After an entrepreneur has expanded his successful new company or a chief executive has been promoted to the corner office, he may 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 forces the CEO to read between the lines, and may leave employees unable to get action on an issue -- all because of the fear that admitting 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, take 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.
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 need to periodically dig in and get their hands dirty. At the executive level, accessibility is key. You must ensure your 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 e-mails 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 Dec. 18, 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 e-mails 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 e-mails 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 and wherever you can, find ways to keep in touch with your employees and customers. Embrace every opportunity -- you never know what you will learn!
Just remember 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. When Virgin Active employees expressed a desire to gain experience at other branches, we set up a staff exchange program. 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.
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.