JUST as aspiring entrepreneurs have to learn how to inspire trust in investors and customers, they must learn to trust their employees to run their businesses. This starts on the day you make your first hire; the choices you make about who will help you to build your business and how to share and hand over responsibilities will shape your brand in the years ahead. At Virgin, we talk about our employees having Virgin DNA. After all, a company is its people.
Earlier this month I was reminded of the importance of trust when I had the pleasure of taking part in a Google+ Hangout to celebrate Global Entrepreneurship Week, which gave me the chance to interact with entrepreneurs from our Branson Centres of Entrepreneurship in Jamaica and South Africa, as well as a lively group from the northeast of England, where we have just launched a loan programme for startups. It was great to see so many young people getting excited about the idea of running their own businesses.
Many of our aspiring entrepreneurs said they were keen to get a feel for what it was like to recruit people and build a workforce — something that is challenging for almost anyone making his first try at launching a business.
I talked about how at Virgin we’ve always placed importance on hiring the right kind of people, and we now have a workforce of wonderfully skilled and dedicated people who understand what our brand is all about. We’ve gotten to the stage where most decisions can be made at Virgin businesses without me, because our level of trust is such that I can be sure that the people making those decisions will have our core values at heart.
When you start hiring for your start-up or because you’re expanding your small business, look for people who understand your brand and goals. They should have strong skill sets that are significantly different from your own. If you’re good at strategy but not so hot with numbers, you need to recruit at least one person who has a head for accounting.
Then it’s time to start delegating. This can be difficult, as it may involve giving up responsibilities that you have handled for years. But you can’t do it all yourself.
This doesn’t mean that you should simply tell your new hire to get to work — most jobs take a bit of orientation and training. You might ask a new employee to shadow you for a few hours or days as you handle those responsibilities. If the job involves unusual challenges, consider breaking the handover into stages, so that you can show her how the process works at each stage and then supervise. When you introduce your new hire to key contributors, be sure to highlight the strengths that she brings to the job. (And on her first day, remember to catch her doing something right!)
Hand over responsibilities to your new hire as quickly as possible. If you see that your employee is taking longer than you did, or goes about things a little differently, don’t jump in with advice. Take a walk if necessary, because this is no longer your area. Now your job is to focus on leading the company.
What happens next? I’ve found that by freeing up yourself and your employees to concentrate on the tasks that they do best, you will have a more motivated and creative team. Innovation is something that Virgin has excelled at for years. In a description of the entertainment options available on Virgin America flights — video games, music, movies — Wired magazine once described our planes as "multimillion-dollar flying iPods".
We didn’t hire some agency to come up with these ideas. They filtered up from the Virgin America staff helping customers on the planes. Our airline employees have suggested many ways that we can provide an entertaining experience for passengers — my job was to make sure we followed through on the best ideas.
Once you’ve removed yourself from everyday operations, your relationships with your customers and staff will become distant unless you make it your job to learn from them and put their ideas into practice. At Virgin, we have so many talented and hardworking employees that I would be doing us all a disservice if I didn’t spend a lot of my time talking with them about our customers and possible improvements and innovations to our products and services. Over the years we’ve come up with some fantastic ideas as a direct result of conversations I’ve had with staff members on the job.
Your new job, leading a company instead of managing daily operations, ultimately comes down to trust — that of your employees. Just as you trust them to run the business, they should feel confident that you will listen to their concerns and help them to make changes or implement ideas that will keep your company moving forward.
© 2012 New York Times Syndication