Editor's Note: Entrepreneur Richard Branson regularly shares his business experience and advice with readers. Ask him a question and your query might be the inspiration for a future column.
Q: When a company is small (just 30 people), what's the best way to train new staff and help them to remain passionate about their work?
-- Name withheld, China
There is always something new to learn. The day you stop learning is the day you stop living. We should all pick up new skills, ideas, viewpoints and ways of working every day.
That said, the first goal of any new business is simply to survive -- you need to prove that your business model works. One of the best ways to do this is by hiring excellent people who believe in your company and share your goals, and then by helping them to learn and improve their skills. This isn't optional: If your best people aren't growing in their careers as your business gains traction and expands, they will quickly lose enthusiasm for their work. And before you know it, you'll be dealing with unsatisfied customers as well as unsatisfied employees.
Your employees' desire to learn gives you and other entrepreneurs a competitive advantage over larger companies. Small firms are usually new, so they attract people who are eager to try fresh approaches and have great ideas about how to do things differently, rather than employees who are working toward attaining a specific post or title.
You can capitalize on this advantage by letting your people run with their ideas -- and with such a small team, who else will? This is exactly the kind of training and career path that many creative people want: to be able to set challenging goals for themselves and then try to meet them, even if there's a chance that they may fail. If you give your employees significant responsibilities, you will be surprised at what they will achieve -- and in turn, you'll win their loyalty and commitment.
Once you have created this culture of opportunity, your people will see that there is scope for them to move up within the company. They will then be more likely to strive to master their current positions so that they can be considered for promotion and further development.
If your employees need help with their technical skills, you'll need to make up for your small budget by being smart about your training plans. Constantly improving and acquiring information technology skills is essential in many industries -- I myself have been brushing up on social media and blogging techniques with the help of our social media team. It may be relatively simple to find help online: Firms like General Assembly and Codecademy provide low-cost tools that you may find useful.
If a number of your employees need the same training, consider alternate methods. Rather than sending 10 people to the same program, can you negotiate to bring a trainer in-house, keeping costs down? Instead of enlisting expensive private-training companies, can you find experts willing to give talks to your team? Can you reach out to your mentors, perhaps from contrasting backgrounds, to discuss the issues with your team? This could be more interesting -- and more engaging -- than traditional training.
As your business grows, some of your new hires may need hands-on training. New employees at Virgin Trains learn about their jobs in a real carriage that has been decommissioned -- it even includes a catering car and a train driver's cab. But creating a practice area might not be an option for you. In that case, one of the simplest ways for you to train a new employee might be to set her up in a mentoring relationship with one of your best people. First, have her shadow her mentor for a few days. Once your new employee is ready to start work herself, ask the mentor to supervise her and continue to provide tips whenever she needs advice.
Remember to stay on the lookout for new technologies and opportunities, and arrange seminars so that you and your employees can explore them, even if you're not sure they can be immediately applied to your business. Who knows? You could be onto the next big thing -- and your team will be one step ahead.
As you help your people to build their skills, you'll need to think about how to retain them over the long term. One of the best ways is to promote from within whenever possible -- after all, who knows your company better? One of the examples at Virgin that comes to mind is the career trajectory of Virgin Galactic's wonderful chief pilot, Dave Mackay. His old job? He was captain of our Virgin Atlantic Airbus A340-600. Now he's in charge of taking tourists into space. That's career progression!
Whether you have 30 employees or 300, creating a culture of opportunity at your business will make a huge difference for your staff. Learning won't be restricted to set training periods, but will happen in all areas of your business, all day long.