I know the answer and it’s straight forward: once you get your ego under control, let go of the reins, the need to control, and let your employees step up.

A friend of mine was doing their MBA in Kuwait and I was helping them prepare for an exam and a group assignment on leadership and organisational management. Great stuff. I was enthralled by a case study about BMW under our study. It clearly identified the participative management work environment that clearly explained why BMW is so successful right now, whilst other car manufactures are faltering: BMW had engaged 12,000 new people since 2000, whilst GM and Ford have sacked similar numbers. BMW does not have workers and managers, they have associates and leaders, and there’s more to it.  It’s not what they are doing that is important. It’s why and how. And it’s all about engagement. (This web page is not the case study, but alludes to BMW’s practices a little).

I explain it to my colleagues and my teams like this: the traditional method of business is like a school class room. [Really it is like the military model, as is school, but relatively few of us have military experience, but most of us have been in school. ]

In a typical school there is a teacher and there are the students. The students are treated as individuals and instructed what to do by one person: classical management style theory. The teacher dictates the rules and the students work to their own limits – in solitude – to reach their own level of achievement: the grades. That’s it. Students can’t wait to leave. The teacher struggles to inspire and motivate. There’s very little group work, in fact working in a team can lead to expulsion – it has a special term: “cheating”.

Consider what happens when the teacher leaves the room? What happens? We all know: we’ve all been there before. We bumff off, goof off, focus on anything and everything but the subject matter.

Something else very interesting is happening and that is the essence of participative management: grouping together into collectives to discuss stuff, all kinds of stuff. And what is discussed is what is interesting to each collective.

Imagine if those little groups could be harnessed to drive outcomes? Self driven, enthusiastic, motivated…

That’s exactly what companies like BMW and Google have done. They have worked it out. They work as dynamic, organic groups, openly and in plain sight.

It’s so much fun to do to as well! People come alive in my groups when I employ the strategies and rules to engage and motivate a team: to form a participative group. Quiet people begin to contribute. Bullies and those who can’t manage their egos become quiet, and they either get with it or leave the group. It’s magic to watch it working. Just watching the outcomes and achievements of a self motivated, self actualized group of people is wonderful.

Have a look at this very good web site: Traci Fenton, the founder, has decided to recognize “democratic” work places and on her web site there are 40 companies that qualify for her 10 point checklist as a democratic company for 2009.

Here are her 10 points:

The WorldBlu 10 Principles of Organizational Democracy™

1. Reflection + Evaluation

Democratic organizations are committed to continuous feedback and development and are willing to learn from the past and apply lessons to improve the future.

2. Purpose and Vision

A democratic organization is clear about why it exists (its purpose) and where it is headed and what it hopes to achieve (its vision). These act as its true North, offering guidance and discipline to the organization’s direction.

3. Transparency

Say goodbye to the “secret society” mentality. Democratic organizations are transparent and open with employees about the financial health, strategy, and agenda of the organization.

4. Dialog + Listening

Instead of the top-down monologue or dysfunctional silence that characterizes most workplaces, democratic organizations are committed to having conversations that bring out new levels of meaning and connection.

5. Fairness + Dignity

Democratic organizations are committed to fairness and dignity, not treating some people like “somebodies” and other people like “nobodies.”

6. Accountability

Democratic organizations point fingers, not in a blaming way but in a liberating way. They are crystal clear about who is accountable to whom and for what.

7. Individual + Collective

In democratic organizations, the individual is just as important as the whole, meaning employees are valued for their individual contribution as well as for what they do to help achieve the collective goals of the organization.

8. Choice

Democratic organizations thrive on giving employees meaningful choices.

9. Integrity

Integrity is the name of the game, and democratic companies have a lot of it. They understand that freedom takes discipline and also doing what is morally and ethically right.

10. Decentralization

Democratic organizations make sure power is appropriately shared and distributed among people throughout the organization.

Apply these principles and just watch what happens to your organisation.

I believe that the essence of a successful democratic process, is captured by Malcolm Gladwell in his book Tipping Point from 2000. That is: “Peer pressure is much more powerful than the concept of a Boss. Many, many times more powerful”. (You’ll find this little gem buried on page 186).

Think about the teacher/student concept. How much power does the teacher have? Very little really. It depends on their character, but it is a doomed, decaying system. The stronger and more controlling the teacher is with the class, the more the class will work against the teacher when the teacher is absent: it’s a system bound to fail. On the other hand, peer pressure does nothing but enhance the values and achievements of the group – the only thing to do is guide the group in the desired direction.

But this is not new is it??

Of course not.

Here are some very interesting events of world note that were affected to some degree by the amount of engagement of the participants:

And to bring it back to the future: GE/Durham. One engine per day, total control by the employees: perfect balance of people and workplace harmony.

So what does all this mean? We’ll it means that a company can limp along on a net profit margin of 0% to 5% using traditional management processes (stressed out managers and tuned out employees) or a company can achieve 20 to 30% returns in an environment with very little turnover, where everyone wants to be there.

The new frontier is Workplace Democracy.

I’m going to end with two beautiful quotes from Sir Richard Branson he made on 13th October 2007 when being interviewed on TED. The video is called “Life at 30,000 Feet“. Richard left school when he was 15. He was told by his headmaster that he will either be a roaring success or he would go to prision: he’s done both.

“A company is all about finding the right people, inspiring those people and drawing out the best in people.” @ 1 minute, 45 seconds

“I don’t actually think that the stereotype of a business person treading all over people to get to the top generally speaking works. If you treat people well, people will come back and come back for more. All you have in life is your reputation. It’s a very small world. I actually think that best way of becoming a successful business leader is by dealing with people fairly and well, and I like to think that’s how we run Virgin.” @ 21 minutes, 20 seconds

Be well.

Jeremiah Josey

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