Editor's Note: Entrepreneur Richard Branson regularly shares his business experience and advice with readers. What follows is the latest edited round of insightful responses. Ask him a question and your query might be the inspiration for a future column.
Question: A year ago I reached the point where I needed someone to help me manage the business. I'm confident that my new manager works with the company's best interests in mind, but I am hearing from employees that she is causing them stress, and that she can be annoying and disrespectful. Her behavior has even led to the resignations of some longtime workers.
I don't want to fire her because I think that she does her job in an honest way. What should I do? -- Name withheld, Colombia
Answer: When a business founder steps away from day-to-day operations and brings in someone from outside the company to run things, some seasoned staff members may feel slighted while others may react negatively to a new manager's way of doing things. It is a tough change to execute -- many small and midsize businesses fail to make this transition.
First, your instinct to remove yourself from the situation was the right one -- I did this myself! It will help you find the next great opportunities for your company and give you time to work out how to capitalize on them. And your decision not to fire your manager straight away was the right one. It's important that you get this right, because if you assemble a great team -- one that understands your vision for the business and can come up with creative solutions to problems – it will expand your effectiveness exponentially. But you need to work out quickly why there is such tension at your company.
Related: Richard Branson on Time Management
Sit down with your new manager and ask her how she feels she is doing. Don't just talk with her about her relations with the staff, but also try to get a sense of the larger picture. Find out what problems she sees affecting the business, how she is trying to fix them, and how that process is going. Her difficulties with the staff may be prompted by her frustration or insecurity.
Sometimes the founder's shadow can make managers jittery, affecting how they deal with employees. Consider whether you are giving the new manager the space she needs to run the business: Are you still in the big corner office? Are you in the office most days of the week? Does the staff still look to you to make the big decisions? Ask your manager for her perspective.
Finally, walk your factory floor, visit your shops and stroll through your offices, and ask your employees how they feel business is going. How is the mood? Do people seem discouraged or frustrated, or are they seeing progress toward a goal? Do they feel that their ideas are valued? Whether you find that employees are happy or discouraged, try to find out why, so that you can understand how your manager's strengths and weaknesses are affecting people throughout the company.
Once you have assessed whether it is your manager, your employees, your continued presence, or a combination of all three that is preventing this transition from working well, you must act decisively. If you find that you are the source of the problem, the solution is obvious: get out of everyone's way. If possible, move your office to another building.
If it turns out that the manager is not right for this job, you must proceed carefully. Firing should only be a last resort, and if it must be done, it should be done thoughtfully and kindly. In most cases, a person who does badly at a job is not lazy or difficult, but has been promoted to a role that is not suited to his personality.
Then, when you are searching for your manager's successor, look for someone who genuinely cares about others, who is a great motivator and who brings out the best in your employees. At Virgin we have found that the best solution is to promote from within whenever possible, so that we know our managers' strengths very well and we can be sure that they understand the brand. Then try to make yourself redundant, and stay out of the new manager's way.
Whether or not your current manager continues to lead the company, you have to find a way to defuse the tensions of the past few months. It may be that you will find that you simply need to talk to a few of your people about the transition and help them to understand what has changed and why. Or if you need to reach more employees, consider throwing a party to give them the opportunity to get to know the manager. Whatever your solution is, keep the message positive, and avoid any hint of blame; everyone needs to focus on the road ahead.