You may have heard of Richard Branson. He’s the founder of the Virgin Group, a multinational conglomerate with 69,000 employees spread over 60 different companies and gross revenues that top $20 billion yearly.

What you may not know, however, is that he started small. Very small, in fact. When he got his start in 1970, he bartered rent for his record store that sat above a shoe shop in London. 

So how did Branson get from his small business beginnings to the global empire he runs today? By doing something many business owners struggle with: giving his team the freedom and independence to build the company alongside him. In other words, he practiced employee empowerment.

Employee empowerment defined

What is employee empowerment? It’s when you give your employees autonomy over the decisions they make in their day-to-day work.

You’re probably used to telling your team what to do and how to do it, but employee empowerment embraces the idea that the people you hired should have your trust and authority over the business choices they make, as well as responsibility for the outcomes.

How employee empowerment and ‘intrapreneurship’ drove Virgin’s success

Consider this amazing fact: Virgin is not one giant business entity, but instead, each one of the dozens of businesses that make up the Virgin Group operates independently. They own assets, make decisions, hire and fire, and are managed self-sufficiently.

Yes, Branson and Virgin have an overall controlling interest, but the company is set up to give its businesses and employees as much autonomy as possible.

“You need to give your people the freedom to get creative to come up with their own ideas and run with them,” Branson writes in a blog post for Entrepreneur, “…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.”

This idea of creating “internal startups” is often called “intrapreneurship,” and it’s an idea business owners should consider. When you empower employees to be creative and innovate, they can be more engaged, happier, and harder working, which positively impacts the company as a whole.

The benefits of employee empowerment

For many small business owners, giving employees more freedom is easier said than done—because, frankly, many are control freaks. And that actually makes sense. Successful businesses are often created by hard-working, driven people with a vision. They have a strong work ethic and likely an even stronger ego. 

So why should you hand over the reins?

Consider what truly motivates employees to help you achieve your vision. People don’t just work for money. Employees work to make a difference, to feel satisfied, to learn new skills, and yes, to socialize. 

So when a small business owner does not give their team room to operate, what you can end up with is a boring, stagnant business and culture; one where people are not engaged, do not feel challenged, and do not give their best.

On the other hand, the Virgin Group is just one employee empowerment example that shows how trust and freedom can foster innovation, motivate your team, and drive results.

Studies also support this method. According to the Journal of Applied Psychology, empowerment is “positively associated with a broad range of employee outcomes, including job satisfaction, organizational commitment, and task and contextual performance, and is negatively associated with employee strain and turnover intentions.”

It bears considering: Letting go of some of your tight control over the business you care so much about can actually help your team—and in turn your company—thrive.

How to embrace employee empowerment in your business

There are two ways to create a corporate culture: by design and by default. Many small businesses fall into the latter category. In the early days, owners rarely (if ever) think about culture and instead are hyper-focused on perfecting their offerings or building revenue streams.

The method I recommend is by design. That is what Virgin does, and in fact, that is what all great businesses do. A smart company culture is critical because it ensures that everyone on the team knows what to do and how it should be done.

Steve Jobs infused Apple with his design ideas and hard-working ethic. Jeff Bezos’ customer-centric vision permeates everything Amazon does. These are cultures of design that allow the CEO to know that their vision for the business is being carried out, even when they are not at every meeting or making every decision.

For the small business owner, the key to giving employees productive independence is to have a set of values that you consider critical to the business and then to share these values consistently. Reinforce them in all you do and reward employees who promote them properly.

By doing so, your vision will be carried out, even when you are not around. Thus, you can have faith that the stellar team you assembled for their skills and talent will ensure your business is growing unhindered and on the right path.

What we can learn from Branson is that what makes a company work, what can make it special, extraordinary even, is a culture that fosters and celebrates employee independence.

People are fundamental in driving the success of a business,” Branson writes on his blog. “If you treat your staff like the smart and capable adults they are—and give them the choice to make informed decisions—you will cultivate an environment in which everyone can flourish.”

Take it from me. I used to try and do everything myself in my content business. But it was only when I brought in the right teammates and gave them room to work that my business exploded. After that, I had more time to grow the business and do what I do best. Their freedom gave me more freedom. 

Branson puts it best:

“We can all create our own luck by taking the necessary risks to open the door to change, progression, and success.”

By being open to a few smart changes in your business, you open the door to opportunities for growth. Not a bad trade-off.

Steve Strauss Steve Strauss is a lawyer, speaker, and USA Today small business columnist. He's the best-selling author of 17 books, including The Small Business Bible.
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