Set your employees free

Open up the decision-making process.

(Photo: George Diebold/Getty)

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 I enjoy. 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.

In the past year, we launched new Virgin mobile businesses in Chile and Poland, countries where our brand previously had no presence. This ordinarily would be a very difficult and somewhat risky project for any company, but we have a process that works very well. In Chile and Poland, teams assessed the needs and requirements of the markets, then structured the companies accordingly—there was no top-down pressure dictating how the companies should manufacture or sell their products and services, or otherwise conduct their daily business. Once employees had been hired to run the new companies, launch teams made sure everyone had a good understanding of what Virgin is all about and why our businesses are different from the competition.

Safe in the knowledge that these new companies were ready to do business the Virgin way, we were able to grant their employees the freedom to run them in whatever way best suited their respective markets. Both companies went on to have very successful starts.

Another of the areas where we ask many employees to make their own decisions is short-term profit: we focus less on this metric than most companies do. We all understand the importance of profit. However, this shouldn’t be, and never has been, our driving force. Our employees are free to take positive risks knowing that they will not solely be judged on a company’s profit margin, but also on factors that all of us at Virgin value, like raising awareness of the brand, creating happy and loyal customers or making a positive impact on the larger community. By giving employees the same freedoms that senior managers and I give ourselves, our team can successfully take on projects other brands can’t, such as Virgin Galactic and Virgin Oceanic—tourism companies set to expand travel to space and the ocean depths.

This policy also helps our employees to succeed because they can pursue their passions. 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—Virgin Records and Virgin Music did very well at music production and distribution—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.

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. 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. 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.

My advice to let your employees loose might not be for everyone—Virgin has a strong culture of ignoring the traditional rules of business. Our responsibilities may alter over the years—acquiring a bank or providing health-care services—but our formula for success remains constant: ‘’Don’t just play the game—change it for good.’’

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