How to be a great Operations Manager - make sure you're invisible.

What does an operations manager do? When you work in an Ops role, it can often feel like you’re only ever noticed when something goes wrong. But the best Operations Managers don’t shy away from that fact - they embrace it.

A couple of years ago, I read a book titled Positive Intelligence by Shirzad Chamine, a Stanford Lecturer and CEO coach. Chamine’s argument holds that the vast majority of people are handicapped by certain “self-sabotaging behaviours” - habitual character traits that stop us from achieving our full potential.

Chamine’s book suggested that my ‘saboteur’ was a trait called hyper-vigilance - a characteristic he described as “continuous, intense anxiety about all dangers and what could go wrong… a vigilance that can never rest.” While I might not describe myself in such extreme terms(!), I can definitely relate to that.

At the time I fought against my saboteur pretty hard. But over the years, I’ve actually started to reflect more and more on how this aspect of my personality has allowed me to do my job better.

Let me explain what I mean.

If there is one common theme running through the operations manager job role it is this: the rest of your company will only ever notice you when you make a mistake.

What does an Operations Manager do?

An Operations Manager is essential to any startup. Doing odd jobs, answering random questions, taking on small projects that don't fall to any particular team ... countless tasks that don't seem pressing when taken in isolation, but added up are essential to the business.

Even hiring and writing job ads (perhaps the most visible of all ‘Operations’ tasks) is a huge project hidden beneath a fairly reductive label. It is something of an iceberg endeavour - 90% of its bulk is hidden beneath the surface.

Added to this is the fact that many Operations tasks are shrouded under a degree of confidentiality. If someone is thinking of leaving or is not performing, then you are pulled into that - but it’s not something you can shout about to the rest of the company.

As a result, very often it is only your mistakes that are visible to the rest of the company. The most obvious example of this is in hiring - if we ever hire the wrong candidate, much of that spotlight falls onto Ops.

When I first became an Operations manager, this was a big source of anxiety. That ‘hyper-vigilant’ aspect of my character knew my mistakes would be glaringly obvious, while my victories would often go under the radar. In recent months, I’ve tried to think about this differently. Instead of fretting over how invisible my work is, I’ve turned the issue on its head.

Now, I make invisibility an explicit objective. If I’m going unnoticed at work, then that’s a surefire sign that I’m doing my job well.

For while that hyper-vigilance certainly makes it harder for me to switch off, it also means that I am very good at anticipating problems far before they ever arrive.

The top skills for an Operations manager to have

The best Operations Managers do their work seamlessly, without attracting attention. There are a handful of skills that should be on every Operations Manager's resume, and all of them come under the umbrella of remaining somewhat incognito. Here’s how you can cultivate invisibility in your own work.

1.Anticipate problems before they arise

A huge part of good Operations work is the ability to look way down the line, attempting to foresee anything and everything upcoming that could possibly cause friction. It's not just a vital Ops skill, but a leadership skill necessary to be an undercover leader everyone wants to work with. You need to play Devil’s Advocate for your company - constantly asking the question “what could go wrong here?”.

This is where I feel the value of an intrinsically vigilant personality. If you’re not aware of what could happen, then you can’t hope to prepare for it.

For example, we’ve recently updated various internal policies at Charlie. We’ve got a new holiday policy, we’ve brought in remote working, and we’ve also changed how we run our core office hours.

These decisions touch every person at the company and directly affect how they do their work - you need to think through every possible edge-case, as well as imagine any unlikely side-effects that might arise.

2. Make sure you have all the information to avoid bad decisions

As an Operations Manager, your ability to stay unnoticed relies on your ability to make good decisions - and you can’t make good decisions without accurate information.

So it’s important to always be asking questions. Before you make a decision on something, always think about what parts of the puzzle are missing. What more do you need to know before you can make a call?

3. Placing value on relationships

You need information to do your job well. But this isn’t just confined to operational, ‘business’ decisions - the same applies to information about people, teams, and individuals. The Operations manager is often in danger of becoming quite siloed, so I make sure to spend quality time with people across the business. This allows me to keep an ear to the ground and understand individual needs or problems.

You can’t go chasing people for information on how a team is performing, or whether an individual is feeling unsettled - that’s another form of visibility. Instead, you have to nurture really strong relationships across the whole company, so the information finds its way to you.

4. Know when to attack, and know when to defend

In Operations work, it pays to spend as much time as you can in proactive mode - attacking projects way before they become problems. Give yourself as much of a headstart as you can.

But you also have to know when you need to drop everything, and go into fire-fighting mode but to put a situation right. As with all these things, invisibility has a time and a place!

Occasionally, spending so much of your day-to-day under the radar can begin to feel like a thankless task - but if you’re serious about a career in Operations then you have to learn to embrace that. If you can turn that invisibility into a source of pride, then you’re already on the front foot.

To anyone who isn't an Operations manager; if it ever feels like you’ve not heard from your Ops team in a while, it’s probably because they’re doing a really good job...

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