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


What is “business”

Once you have decided that you want to do business and you have what you think is a customer, then a business is 4 steps:

1) Find out what they want
2) Go and get it
3) Give it to them
4) Make a profit from doing 1, 2 and 3

If you are doing this yourself, it’s not a business, it’s a job – you just have many bosses. And you are probably very busy. ;o)

Many folk are like this, but don’t get me wrong: there is nothing wrong with it at all. Just be clear about what you are doing all the work for that’s all.

If you have a system (website, robots, people/employees) then you have a business.

How to test if you have one or the other? Firstly you’ll know. You’ll just know. If you’re not sure, or you want to be really reminded of it… then leave for 6 months. Go to the other side of the world. Stay out of contact with it. If the business does better then when you where there, do something else! You have a business.

The rest is detail.

Jeremiah Josey

Productivity – How to Get the Most from Your Team: Have a Collaborative Work Culture

Do you operate a fear based work culture or a collaborative work culture?

It’s easy to tell: just take a break, have a holiday. Come back to your work place and if it based on fear you will find work has slowed to a standstill.

A collaborative work culture and you’ll wonder why came back – performance may have actually improved!

Now we humans are a learning animal – we learn from each other – for good or for bad. Having the experience I have in the engineering business (the consultancy or working for hours business – see my presentation on how to measure business performance here) I have seen the effect of focus on maximising revenue alone: training falls by the way side.  Or if it does occur, it is focused on technical, task related skills. That leaves us in the least desirable learning environment: informally from each other!! In an environment like this leadership and managerial skills are taken for granted and left to “brew” in the culture of the company. Managers modeled their styles on the only thing they have – their own managers. And if their own managers were promoted engineers – technically orientated, not people oriented – well that “brew” will be interesting indeed.

What’s new? Most companies actually run like this: focusing on short term immediate results, deferring training and improvement to a another day, “when things get quiet”. I suppose the confusing element with selling hours for a business is that you are actually trying to buy and sell the same “thing” you need to manage: people.

Confused… How is this related to the culture?

Well consider where fear usually comes from? It’s a fear of something? In business, as an employee, it is a fear of what?  Loosing that job of course, and that comes if the boss perceives you as not performing (whether you are or not is a different matter). And there will be fear of being found out that you really don’t know what you are doing.  Because for a technically trained person to have the wrong answer, is to be a failure.  It’s black or white, pass or fail.

From what I have just described – a work team where there’s no formal training in how to lead, how to manage, even how to communicate, the fall back position is to manipulate people like inanimate objects – you can expect that fear will be a natural outcome. Getting promoted into a position you’ve never been trained you will naturally be fearful. And worse, being fearful of anyone finding out that you don’t know.

By the way, don’t bother hiding – it’s always obvious to your team and your managers if you are struggling. It’s how you deal with that struggle that your managers are interested in.   With your team, lie to them and you loose their respect. Loose their respect and you loose your team.

That’s why I enjoy collaborative cultures the most: continual feedback, formal, informal, positive, negative, eliminates the fear.

A culture where the leader recognises that a shortfall in team member is a shortfall in their ability to lead.  A culture where the leader knows that to improve their team they must first improve themselves.

But it does take courage.

Courage is not having no fear – that is fool hardy.  Courage is acting despite your fear.

This is the basis behind the collaborative work culture instilled by Ricardo Semler.

Here’s a great lecture by Ricardo at MIT.  He says something very fundamental about the predominant way of working in the 21st century: collaboration.

A meritocracy is another word for it.

by Jeremiah Josey, August 2009