Beware the Operations hero…

Beware the Operations hero…

Effective leadership is putting first things first. Effective management is discipline in carrying it out.

Stephen R Covey

Did you hear about the transport operations manager who worked all night to get the freight loaded  on the trucks and out on time? Or the warehouse manager who worked all weekend to relocate stock in the warehouse to make it more efficient?

If you were running these companies, what would you do?

(a) recognise them in the company newsletter

(b) promote them; or,

(c) reprimand them?

As  managers and business owners, most of us  would probably choose (a) or (b) wouldn’t we?

But is it really the right thing to do?

I recall working for a major transport company  many years ago. The company was characterised by a ‘can do’ culture where anything would be done to get the load out – in particular working long hours for at least 6 days per week. The operations managers like our examples above were treated as heroes. They embodied the values prized by the organisation – tough, persistent, and long hours of work. These managers were celebrated and promoted.

However, when you probed the situations in greater depth, it was clear that the real underlying problem was that these operations heroes had not been doing a good job of managing their day-to-day activities, in particular planning and training. In other words, the more mundane tasks were often not recognised. If these tasks had been done the crisis would have been prevented. However, by celebrating the ‘heroic’ actions, the company’s top management was telling the organisation that it was okay to not do the quiet, unobserved day-to-day work, as long as they responded forcefully to the problems that inevitably resulted. The quiet achievers were not recognised (nor rewarded).

The message was –  crisis response is more important than crisis prevention.

The transport company was subsequently taken over as it struggled to  provide the required returns to its shareholders. The top management left. Subsequently a new management team was installed that reorganised operations. The new top managers understood the importance of crisis prevention, and developed a new focus on planning, both daily and in the long term. One of the biggest problems was that the middle and upper-middle managers who were in place had been promoted for managing a crisis not for their management skills. They were not skilled in crisis prevention, and importantly, their personalities were more suited to the action-oriented crisis response than the more systematic and analytical process of crisis prevention. They soon followed top management out of the company.

We also see this in sales. When a major customer has a problem, the alarm sounds and everyone rushes to fix the problem. The sales manager is celebrated as a hero as they have saved the account and maintained the relationship.  Picture the leader on a white stallion leading his troops in a cavalry charge – noise action and recognition. By contrast, the sales reps who are skilled at maintaining and slowly growing major accounts often remain in the shadows, unappreciated and unrecognised.

In effective companies, sales leaders understand the process of quiet, steady account development. This involves mapping a customer’s buying process, understanding how to increase a customer’s profitability, and seamlessly involving operations managers with their customer counterparts to reduce the costs for both customer and supplier. This is a long, steady process, but it creates customer relationships with high sustainability, profitability and growth.

The question is: who is the real sales hero? The second question is:  are the operations managers – the ones who quietly drive major sales increases and cost reductions – the real operations heroes?

In my experience, most of these “heroes” are skilled at managing a crisis that was avoidable. Often their companies were suffering problems that should not have occurred in the first place due to poor management and systems. The real heroes in an organisation are those managers who have the wisdom and insight to develop systematic information, processes, and behavioural drivers that enable their managers and staff to coordinate their activities  to achieve more together. The result is that their management teams form effective coordinative processes and develop a culture of profitability. Effective leaders are not those on the white charger but the opposite. They are not dramatic, romantic, heroic or exciting – just very effective.

Like teaching, one of the truisms of management is that you get what you expect. If you celebrate the mythical operations and sales heroes, you will get mediocre performance and continual crises punctuated by occasional ‘heroic’ displays. A good manager must have the foresight to systematically create the conditions that enable your managers to improve performance and prevent crises thus creating a great business.

As a manager you have a choice…………

4 thoughts on “Beware the Operations hero…

  1. Great article and well written David. His has been my experience in engineering industries as well where lack of maintenance focus created the ability to shine as a hero.
    I would add that good processes will also eliminate the need for heroism, which I believe is a reason why middle management don’t like to support them because they are counter to the culture you describe.

  2. Thank you Heiner – yes business ‘heroism’ is a great way to prove you are indispensable to the organisation when in fact it is your poor planning and management that makes you a ‘hero’. This is often exaggerated due to poor senior management and systems or business processes that are either inadequate or are not being used effectively.

  3. Pingback: Recognising Poorly Managed Organisations | 5-Dimensionz

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