Richard Branson: How to delegate like a business mogul

It’s a funny little story. Richard Branson – the founder of Virgin group of companies – has started over 400 companies in the last 50 years. Everything from music record shops to an airline to selling insurance to a space tourism company. Branson started his first business when he was just 16 years old. And he built a conglomerate on top of his initial successes. 

Branson manages hundreds of teams and presides over countless board meetings every year. And yet, till the time he was 50 years old, he didn’t know the difference between gross profit and net profit.

Everyone who runs a business well knows that gross profits is the company’s earnings in that year: total revenue minus cost of goods sold. And net profit is the company’s gross profit minus all the expenses like rent and marketing and taxes.

But Branson had no clue what the difference between gross and net was. Whenever accounting terms were used in any meeting, Branson would just fake it that he understood things. And usually people could make out that he had no clue. When numbers were presented to him in meetings, half the time he didn’t understand if the numbers were good or bad.

It wasn’t until he was 50 that someone took him aside and taught him the difference between gross and net by helping him visualize how fishing is done with a net. The fish in the sea were gross, and the fish remaining in the net were the profits left over.

How can a person run 400 companies and become a multibillionaire when he doesn’t even understand how much profit his companies have made?

The Branson solution

Richard Branson is not your usual entrepreneur. He had dyslexia and had a lot of problems learning things when he was young. And these early experiences sculpted his entire being. 

When he was asked how he had run so many successful ventures without knowing the basics of accounting, he simply answered that one of the first things he had done was hire Jack Clayden. Clayden handled all the boring accounting things that Branson didn’t understand at all.  

Yes. Branson is successful because he understands how to delegate well.

“You can build one of the biggest companies in the world being dyslexic as long as you delegate,” – Richard Branson

How can you delegate like Branson?

There are 4 things Branson recommends when it comes to delegating like a pro.

1. The first thing you have to do before you build a team and start delegating tasks is understand your weaknesses. Know thyself. And know what you suck at. What you don’t like doing. 

2. The second thing is the obvious thing. Hire smart people who balance out your weaknesses. But the people you hire not only have to be smart, but they have to be helpful. Because if they are not helpful, they won’t work well in a team. 

3. The third step is crucial. You have to build a collaborative culture. You have to make the working environment feel safe. So that people can share ideas freely. And help others freely.

Emotional quotient matters while hiring. Branson has a neat trick: he tends to hire people who know how to praise. Because if people can’t praise well, they won’t be able to bring the best out of others.

A team made of people who know how to praise well will usually build a good safe collaborative culture.

4. The fourth step is staying connected. Don’t disappear after delegating. Be visible and approachable – even if you can’t be helpful to the task delegated itself.

PACE Delegation

Kevin Kruse who is a management guru and helps companies improve their employee engagement coined a term. PACE delegation. Because delegation has 4 steps. And his 4 steps map well to Branson’s.

  1. Prepare. Understand what will be needed by someone else to do the task well. Consider if they have the skills to do it.
  2. Assign. Assign and explain the task to others. Make sure they understand its importance and own it.
  3. Check-in. Don’t delegate and disappear. Check in and be helpful.
  4. Evaluate. At the end of the task evaluate the team member and the task done.

The biggest problem with delegation

But knowing that delegation is important, and understanding PACE delegation is still not enough. There is nuance that is lost. Because assigning the task properly is where a lot of things go wrong. 

Ask most employees and team mates. And they will tell you the story of 2 extreme managers. Either their manager assigns a task and then micromanages them. Or they assign the task and then disappear. Most people feel like they don’t get enough support.

So how do you fix that?

David Marquet’s 7 leadership communication levels

David Marquet was a navy captain and he was assigned a dreaded task: to captain the nuclear submarine USS Santa Fe. Why was it a dreaded task? Because USS Santa Fe was the worst performing ship in the entire fleet.

But Marquet turned it around. And made it the best run ship in the US navy. With the highest retention and operational standing. How did he do that? 

He understood that leadership is communication. You don’t blindly empower your people. You empower them based on their level of competence and clarity. You can’t assign the same task to a newbie in the same way you would assign it to someone experienced. Communication has to be different.

A leader’s job is to evaluate the level of competence of the employee. And assign tasks to him using the language of their level. From the order of least experienced to most, Marquet charted 7 levels of communication:

  1. I’ll tell you what to do…
  2. What do you see… ?
  3. What do you think… ?
  4. What would you recommend… ?
  5. What do you intend to do about… ?
  6. What did you do?
  7. What have you been doing?

If you tell a very experienced person exactly what to do, he will soon leave you. And if you ask a newbie for his opinion and his intention on how to solve a problem, you will get a lot of errors in output. Only when you chart your communication style to their levels of competence can you fix most problems with delegation.

Action Summary:

  • Delegate to grow. But delegation is more than just assigning the task. It’s about communicating with the people based on their current competence level.