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Back to basics: Leadership roles

Back to basics: Leadership roles
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First Published: Mon, Oct 17 2011. 08 38 PM IST

Virgin Galactic’s private SpaceShipTwo spacecraft. Photo: Bloomberg
Virgin Galactic’s private SpaceShipTwo spacecraft. Photo: Bloomberg
Updated: Mon, Oct 17 2011. 08 38 PM IST
I love adventure, so I have always loved my job as an entrepreneur. Every day, the challenges are different: from finding investors to setting up customer support, each problem involves a new set of personalities and dilemmas, the resolution of which requires every bit of creativity and insight you can muster.
Especially during a business’s early years, an entrepreneur must be both manager and leader to succeed. The readers of Entrepreneur magazine in the US recently sent in some questions on these topics—let’s take a look at some basic skills you can work on.
What are some of the biggest business roadblocks you have encountered?
— Mike J.
I tend to be instinctive in my business decisions and choices, sometimes making moves counter to the standard advice of industry experts and management gurus. This has meant that over the years, one of the biggest challenges (and useful checks) I have faced is in trying to convince my colleagues to pursue a new venture, especially if we are considering entering an industry in which we have no experience.
Virgin Galactic’s private SpaceShipTwo spacecraft. Photo: Bloomberg
The best way you can test your idea’s merit is by trying to win the support of your colleagues and board members. This process is not just about the nuts and bolts and market analysis: you have to explain your creative vision in such a way that you convince your entire team and, eventually, everyone who will someday contribute to the project, from investors to front-line workers, that success is within reach. It is a difficult test of leadership, requiring strong communication and interpersonal skills, true command of detail, and creativity in problem solving.
When I took the idea of starting Virgin Atlantic to my colleagues at Virgin Records, they thought I was crazy and the venture too risky. I was sure it would work, so I stuck to my guns: I found financing for the start-up and then leased a plane. As I proved that it could be done—that we could carry out the initial steps successfully and with style—I gradually won them over.
I repeated the trick with the launch of Virgin Blue (now Virgin Australia), which all my senior colleagues had vetoed. Many of their concerns involved practical questions: how we would compete with two major domestic airlines, find the right staff, buy airplanes, and so on. Once Brett Godfrey (who became the airline’s founding CEO) got back to us with the answers, I backed his vision. Despite the tribulations of the airline industry, Virgin Atlantic is going strong 27 years later, and Virgin Australia is still expanding after more than a decade.
If you run into roadblocks, review your ideas again with your trusted advisers. If, after they have raised objections or pointed out weaknesses in your plan, you are not sure whether to proceed, consider: Are you passionate about your venture? Would you carry out your plan even if there was no money to be made? Do you truly believe in what you do? If the answer is yes to all three, you will very likely overcome any obstacles you encounter.
How do I improve my management skills? Are there any books I should read?
— Sraj
Management skills are honed on the job, not by sitting through a course or reading a book. Books are useful for providing others’ perspectives on common challenges, but there is no substitute for time spent on the factory floor or at the office.
No matter what industry you’re working in, the skills you need as a manager are almost entirely interpersonal: to be able to treat your colleagues and employees with the same respect and understanding as you do your family and friends, no matter what the situation. This is not easy for everyone, but it is a key to success in business—and in life.
Above all, remember the value of praise, which is not limited to just making people feel good. Understanding what a person does well and discussing it in detail will help you to get a clear sense of what could be done to improve your business even further. Then act on what you’ve learnt. When people know that they are valued, listened to, and recognized for their accomplishments, they are more at ease and more open to discussing what they’d like to do better and why. And in the larger picture, the ripple effect that a “thank you” call or a celebratory email to staff can have on morale is priceless.
If you are really set on reading a book about management, I’d recommend Business Stripped Bare—I have heard that the author is someone you can trust!
By NYT Syndicate
©2011/Richard Branson
Richard Branson is the founder of the Virgin Group and companies such as Virgin Atlantic, Virgin America, Virgin Mobile and Virgin Active. He maintains a blog at www.virgin.com/richard-branson/blog.
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First Published: Mon, Oct 17 2011. 08 38 PM IST
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