Q: How can I delegate financial duties and responsibilities to my colleagues at work without turning into a lunatic who's always balancing accounts with a scientific calculator?
--Elias Nyaga, Nairobi, Kenya
As the head of a company you'll find that there are many areas that need your consideration. Trying to divide your time sensibly and fairly across them all while you're balancing the books and steering the company is a real test.
That's why top finance directors are paid high sums to keep track of a company's profits (or, indeed, losses). It's no simple task.
It's understandable that you might choose to spend a lot of your own time focusing on the accounts when you're starting up your business. After all, every penny counts. After we launched Virgin Records, we often worried about where the next paycheck was coming from. I regularly spent months reviewing and signing every check we paid out.
I vividly recall a time when we were facing great financial difficulty at Student Magazine, my first business venture. John Lennon had promised to record a single in connection with our publication, but it hadn't materialized. I paid John and Yoko Ono a visit and found them mourning the loss of their baby. They had recorded its heartbeat -- they offered that recording to me as an alternative. Perhaps foolishly, I decided to turn it down and scrap the edition.
In hindsight, one thing that I learned from that experience was that there are many other important factors to contend with besides the pressure of worrying about finances. Money might be the last thing you should be thinking about.
If you don't have a head for numbers, it's probably a good idea to let someone who is experienced in finance tackle the books. You should instead focus on the areas of the business you're best at and those you enjoy. But even if you are an expert at accounts, it will certainly benefit your business if you let colleagues help you out. While it may take some time before you fully trust others to take responsibility, the sooner this happens, the sooner you can start doing the real job of running a business.
It's clearly important that you keep a close eye on the numbers when you're starting up a business, but it may become less of a focus for you over the years. I've found that if you ensure that your staff and customers are happy and that your product or service is of good quality, the finances often take care of themselves.
This has been particularly important at Virgin Active, our health club business. The sector is riddled with failed businesses and small companies that have survived but are unable to expand. In contrast, our management team, led expertly by Matthew Bucknall, has built a successful health club chain that is now operating in six different countries. They followed this formula: Each CEO at the national level is allowed the autonomy he or she needs to build the business -- a strategy that takes into account the need for local intelligence and local touches.
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So my advice is to delegate, but keep your eye on how the business is doing. There's no better way to do that than through personal visits to staff and customers. It is crucial that you get out there and meet them. My family taught me to always look for the best in people, to enjoy the time spent together and to learn from such experiences. These are useful skills for any business leader, and they can't be exercised from behind a desk.
When we launched Virgin Money, I met with staff members at branches up and down the country. The insight those visits gave me were priceless. If I ever needed convincing that investing in a bank was the right thing to do, well, the stories I heard that week confirmed it. To see so many employees enthusiastic and proud to be working for Virgin made me even more excited about the future of our bank. We very much wanted Virgin Money to be the start of something different, and it was great to see that everyone was onboard.
None of us has the answer to every challenge, but you can rest assured that if you have a question, there's likely to be someone on your staff who has the right answer. Delegate and see.