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Retaining good workers - until it’s time to set them free


Published: May 06, 2013

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Q: How can one keep an outstanding employee who has voiced an interest in starting his own business?


— Name withheld, China


A: When you’re launching a startup, you need to attract the best, brightest and hungriest people you can find to join your team. Once they’ve been in place for a few years, though, holding onto those talented employees is not always easy. They are often motivated and independent, and a few may see working with you as a step toward going into business on their own.

Foresight is important in business: Don’t wait until an employee comes to you and says he’s ready to leave before you start thinking about what his goals are and what keeps him happy – this should be part of your hiring decision. Before you make a prospect a job offer, be sure to consider how his plans for his career fit with your company’s. If there’s a real mismatch, it’s unlikely you’ll be able to work together long.

Driven, enthusiastic team members will be your best assets, so if career advancement is an employee’s goal, look at the opportunities for stretch projects you can provide; if building technical skills is what another wants, consider what sort of training she can learn on the job; if work-life balance is another person’s focus, find out what that his needs are and then try to accommodate them. Then keep in touch with your employees and discuss how they’re progressing, because you’ll need to readjust this plan as they attain their goals and choose new ones.

If you are experiencing an unusual number of departures, you may want to ask yourself why this is: Perhaps your employees are feeling undervalued. If so, there are ways to satisfy their hopes for greater roles and more responsibilities.

The trick is to ensure that your staff feels empowered. As your team members grow into their jobs, give them real responsibilities: They’ll respect you for it and do everything they can to rise to the challenge. And when your company expands, this may give you an opportunity to take a page from Virgin’s book: Once Virgin Records grew large enough we split it in two, with different people running the separate businesses. There were many positives, but crucially, employees retained responsibility for their own projects and were not hampered by internal red tape and bureaucracy.

You need to give your people the freedom to get creative, to come up with their own ideas and run with them. If someone comes to you with an idea for a business, why not ask that person to launch a startup? Over the years some of our employees’ ideas have resulted in our setting up businesses. This has helped us to enter new markets and, more often than not, succeed. Your company should act as a springboard for ambitious employees, not a set of shackles.

Of course, if you have a staff member who is really flourishing, she may well get to the stage where she is keen to become her own boss, and when this happens you can’t blame anyone. As any entrepreneur will tell you, there’s nothing quite like running your own business. This is an opportunity for your company, not a setback. Bringing somebody new into the fold means that you will get a fresh perspective on your business and you’ll have the chance to add to your team’s skills and talents.

Be sure to stay connected with the person who is leaving – you may want to work together again someday. Some former Virgin employees have gone on to achieve wonderful things, like AirAsia’s CEO, Tony Fernandes. Tony had a very successful spell with us as a financial controller. Soon after he left, he accepted a job in Malaysia, his home country, then took over AirAsia and turned it into a budget airline. We’ve enjoyed a friendly rivalry over the years – we made a bet on whose Formula One race team would do better in 2010. I lost! This year we got the arrangements in place for me to make good on it, and so on May 12 I will be working as a flight attendant on a special AirAsia flight, donning the full uniform, including shaved legs and makeup. A good part of the proceeds will go to charity.

If your employee is departing, whether for a rival company or to start his own firm, the best thing you can do is to wish that person a warmhearted “good luck.” There are many paths your careers might take, and someday – who knows? – you may even decide to go into business together.


(Richard Branson is the founder of the Virgin Group and companies such as Virgin Atlantic, Virgin America, Virgin Mobile and Virgin Active. He has recently published two books: “Screw Business as Usual” and “Like a Virgin.” He maintains a blog at www.virgin.com/richard-branson/blog. You can follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/richardbranson. To learn more about the Virgin Group: www.virgin.com.)


(Questions from readers will be answered in future columns. Please send them to Richard.Branson(at)nytimes.com. The (at) represents the “at” symbol. Please include your name, country, email address and the name of the website or publication where you read the column.)


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