Richard Branson: Nice Guys Can Finish First
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Q: I’d like to ask a philosophical question: I have been trying to get my business off the ground, and I often feel that I have to get very aggressive with suppliers and service providers. I hate being aggressive, but I hate it more when my success (and survival) is hampered by others who don’t perform as they should.
I have come to believe that only very aggressive people get ahead. Yet I look at you and wonder: Are you aggressive in business or do you have a technique that serves you well while keeping your composure when faced with trying situations? I once met you and found you to be very friendly and relatively soft-spoken. -- Marco, South Africa
A: Thanks, Marco -- a nice set of easy questions to start off with!
Take the one about aggression. There are lots of ways to get your point across and make your business successful without being aggressive. Always remember that you love what you do and your role is to persuade others to love your business, too, and, therefore, to want to work with you.
I hope we are successful at Virgin because we engage with everyone in a positive, inclusive manner rather than in an aggressive, combative or negative way
If the companies or individuals you deal with do not respond to a positive approach, ask yourself if they are the companies you should work with. For every supplier out there that is aggressive, there are another five that will want to work with you -- in a way that allows you and your business to be true to a more inclusive and positive partnership.
The tone of your question suggests that not knowing how to deal with under-performing staff causes you a lot of stress. If a member of your team is not performing as you expect, don’t write him or her off immediately. At Virgin if an employee is not doing well in one area, I feel that he or she should be given the opportunity to try out in a different Virgin job.
Firing people should never be your first option. In some cases, when letting people go is your only option, prepare for the conversation with constructive suggestions about why it is not working out and other ideas the employee should pursue. That will help make the process easier for both of you.
I agree that a strong personality is a great asset when starting up your business. So is confidence to follow a vision. But listening to others and the art of delegation are key skills to add to the mix.
It’s often hard to get past your own feelings of frustration when dealing with others. Delegating to a member of your team brings a fresh pair of eyes and often a different approach and perspective.
One of my key lessons over the years has been to surround myself with great management teams who complement me and ensure that we have the all-around skills to make our businesses succeed. Our chief executives at Virgin Group and businesses like Active, America, Atlantic, Trains and Money have built strong businesses blending their personalities and skills on top of the Virgin culture I helped found.
As for negotiation: The key is to remain calm and collected. If you are getting angry, take a deep breath, realize you are taking it too personally and, even, take a step back. Rely on those around you to help you out. Teamwork can often win.
You can negotiate competitively without aggression. Understand what you want to achieve and what leverage you possess to help you reach your goals. Less aggression and more determination is what you need.
I often find, after a tough set of talks, that it is good to go out for a drink or two and get it off your chest! You may have a sore head in the morning but relying on and confiding in your team will often help you put everything in perspective.
As entrepreneurs we have to make tough calls. You ask if this requires a ruthless streak. I don’t think I’m ruthless (although a few people who don’t really know me and have never met me have portrayed me that way!). Actually, it is counterproductive to be ruthless. People tend to come back and do more business if they feel they have done well with you. That attitude has helped me over the years to attract and keep good partners and staff.
My ability to listen to other people and accept it when their suggestions are better than mine has been useful during my 40 years in business. I’m never too proud to admit I’m wrong or take action when others’ suggestions are better.
My last suggestion is: Remember to have fun. There is no point in being in business if it is not fun. Have fun with your team, your suppliers and the companies you work with. It is so much more rewarding to build up rapport than to find yourself in a constant battle. Don’t take everything so personally. Let your hair down now and again. And have some fun. Look at me – it’s a philosophy that has served me well for 40 years!
© 2010 Richard Branson