After an entrepreneur has expanded his successful new company or a chief executive has been promoted to the large corner office, he may sooner or later find himself starting to lose touch with employees and customers.
This happens for a variety of reasons. Most executives, for example, will tend to minimize bad news in front of the CEO and emphasize only positive developments in the company. But this leaves the CEO forced to read between the lines, and it may leave employees unable to get action on an issue—all because of the fear that admitting there is a problem might embarrass a manager or supervisor. Instead, they learn not to ask, but work around the problem while, understandably, griping about management.
So if you find yourself losing touch, one of the best solutions is to take some time to find out what the staff is actually doing on a day-to-day basis. Spend at least a few hours observing operations, and if you are qualified, borrow a desk, grab a phone and lend a hand. Or if you’re visiting the customer service staff, field at least a few calls from customers yourself.
As you observe and work, ask yourself: What are the employees’ working conditions? Do people seem energetic and creative? And ask employees: Do you have the resources you need to do your job well? If you could, what problems would you fix? What ideas of yours has your manager followed up on?
Throughout most organizations, all supervisors, from team leaders to top managers, need to periodically dig in and get their hands dirty. At the executive level, accessibility is key. You must ensure that the staff is consistently encouraged to contact you with ideas and problems. The larger the business, the more important this is.
If you are losing touch with employees, it’s also likely that you need to work on maintaining your connection to customers. Most executives and managers tackle this second challenge partly through surveys and other tools that evaluate the customer experience, while some—myself included!—have embraced social media, keeping clients updated through Facebook, Twitter, YouTube and other channels.
This column, which I have been writing for just over a year, is a new channel for me. To my surprise, I have found that not only has my advice and experience been reaching aspiring entrepreneurs, but also that I, in turn, have been getting a different perspective on our operations around the world. The hundreds of emails I receive every week bring up a lot of questions, some new ideas and a few telling customer comments—some good, some bad.
One example, sent to me over the recent holidays, highlighted how valuable it is to get direct feedback from customers. On 18 December, a Virgin Atlantic flight from Kenya to London was diverted because of the heavy snow at Heathrow. The flight was forced to land in France where, thanks to strict European immigration laws, many of our Kenyan passengers were barred from leaving the airport and had to sleep on camp beds.
The uncomfortable conditions and the unfriendly welcome distressed many of our passengers. I received a number of angry emails from readers of this column in Kenya who were either passengers on that flight or who had heard about the ordeal. I wrote an apology that was published in The Nation in Kenya, promising we would take up the matter with the French authorities and ensure it did not happen again.
The positive emails that followed let me know that what had threatened to become an ugly incident had been addressed by my direct intervention. The incident underlined for me the idea that however you can, wherever you can, you must always find ways to keep in touch with your employees and your most far-flung customers. Embrace every opportunity—you never know what you will learn!
Just remember that when you establish or re-establish those relationships with customers and especially with employees, you are not always going to hear pleasant news. But as I have mentioned before, the best managers try to catch people doing something right: Re-energize employees by showing them that change is possible and action is valued. At Virgin Active in South Africa, our health-club company, we’ve seen the value of quick follow-up via our WOW awards, which publish employees’ new ideas on the company intranet and in staff newsletters. The best ideas are celebrated at our awards ceremonies.
If inertia has set in at your company, it’s time to show people that their contributions are appreciated. A simple idea can go a long way. When Virgin Active employees expressed a desire to gain experience at other branches, we set up a staff exchange programme. Seven employees are now working in our European operations; and a related project has resulted in our developing an enhanced pack of information for new employees that has helped to engender greater loyalty right from the start. A final note: Even though my column has helped me forge another bridge to customers and staff, I rely on you, my readers, to keep your questions coming. Please send in your emails and I will respond to as many as I can.
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. You can follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/richardbranson.