You’ve heard it once, you’ve heard it a thousand times: companies should put the customer first. But this isn’t how one of the most successful entrepreneurs of our time sees it. Instead, Richard Branson, the founder of the Virgin mega corporation, says the companies need to put their employees first.
What? Is he mad?
It turns out that Richard Branson has some pretty good reasons for this. Despite flying in the face of conventional wisdom (something Branson loves doing), he’s found that putting employees first actually benefits his company and his customers.
Richard Branson , a man who almost has the word “brand” carved right into his name, says that a company’s brand is its most valuable asset. And that it isn’t advertising, but the people who work for that particular company who make the brand. The way he sees it, companies should do everything they can to make their employees happy, otherwise they won’t promote their brand, and the business will fail.
It’s a simple formula. So simple, in fact, that you wonder why it hasn’t been tried before. With a little thought, it seems totally obvious that happy employees would naturally translate into happy customers and a successful brand. Yet many companies appear to have it the other way around. Employees are only allowed to be happy if their targets are met – which, of course, they rarely are.
Richard Branson tells a cautionary tale. He points to numerous situations where a disgruntled employee has upset a customer and ruined the perception of a brand. People who have bad experiences with a company are far more likely to tell their friends how bad things were than they are with how good a particular service was, which is why maintaining great relationships with employees is so important.
But how do you do that in practice? How do you prioritize employees above customers and shareholders?
Allow Flexible Working Hours
In an interview posted on the official Virgin website, Richard Branson says that he thinks of all his employees as individuals: people who just like him have busy lives. He knows that sometimes life can get in the way of work. Children can get sick. A relative can pass away. Kids might need picking up from soccer practice. Rather than trying to get all employees to fit into a straight jacket, Branson says that companies need to forget the one-size-fits-all human resources policies and go with the flow. By offering workplace flexibility, he’s found that people actually work harder and longer, and they’re happy to do so, knowing that they can do the things that really matter in their lives if they need to.
Working people can often go for many years without actually spending any time doing the things that really matter to them. With tremendous work pressures and less than five weeks holiday per year, most employees simply don’t have the time to do the things they used to do before somebody told them they had to get a job.
The great thing about sabbaticals and extended periods of time off is that they allow people to recharge. Finally, they get an opportunity to travel, write a book or learn a new skill – things that they always wanted to do but never had the time. Richard Branson says that sabbaticals are important for helping people recover from corporate life and gain perspective.
Provide Colleagues With New Skills
When people first get a new role, they’re excited. Finally, something that offers a regular income. But over time, Richard Branson has noticed that people lose that initial spark. It’s not that conditions in their job have worsened – it’s just that they’re looking for new challenges and new mountains to conquer.
So what challenges can companies offer? One thing that all companies should be doing is providing CPR certification. With the state of the nation’s health, even people who are apparently healthy can suddenly suffer a massive cardiac arrest.Richard Branson says that Virgin integrates employee well-being into everything the company does.
Other innovate companies who look after their employees use similar approaches. Esteemed entrepreneurs Tony Hsieh of Zappos, for instance, has fundamentally changed the way career progression works in his company. Instead of employees being paid for a particular “job,” he pays them on the basis of the tasks that they perform in the enterprise. As such, if a colleague goes from answering the phones to managing a department, even if it’s just on a temporary basis, they get a boost in their pay.
And, of course, they’re not going into these new roles blind. Zappos actively encourages all employees to earn what it calls badges. These badges are awarded once a colleague has been through the requisite training to perform a particular role. Anybody who has done the training is allowed to perform the job, removing much of the traditional hierarchy in companies which stifles career progression.
Get Direct Feedback
How important is feedback? Very, if you ask Richard Branson. He says that he encourages employee feedback at every turn. Although he’s the CEO of the company, he’s not afraid to go right up to people who work at his organization and ask them if they’re happy with their conditions and what the company can do to improve as an employer. In the past, he has literally walked onto Virgin Atlantic flights and asked the cabin crew whether they are happy with their work and what, if anything, the company can do.
This sort of grassroots activism is what sets Branson apart from many company CEOs. He’s very much one of the workers himself, having grafted all his life from the very bottom to the top. He understands what sacrifice means, and so he recognizes the time and effort put in by his employees. To Richard Branson, employees aren’t to be exploited. They need to work hard, but the company looks after them at the same time.
In politics, there are no dictators, but in business there are many. Though the word dictator has negative connotations, it’s essentially what executives in companies do: they dictate policy and strategy.
Richard Branson understands that he’s a dictator. But he doesn’t think that dictators should be mean. Instead, he says that they should be benevolent, acting in the best interest of the people under them.
Despite anti-business sentiment in some of the left-leaning newspapers, nobody can accuse Richard Branson from being cold to his employees. He makes a habit of writing personal letters to individual colleagues, penned by his own hand. He’s intimately interested in what individual people in his organization do to make the company a better place.
Other entrepreneurs could learn a lot from this. If you go on to any marketing blog, you’ll find tips extolling the virtues of writing personalized emails and handwritten letters to customers. But what many of these business advice websites forget is that correspondence with colleagues can have a similar effect. It’s not every day that the leader of a multi-billion pound company takes the time to write to individual colleagues, thanking them for their hard work.
Use Nice Surprises
Finally, entrepreneurs should use nice surprises to spur their employees on. Too often, people get stuck in a rut and morale tanks. That’s why top entrepreneurs like Richard Branson are constantly looking for ways to surprise and inspire their colleagues to keep things fresh.
Evidence backs up this approach. According to research by Gallup, companies which engage their employees have higher productivity and lower absenteeism, as well as better safety than those that don’t. Staff who are motivated and happy at work will stick around for longer.
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