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Business Tips and Insight
04 February 2015

Commentary on Richard Branson’s Advice for Entrepreneurs

I recently enjoyed a video interview of Richard Branson on Big Think. It’s well worth a watch, and you can find it and other videos by him here. In his video post, Richard gives advice to entrepreneurs. This week, we’ll discuss his advice, and explore possible methods of implementing them into our own working habits. But first, please take a look at the clip:

1. A Company is Simply a Group of People

I love hearing of stories of what a well motivated workforce can achieve. It’s telling that of all the factors that have contributed to Richard’s success in business, he focuses on listening.

As a mediator, I see first hand the damage done to employee motivation and company loyalty from the sense of helplessness fostered by being ignored. In the 21st century, there are still bosses up and down the country who have large mouths and no ears. But, when employers like Virgin, Microsoft, and Google invest so much in fostering cohesive and well motivated employees, you can be sure that the return on those investments are formidable.

So, lets explore for a moment what the dynamic of the employer/employee relationship is, in its core principle.

As an employer, you are purchasing the time and attributes of another in order to enrich yourself.

If someone is Charming, Funny, and Articulate, and you want to use that person to sell your product, you’re in effect taking their attributes for your own use. So, in order to maximise the benefit you receive from paying that person for their time and those attributes, you need to properly motivate them.

There are many fundamental points to cover in motivating a workforce, and a discussion on this topic could fill a long skills based course on its own. However, two of the main factors identified by Richard above are listening and praise.

So, how do you listen?

There are three skills that I would advise any employer or manager to practice. They’re not esoteric, but practical, and bear a tangible benefit.

Active Listening

On occasion, people are surprised when a person whom they felt was cold and distant has been actually listening the whole time. It is important to not only listen to what an employee is saying, but also to demonstrate that you are doing so. Even if you can’t alleviate the core concern, the very fact that you have listened to a person can improve a situation. In support of this claim, I refer to the figures published by James Rustidge in, ‘Analysis of Qualitative Data, Small Claims Mediation Service, April 2011- March 2012.’ His study looks at people locked in small claims litigation. Even a cursory glance at the figures demonstrates that when litigants felt they had been listened to, they were able to get their disputes resolved. In a workplace, this principle can serve to nip office conflict in the bud.

So, when listening to others, make sure that you engage with your whole body. Try to mirror their body language, nod along when appropriate, and stay engaged with your facial expressions and verbal ques. Though this may be difficult for some, investing the time and energy in developing this skill will bear fruit in the long run.

Check Your Understanding

Remember that everything you hear in conversation is tentative. You simply can’t be absolutely sure that you’ve understood what you’ve heard correctly. This may be due to your interlocutor’s inability to express themselves, or your inability to understand their meaning. So, when someone seems important, take the extra thirty seconds in making sure that you’ve understood properly. This needn’t be a clumsy question either. A quick summary of what they’ve said along with a, ‘did I get that right?’ can serve.

Verbal Economy

Silence is golden. If there’s a gap in conversation, resist the natural urge to fill it yourself. Instead, let your employee keep talking. At times, when you keep staring back expectantly, the other party may feel that they’ve not been sufficiently clear, or complete, and will volunteer more information to you. When in conversation, resist the urge to take it over, and give your employee a full opportunity to be heard, by using non-verbal ques such as hand gestures, and small phrases like, ‘go on,’ and, ‘tell me more about…’

So How do You Give Praise?

At length and often. But, on those occasions when you do need to bring something negative to a person’s attention, a construct termed the, ‘sandwich technique,’ can be useful. Here’s how you make a sandwich:

  • Step One: Say something genuine and positive
  • Step Two: Give your criticism in a neutral manner
  • Step Three: Say something else that’s genuine and positive

This doesn’t necessarily mean that the employee will listen to the positive comment. In fact, it is very likely that they’ll focus on the negative comment only. But, the purpose of the method above is to increase the likelihood of the feedback seeping through and reaching the person in a neutral and effective manner. This is an artificial construct and may come across as such, but do look at the literature on this and practice before deciding whether or not to employ the method yourself.

2. Autonomy and Independence

Another major nugget that I picked up from the interview with Richard Branson is autonomy. If you are to motivate a workforce, engendering brand loyalty and belief in the product that you are selling is key. But, further to paying employees, what else can you do? Instead of throwing in my two cents here, I’d like to recommend the following Ted Talk on Employee Motivation by Dan Pink.

From ancient Persian Satraps, to medieval fiefdoms, and modern corporate structures, when you give someone their own skin in the game and autonomy over their actions, you can both benefit. So, as a final point, if an entrepreneur like Richard Branson gives his various companies their own leeway, what’s stopping you from doing the same?

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