Effective Operations Leaders Do These 3 Things Naturally

Luke Walker
November 5, 2020

It goes without saying that operations management is very hard work.

Take a broad look at the state of business operations today.

Of course, the usual rules of the game still apply: increase efficiency, reduce costs, improve quality, and make customers happier. Business as usual.

Now add to that some wildcard variables, which might soon become part of the “usual rules” themselves: drive rapid digital transformation initiatives, maintain operational excellence with a remote workforce, adapt and strengthen the supply chain in pandemic conditions, and basically do whatever it takes to ensure business continuity.

And as if that wasn’t enough – while finance, marketing, and sales are humming along with their ERP, CRM, and marketing automation systems, operations is left to figure it out for themselves, without a dedicated or adequate system to manage and execute standard operating procedures.

Instead, it will all need to be managed with a patchwork quilt of tools and methods, including multiple, vertical-specific software systems, emails, spreadsheets, task managers, conference calls, and whatever else can be patched on to help keep the ship afloat.

Sounds tough, right? This is what Operations Managers have signed up for in 2020.

The Operations Manager DNA

For business operations to succeed in such a torrent climate, it requires a very specific leadership profile, defined by a higher degree of adaptability, greater resilience to rapid change, and a do-it-yourself attitude when it comes to making critical improvements.

We talk with hundreds of operations leaders every week about their objectives, challenges, and frustrations. We've also learned a lot about their failures.

From those conversations, we’ve distilled what you might call an “Operations Manager DNA” – effectively, a series of beliefs, attitudes, and behaviors largely embodied by this group of professionals.

Of all the characteristics in their management profile, the most effective leaders we spoke with do these 3 things on an instinctive basis.

They constantly look for more efficiency

Effective operations managers are the masters of managing resources, both input and output.

Instinctively, they seek out opportunities to optimize processes wherever possible, ultimately decreasing the cost of goods per unit, and making it possible to offer lower prices. Not to mention, the added benefit that processes executed in an optimized fashion are dramatically more fulfilling work for the teams involved.

What’s their secret ingredient? Efficiency.

Seeking greater efficiency is the defining characteristic of effective operations leaders. They sincerely believe that there is always a better way to do almost anything.

Ops managers don’t have the luxury of managing isolated processes – most everything their teams carry out is cross-functional by nature. The most effective managers are constantly probing the layers and intersections of their process ecosystem, looking for inefficiencies, and gathering feedback from process stakeholders about how things could be improved.

Some team members might perceive this management approach as “whip-cracking”, or even micro-management. Other teams – and in particular, managers of other teams, like finance, sales, or support – might even perceive it as overreach, especially if the ops manager is scrutinizing a handover, or a step in a process which is carried out by another team.

In most cases, however, this couldn’t be further from the truth. The operations manager is simply driven to find more efficiency, and doesn’t think twice about “beating the bushes” if it results in a more efficient process.

Once they’ve identified improvement opportunities, the best operations managers carry their efficiency predisposition right into the solutioning phase, opting not to waste any time on planning and consultation, and instead rolling up their sleeves and working with their teams to develop better processes themselves.

They make realistic and pragmatic decisions, with a “can do” attitude

Operations managers are not only tasked with running the key value creation processes of the company, but they're also needed to pick up everything else that doesn't quite fit in with other departments.

For that reason, operations teams are often regarded as the “catch-all” organization – it’s difficult to pin down exactly what they do because, well, they do a bit of everything.

To succeed in this environment, the best operations leaders deliver clear and open communication, within their teams, among their management peers, and across the organization.

For them, it’s vitally important to establish realistic expectations, communicate those clearly, and reinforce them in times of uncertainty or conflict. Their responses are direct and assertive, and their “can-do” attitudes are a relief for both their peers in management as well as their teams.

While sometimes at risk over-promising results, the operations manager backs up their positive talk with clear action plans and reasonable execution timelines. They understand the added workload and additional flexibility required of their teams – which they view as a welcome challenge to be overcome – and they can visualize quickly the action plan to get the job done.

And that is precisely where pragmatism meets with their endless hunt for efficiency: they pursue agile, iterative approaches to improvement, instead of more traditional waterfall planning approaches. The real operations hero can visualize the road from A to Z, but is realistically focused on getting from A to B first.

What does that look like from the outside?

It’s embodied in a contagious, positive mental attitude, focused on continuous improvement with realistic, achievable steps – and their teams love them for it.

They facilitate team excellence with trust

“The paradox of leadership is that great things only get achieved when the leader gets out of the way.”

- Duncan Riach

Which brings us to the final measure of effective operations managers: strong, supportive, and – above all – trusting leadership. It’s their secret weapon to gaining unwavering loyalty in their teams, and inspiring performance above and beyond expectations.

Operations leaders empower their teams with trust. They hire strong profiles, work closely with their team members to understand their strengths and weaknesses, and quickly move to enable them with autonomy and full accountability.

These managers are anchors in their professional and personal relationships. They don’t exert authority over others because, frankly, they don’t need to. Instead, they lead by example, inspiring others to be the best version of themselves, and only exercising authority when it’s required of them.

This style of leadership has a magical effect on those supported by it. When an employee knows that their manager trusts them and values them, they go the extra mile to meet that expectation.

That’s not motivation by fear or anxiety. That’s motivation by empowerment. The employee will go the extra mile because they feel like it’s the right thing to do.

Here’s what it looks like in practice:

  • Instead of dictating "Here’s what you can do for me”, the effective manager asks: “How can I help you?”
  • In a remote-work scenario, instead of focusing on optics and “core working hours”, the effective manager allows their employees to set their own working hours, and decide for themselves when they can accomplish their best work.
  • Instead of planning and implementing process change from the top-down, effective managers leverage the experience, knowledge, and input of their teams to plan and roll out change from the bottom-up.

In truth, trusting leadership is the best “future-proof” safeguard your business could possibly invest in.

Real innovation won’t come from an executive off-site, and it won’t come from a consultancy. It’s not going to come from your “digital transformation”, and AI won’t do it for you either.

Real innovation will come from what your teams actually do, and that depends entirely on what your teams are actually enabled to do. Effective managers know that.


Operations leaders face a historic challenge in the COVID-19 pandemic: do more with fewer resources, and – while you're at it – keep morale up, at a time of great uncertainty and minimal human contact.

Effective leaders will be those that look for better ways to do things, including reinventing their approach to process management, and implementing tools and systems to make tangible improvements happen quickly.

Slow and steady won’t win the race, but pragmatic and action-oriented will. That, coupled with a “can do” attitude and an empowered and loyal team, is a most potent formula for operational success.

About the author
Luke Walker is the Product Marketing Manager at Next Matter. He is a longtime process hacker, and writes about marketing, business digitization, leadership, and work-life balance. When he's not at work, you can find him listening to records or climbing rocks.

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