People Power The Real Engine of Any Business

Let’s get right to the point: good people are not just crucial to a business, they are the business!

Finding them, managing them, inspiring them and then holding on to them is one of the most important challenges a business leader faces, and your success or lack thereof plays a vital role in the long-term success and growth of your business.

What is a company but a collection of people? Take an airline- the aircraft it flies are pretty much the same of a muchness and there is often only a slight difference in the difference in the entertainment and food. What sets one airline apart from its peers is its people (aka cabin crew) and their attitude towards their passengers. Our Virgin airline crews are smiling, cheerful and pleased to help, which leaves our passengers wanting to fly with us again.

It is no surprise that, like Virgin Atlantic before it, Virgin America, which flies within the United States, constantly sweeps the travel awards for service and quality. Its planes are new, with great interiors and entertainment; but above all, the great service of its crews is what wins so many plaudits.

People are your key asset. On the front lines of business, they can make or break a company. As I constantly remind our managers and other budding entrepreneurs, a true sense of pride in the business makes all the difference.

Even the best people need great leadership. A good leader must know the team, its strengths and weaknesses; socializing and listening to the team face to face is key. One of the most common reasons people leave a job is because they were not listened to. It’s rarely just about money, more often about frustration.

Like the proverbial bad apple, a bad leader can destroy a business very quickly. In small businesses this is easily apparent. On my island of Necker in the Caribbean, we once had a new general manager who tried to change the way things were done. Among other things he discouraged the staff from socializing over an occasional drink (or two!) with our guests, which rapidly soured the island’s historically collegial atmosphere. We had to step in to replace the manager and restore staff morale and the sense of management’s trust in them, which had been broken.

We also started some of out most successful businessness after pitches from our people. Virgin Blue, for instance, our Australian airline, (now known as Virgin Australia) was the brainchild of Brett Godfrey, an Aussie who had been working for Virgin in Brussels.

As only an Australian could, he came to me with his business plan written on a beer mat-outlining the start-up of a low-cost domestic carrier in Australia to take on Qantas and Ansett. In the intervening decade Brett has expanded Virgin Australia and its sister airlines to the United States, New Zealand, Thailand and Bali.

In other cases, we backed an outside team when we were sufficiently impressed by them to give them brand support and the space to go and build the new business themselves. Virgin Active, our health club chain, is a good example. Matthew Bucknall and Frank Reed came to me with the idea of a family-friendly health and fitness club in 1999. They had set up and sold a chain in the United Kingdom in the 1990s and wanted to do it again with the Virgin brand on the door.

We liked the idea and the management team, so we backed the rollout in the UK, and within two years were offered the opportunity (by Nelson Mandela himself!) to rescue a chain in South Africa. The active team jumped at the chance and haven’t looked back since. We now have more than one hundred clubs in South Africa and another hundred and sixty in the UK, Australia, Italy, Spain and Portugal.

Trust is a key facet of any business, but how you deal with being let down once can also contribute to success. Are you willing to give people a second chance?

When I was running Virgin Records, a member of the talent scouting team was stealing and selling boxes of records to local secondhand shops. Tipped off, I called him on it. He admitted everything. Rather than fire him, I gave him a severe warning and a second chance. Everyone messes up sometimes, I told him, and I said I expected him to learn from his mistake and get back to doing what he did best-finding artists. He went on to discover Culture Club, one of our biggest-selling artists on the 1980s.

We all slip up at some stage in our careers. I did. When I was a teenager, I fell foul of British customs as I was trying to sneak duty-free records out of the UK. I escaped a criminal record by paying a fine and was given a second chance. I think this has made m much more accepting and forgiving of other people’s mistakes.

So many companies compare themselves to family units that the word “family” appears to be solely overused in modern business. However, I really believe that Virgin’s family spirit has kept it flourishing for over forty years.

When the business was smaller, we had legendary parties at my house near Oxford. We set up a fairground with tents full of entertainment for the staff and their families. As we grew, the party turned into two parties and, pretty soon, they were two-week parties with 80,000 people just to make sure everyone was invited. By the end they had become three-week parties, and at that point the neighbours cried, ‘enough!’(and my hands cried ‘enough’) and we had to stop.

But we had established the culture-one built around people. People are the lifeblood of any company and, whether the neighbours like it or not, they need to be looked after and celebrated again and again!

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