To Succeed, Take Some Time Off

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How do you let go? I truly believe in empowering the right people, listening to them, and stepping aside to allow them to succeed. At what point in your amazing journey did you learn that you had to let go? Jeff Hensley, US

Do you have any advice on how to create quality time for family? My business regularly takes me out of the UK for weeks at a time. Tunde Akande, England

The demands of launching a company are so consuming that the problems of handing over responsibility to others and making time for family can seem insurmountable. Both are perennial issues faced by entrepreneurs the world over.

These questions, both submitted by readers of Entrepreneur magazine and American Express Open Forum, reminded me of Virgin’s early years and our battle to establish ourselves in the music and airline industries, and then expand amid fierce competition. It was an all-encompassing task. I had to constantly watch myself to make sure that I was letting go so my managers could grow, and also that I was striking the right balance between family and work. Fortunately, my strengths have always been in identifying good ideas, attracting great people and ensuring that we maintain our purpose and vision in our many ventures.

One important moment took place when we set up Virgin Records to operate alongside our music stores: I moved out of the office and set myself up in a separate location. This was no grandiose headquarters building but, rather, a houseboat on one of London’s canals. Although it was cramped and sometimes damp, I found it liberating to be away from the hurly-burly of the everyday business. This not only gave me time to plot our next ventures, but also ensured that managers back at the office “owned” their decisions. As it turned out, my efforts to step back from the day-to-day operations of the Virgin Group were key to the lasting success of many of our companies: We would not have been able to tackle so many different sectors and markets if I kept a tight rein on management and development.

But you can’t merely hand over responsibility to others—you need to find and empower the right people. Our success at this is partly due to the devolved management structure we set up, which resulted in a culture of empowerment. Since our chief executive officers (CEOs) operate their companies as owner-managers, our employees maintain a real sense of pride in and responsibility for their businesses, and the managers are able to hire others who have the right skills and fit with their particular Virgin team. I speak to our CEOs regularly, visit our companies around the world and spend a lot of time promoting our businesses, but I let our managers manage. It’s interesting to note that a number of our successful CEOs came from large, bureaucratic organizations, but eventually flourished at our nimbler, more dynamic companies. Virgin America’s David Cush is a former American Airlines Inc. executive; Neil Berkett at Virgin Media Inc. used to work for Lloyds Bank Plc; and Tom Alexander, the founder of Virgin Mobile, was a former British Telecom employee. In each industry, they have used the Virgin brand to shape their particular company’s culture and purpose.

The challenge of making time for one’s family is equally tough, and closely linked to the need to let go. To many just starting out in business, the difficulty of simply surviving can make striking a balance between work and family seem impossible, but spending time away from work is important to helping you maintain perspective on the challenges you face, and thus to the future of your company. I employ two solutions to help achieve a balance, though they may not be possible for many people. Ever since I first moved into the houseboat, I have always tried to work from home, in order to stay close to my family. After our family became too big for the houseboat, we moved to a house in Holland Park in London, and now we live on Necker Island, in the British Virgin Islands.

Second, I took my family on business trips, especially when the children were younger. This meant that we did not spend too much time apart and I would often see them when the children wandered through meetings—a welcome distraction from the worries of the business world. It is amazing how the bright smile or questions of a child can help relieve even the most stressful situation.

Many entrepreneurs do not have the option of running a company from home or taking their family on long business trips. But finding a solution that works for your situation is crucial to maintaining sound judgment and a long-term perspective. In my case, my off time enjoying my life and family has helped me to build Virgin. Now, where did I leave my kiteboard?

By NYT Syndicate

Richard Branson

I was born in 1950 and educated at Stowe School. It was here that I set up Student magazine when I was 16. In 1970 I founded Virgin as a mail order record retailer, and shortly afterwards I opened a record shop in Oxford Street, London. In 1972 we built a recording studio in Oxfordshire where the first Virgin artist, Mike Oldfield, recorded 'Tubular Bells'. In 1977 we signed the Sex Pistols and we went on to sign many household names from Culture Club to the Rolling Stones, helping to make Virgin Music one of the top six record companies in the world. With around 200 companies in over 30 countries, the Virgin Group has now expanded into leisure, travel, tourism, mobile, broadband, TV, radio, music festivals, finance and health and through Virgin Green Fund we are investing in renewable energy and resource efficiency. In February 2007, we announced the Virgin Earth Challenge - a $25 million prize to encourage a viable technology which will result in the net removal of anthropogenic, atmospheric greenhouse gases. In July of the same year I had the honour of joining my good friend Peter Gabriel, Nelson Mandela, Graça Machel, and Desmond Tutu to announce the formation of The Elders, a group of leaders to contribute their wisdom, independent leadership and integrity to tackle some of the world's toughest problems. I am also very proud of the work of Virgin Unite, our not-for-profit entrepreneurial foundation, which continues to focus on entrepreneurial approaches to social and environmental issues and enjoy supporting their work in every way I can.

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