Editor's Note: Entrepreneur Richard Branson regularly shares his business experience and advice with readers. Ask him a question and your query might be the inspiration for a future column.
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Q: How much of an impact does a really effective networker have on a company's success? Does it ever make sense to hire someone whose only function is to make connections internally and externally? - Christine Rozman, Entrepreneur reader
Succeeding in business is all about making connections. While we at the Virgin Group have never hired anybody whose job description was limited to making internal and external contacts, it is implicit that almost everyone on staff has these skills. This has helped Virgin to expand into so many different industries, from music to mobile phone services: As we build connections in other areas, we have been able to grow our expertise and multiply our reach.
For an entrepreneur, the ability to forge connections is a great asset. When you're conducting business in a field where you don't have specialist expertise, it's often the only way to get a job done right. When our team at Virgin wanted to go to space, I looked for the best engineer in the world to help us build a spaceship. Once we'd connected with Burt Rutan, creator of the revolutionary SpaceShipOne, we were able to get to work on creating Virgin Galactic.
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I was thinking about your question in October, as we celebrated the 40th anniversary of the launch of Virgin Records -- time flies when you're having fun! We got the original gang back together and went for a tour of all our old haunts in London. It brought us back to the heady days in the '70s when Nik Powell was planning Virgin Records' expansion into retail, Simon Draper was out scouting the coolest new bands, Tom Newman was experimenting with new recording techniques and I was busily marketing our brand.
During the tour, we visited the church crypt that we used as an office for Student Magazine, the houseboat my family and I had lived on, and Virgin's original head office in Notting Hill. We wound it up at an exhibition, "Virgin Records: 40 Years of Disruptions," at Victoria House, where we celebrated in style. In retrospect, it was interesting how close the tour locations were -- in those whirlwind first years, we quickly built a creative community where lots of like-minded people lived and worked. Those connections benefited everyone involved, in the same way that the networks in Silicon Valley and London's Tech City have promoted innovation.
My three friends and I have had our fair share of arguments over the past four decades, as people will -- especially when they're running a global business together. But we all went on to work on different projects, and we were always ready to shake hands again. I'm delighted that we're still so close. Our celebration gave us a chance to renew those friendships and make new connections: Everyone is still full of ideas and working on various new ventures, and as we spent time together, we came up with more plans, as always.
That got me thinking about how important networking is for entrepreneurs, and how to encourage people to network. It's all about personal contact. No matter how heavy your workload is, do not allow yourself to work in your cubicle or office all day, every day -- for your own well-being and the health of your business, you need to get out and about, meeting people and developing relationships. If you discuss a work matter with an employee or a potential client over coffee rather than simply sending over an email, you're more likely to build rapport, which will be useful if you ever need to tackle any problems together. Good managers give their teams the freedom to set their own schedules, realizing that the same is true of employees' relationships with their co-workers and the company's clients.
That said, you can also make great connections while sitting at your desk. Through social media, you can get in touch with almost anyone, and then connect in the real world as well. Just recently, a 12-year-old business studies student sent me an email asking for some tips, and I spotted her note and wrote back. These days, the only thing stopping you from building up your network is how much time you dedicate to it. Everyone can and should be a networker.
Those good connections will breed more good connections. In the end, it all comes down to talking to people. Track down people you would love to work with and start sharing your ideas. You'll soon discover that you have found some great partners -- and more importantly, some great friends.
Richard Branson is the founder of Virgin Group, which consists of more than 400 companies around the world including Virgin Atlantic, Virgin America and Virgin Mobile.