Blogs & Comment

To build a rewarding career, start by listening


It’s often easy to spot an inexperienced leader. If you see someone raising his voice at employees, stuttering nervously in front of a group or avoiding admitting when he’s wrong, that’s a person who is just starting out.

If you want to stand out as a leader, a good place to begin is by listening. Any organization’s best assets are its people, and if you are ready to help the team to achieve its goals, you can start gathering information on how to move things along just by paying attention to what employees are saying.

This skill will help you throughout your career. Leaders who are great listeners are often terrific at uncovering and putting in place strategies and plans that have a big impact. (A term one of my editors suggested is “force multipliers.”)

Virgin’s successes have allowed my colleagues and me to devote a lot of our time and energy to helping others. Providing the encouragement and advice that young people need to start companies and help their communities is one of the most rewarding things we do.

There is never enough time or money to help everyone who needs it, so we use our background in business and leadership to try to reach as many people as we can—multiplying our forces! We supply practical advice through discussions and speeches; offer courses at our Branson Centres for Entrepreneurship in Johannesburg, South Africa, and Montego Bay, Jamaica; and provide access to a network of mentors through our foundation Virgin Unite.

We rely heavily on social media to get our message out, and on Feb. 13 I took part in a Google hangout arranged by Virgin StartUp, with a group of young entrepreneurs who were launching their businesses with assistance from the Start-Up Loans Co., an initiative funded by the British government. All of them were looking for insights to help them kick-start their companies, trying to find cost-effective solutions that make their rather meager resources go far.

Adam Jones, one of the co-owners of CrossFit Witham, a minimalist gym in the city of Lincoln, explained that what sets his fledgling business apart is its friendly atmosphere. His gym only offers free weights—no treadmills or weight machines—and no heating in winter; everyone is expected to pitch in, and they work out together. This has fostered a close community among the members, and Adam wanted to know how to keep that personal touch when his business expands to new sites and as membership increases.

I explained that we at Virgin often worry about the same things as our startups become established. In every case, maintaining the staff’s connections with the customers and each other helps to preserve that unique energy.

I suggested to Adam that he delegate more decisions to his team, so they can run the first club and maintain and grow those relationships. In the meantime, his job should be mostly to look for and set up the second site. His company’s potential for growth hinges on his ability to let go.

Tom Travers and Sophie Frost, the co-founders of Yucoco, have a different challenge as they try to build their brand in the confectionery market. Their business idea does stand out: Yucoco helps customers to design and create personalized chocolate bars using an array of tempting toppings and chocolate options, with delicious results. Their challenge is to break through in a market where enormous advertising budgets are the norm.

Tom and Sophie just launched their startup in January, and they asked me for advice on how to tell potential customers about their chocolates and their brand. I explained that customers are an artisan confectioner’s best advocates—word-of-mouth marketing will be the most effective way of spreading the news. Knowing this, they should look to social media to promote their new bars and flavors. The early signs are good, judging by their efforts online, and I’m looking forward to tasting the chocolate bar they’re creating for me.

After 40 years in business, I really enjoy helping young entrepreneurs to get started, and conversations like these sometimes provide me with new insights as well. This is a true “force multiplier,” in that we help each other. Through discussion and listening, you can stumble on solutions that no one else has thought of—solutions that will help you to create your unique foundation for success.

Richard Branson is a philanthropist, adventurer and founder of the Virgin Group and companies