How to bring the personal touch to Big Business

Try to run your big company like a small one—and don’t forget: hold lots of parties.

(Photo: Michael Hitoshi)

Running a big company as if it were a small one, as we do at Virgin, comes with tremendous advantages. Small businesses can often adapt quickly to changing circumstances; they can bring a personal touch to customer service that big multinational concerns can’t hope to match; and their managers and leaders can foster a real sense of community and commitment among employees.

Many readers have written to ask how to replicate this structure at their startups. Our experience shows that some specific traits must be built into your company’s culture from the beginning, and nurtured as your company grows.

Build an engaged team and foster morale: When you’re running a small business, it is likely that you will do all the hiring yourself and will know whether your employees are happy, how they’re doing and who is ready for a promotion. But as your small business grows larger, you will have to hand these responsibilities to others.

You must continue to find ways to make sure that employees are happy and engaged in their work, and not being treated like cogs. We have managed this at Virgin in part by attracting great people who genuinely enjoy what they are doing. And we often promote from within, so employees who have shown commitment and vision can carry on with their work. In turn, their colleagues and employees see them as role models as they rise through the organization.

Hire people for managerial positions based on whether they care about people and know how to motivate them. Your managers should care as much about the mailroom workers and janitorial staff as they do about their fellow directors.

For a small-business owner, it doesn’t take much to build up team spirit—just fire up the barbecue and supply some drinks. If you’re running a large company, encourage your CEOs, managers and team leaders to throw parties for their employees.

If your employees are happy, your customers will be, too: When your business is small, you will likely know many of your customers personally. At this level, it can be easy to make good decisions based on each customer’s situation. As your small business becomes a large concern, you and your employees should never lose sight of your customers. This may seem difficult, but a group of people who genuinely enjoy their work and who are led by caring, helpful managers can accomplish extraordinary things.

A company can succeed or fail based on its customer service, as shown by Virgin America’s story. Much smaller than its American rivals, our airline has won fans, awards and market share by focusing on the customer experience and investing in its staff.

Delegate, delegate, delegate: This is one of the most important skills for an entrepreneur—as you hire terrific people, let them do their jobs. With your example and encouragement, managers across the company will do the same, including allowing front-line staff to bring a personal touch to customer service.

When your business has grown large enough, you must let go the reins, empowering your team to run the company and even to make the odd mistake. Only a few years after we founded Virgin, I chose to bring in good people to run the companies, but I did not step away from the group. Instead, my job changed.

Even after you’re no longer CEO, you must continue to contribute to your company in the most essential ways that you did back when it was a startup: by staying connected to your staff and your customers and using what you learn from them.

If I am on a Virgin plane, I talk to the passengers and chat with staff. I go out with the staff in the evening. I take notes and then circle back to the CEOs with ideas. If some suggestions are put into place, it sparks many more, which improve morale and decision-making, making the company more responsive and flexible.

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