This article was originally published on EO’s Inc.com column.
Michael Conway, an Entrepreneurs’ Organization (EO) member, is the Managing Director of Clothes2order.com, a fast-growing e-commerce company which supplies businesses, teams and communities with personalized clothing for uniforms, promotions and events. We asked Michael about the five days he spent with Sir Richard Branson.
Life is a constant learning curve and who better to coach entrepreneurs than Sir Richard Branson? Last year, I was privileged to be among a group of entrepreneurs invited to spend five days on Sir Richard’s breathtaking and idyllic Necker Island, which proved to be a surreal and hugely inspiring experience.
Initially, I was expecting limited access to him – perhaps a question and answer workshop – but the reality was completely different. We did take part in a Q&A session with the Virgin founder, but Branson was actually with us for much of our stay.
There were 30 of us, mainly from the United States with a sprinkling of participants from other nations, and we exchanged a lot of ideas about running successful businesses. But it was Branson who had the biggest impact, as he shared with us during formal and informal sessions some reflections on what makes him tick.
Think Big Picture
A key lesson was that entrepreneurs can be great at getting a business off the ground, but they are not necessarily the right person to run it and drive it forward. The skill set needed when employing three or four people is hugely different to that required when a company has 20-30 staff or even more, and the owner may not possess those qualities.
What Branson has done at Virgin is to focus on the big picture, strategy and the key decisions. From a day-to-day point of view, he does not run his businesses. The lesson for me was that business owners need to find someone who can run the company and let them get on with it, while owners think about the future. It has truly encouraged me to think bigger within my own company.
Branson’s views on leadership also made their mark on me. He believed that the leader should “always be the first one in the swimming pool” – leading by example while also putting the fun into business, which he takes to a whole new level.
He really knows how to enjoy himself, and he proved it by joining in the leisure activities with gusto – from paddle-boarding around the island and kite surfing, to dancing around the camp fire and walking across the tables. I never equated fun with leadership, but I do now.
Having fun can break down barriers and create unity. Encouraging people to enjoy themselves at work is really important and can have a huge and beneficial impact on a business.
Following my trip, we have made great strides by increasing revenues, doubling our production capacity and increasing our workforce. I’ve even strengthened the senior team by recruiting great people from outside and by promoting from within.
My trip to Necker Island inspired me to make my company a better place to work and since my visit, we have introduced an improved employee benefits package and have invested a considerable sum in leadership and management training for people at all levels. It’s paying off – we are recruiting and retaining great people and offering them tremendous opportunities to progress their careers with us.
I’ve learned to let the management team get on with running the business, and this has enabled me to step back from a lot of day-to-day stuff and focus on our strategy. Hiring great people from elsewhere and nurturing home-grown talent are absolutely fundamental to the future of the business, as is being completely clear about our objectives and goals. I’ve focused on giving the team the tools to succeed and then letting them get on with it.
I’ve been fortunate to meet some amazing business leaders and when it comes to Sir Richard Branson, I’m a strong believer in his approach. From just five short days, I’m continuing to implement lessons and ideas that are changing my company for the better!