Q: There are so many businesses within the Virgin Group. Is there a single overall vision for the group, or does each business have a separate vision? I am interested in this question because I have a single business concept, but also different sub-businesses that work within its umbrella.
-- Donald Lynn Coates, Baton Rouge, La.
A: When Virgin started expanding from the music business into other industries, the experts and our competitors advised us strongly against such moves, arguing that it was inevitable that we’d fail. Not only did we lack expertise, they pointed out, but this did not fit into Virgin’s overall mission. At last count, we have started up more than 400 companies since then, and as the success of our group has proved, your vision for your company should not be so restrictive that it limits your team’s imagination.
You need to develop an overall vision for your company - one that is strongly supported by a more targeted strategy at each business that falls under your umbrella. The two things are not mutually exclusive, but complementary: One should not override the other.
Starting up a business is always an adventure, and not everything comes together for every entrepreneur in the same way. As you face the challenges of keeping your business going, you may find that your vision for the company needs to be adjusted as you go.
I started my first business, Student magazine, to give young people in the 1960s a voice on the key issues of the day. The war in Vietnam was becoming a major problem and, at 16, I wanted to create a strong platform to campaign against the war. The magazine spawned a mail-order record business, which in turn led to us create a chain of record stores, then a recording studio, then a record company - and with that, we launched the Virgin brand.
Looking back, our goals certainly changed and expanded over time, but there was a key element that was common to all of those enterprises: They were created to enhance people’s lives. Our strategy varied in most instances - by offering better prices, improved products, great service or by raising awareness of key issues - but our businesses were bound together by this common purpose. Like most entrepreneurs, I was learning to lead our group as it grew, and this foundation helped me to create an overall vision for our company.
That was fundamental to our achieving continuing success. Almost 50 years later, we remain extremely focused on our vision of improving society, though the industries where we now operate include airlines, mobile phones, banking and space tourism, among many others, and we work in dozens of countries. We have also established a non-profit foundation, Virgin Unite, to work on issues such as climate change, conservation, and peace and reconciliation, and also to foster entrepreneurship.
When you are establishing and leading a group of businesses, you must avoid imposing control from the top. If you do, you will stifle your management teams, preventing them from establishing truly differentiated businesses, each with its own strong sense of purpose and distinctive vision.
The art of delegating
Instead, you must learn to delegate, since there is no way you will be able to keep on top of each business’s particular challenges. I have always delegated a lot of operational control to my senior teams. This has enabled me to focus on the bigger picture or vision for the company while our teams ensure that we maintain focus on providing great quality, innovation and service.
How will you know when you’ve achieved the right balance? Because there will be similarities in how your businesses operate.
A uniting factor among Virgin businesses is the sense of humour and everyday lightheartedness we bring to our jobs, which creates an enjoyable experience for customers. It stems from our focus on shaking up the markets and offering a new way of doing things.
Whether you are dealing with Virgin Atlantic, Virgin Money, Virgin Active or our various Virgin Mobile businesses around the world, you will notice this distinctive difference - we do not take ourselves overly seriously. What would be the fun in that?
Whatever your vision is for your company, remember to keep it clear and full of purpose, and you are on the way.
Mr Branson is the founder of the Virgin Group. Email: RichardBranson@nytimes.com.