Don’t Confuse Operation Leaders & Business Leaders 

RJ Morris Employee Development, Outmatch, RJ Morris, Talent Management

The hardest decision Chief Executives and their talent pros make involves figuring out who to put in the big chairs in their companies.  A big chair means running a unit or a division – your titles might be different, but I mean someone who is the Top Dog in a significant part of your operation.  Someone who can lead a major part of the business.

Who gets the nod more often the not?  The star Operations leader.  The #2 somewhere who is lighting it up.

The trap is easy to fall into.  Everyone knows not to promote the best salesperson into the sales manager role.  It’s the same concept with the big chair, but we mess up and put the Ops heroes in charge of businesses all the time.

I’ll try to tell you a story about a typical mid to large sized shop you might be running.

Somewhere in your organization is an Operations leader who is flat our making things happen.  Trains run on time, product is out the door and waste is down. Tommy is kicking butt and taking names. In every Ops performance metric you have, his team is consistently ranked highest.

Now, however, the CEO wants to promote Tommy to take over the struggling Pittsburgh operation. As the talent pro, now is the time to flex the consulting muscles and dig in a little deeper.  Start with the leadership challenge you have.  I’m going to assume the promotion to Pittsburgh is a P&L role, where Tommy is responsible for making markets, differentiating your firm from competitors and getting business.  Plus taking over a struggling team of average to under-performers.

Now, look again at Tommy.  He’s an Operations star, which means he’s a process guy.  He knows the Ops side of the house like the back of his hand.  But ask yourselves a few questions:

  • Does Tommy have the capability to analyze competitive forces and find niche opportunities?
  • Does he effortlessly build relationships?
  • Can Tommy solve new and novel challenges?
  • Can he quickly assimilate a new team, identify strengths / gaps and deploy talent effectively?
  • Has Tommy ever shown us he can bring home business (deep client relationships, proactive client solutions, understanding of client needs, etc.)?

My guess is a lot of you are shaking your heads right now….Tommy (or insert your Ops person) has been a rock star Ops guy because he never looks outside the walls of the company.  He has not demonstrated he can do the strategic work necessary to infiltrate a new market.

So who might be a better candidate?  Look for Sally, who proactively solves problems that clients want. The person who innovates.  Find the Sally in your shop who can earn work to build relationships.  She can’t be bad at Operations, but she might not be the top performer in that role.  That’s ok.

And Tommy?  Your firm might be better served to leave Tommy to kick butt where he’s comfortable. Celebrate your Operations heroes, but don’t confuse them for folks who can be strategic business leaders.  They’re usually not the same person.

FOT Note: This rant is brought to you by the good folks at OutMatch who like us enough to be an annual sponsor at FOT for all content in our Talent Selection and Employee Development track (and don’t expect that we run any of this by them ahead of time).