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Stepping Up from Ops Director to MD

Many Operations Directors have aspirations to become the MD or CEO, to run their own P&L.  However, operations/manufacturing leaders are often overlooked for general management roles in favour of their counterparts in sales and marketing or finance, who may be seen as more commercial. What are the challenges in progressing from operations into general management? What skills and characteristics are critical for success?

Usually, the primary role of the Operations Director is to improve the internal performance of their site(s), reduce the footprint (where appropriate), and generate significant cost reduction programmes, thereby contributing to the company’s competitiveness and profitability. The majority of senior operations professionals tend to be qualified in engineering or manufacturing disciplines, and are often considered to be logical thinkers who align people and process to solve problems and deliver improvements. This makes them well suited to the structured environments in which most tend to operate.

Embrace the uncertainty

As a key member of the senior leadership team however, the Operations Director is also exposed to a broader range of business issues, and he/she may have the opportunity to challenge the wider organisation when it comes to planning or even product design. The best people take advantage of this, inputting strategically and adding value outside their functional expertise. The higher performers quickly learn that the marketplace is not as logical and systems-driven as the typical factory environment. So the first key requirement in the step up to MD/CEO is the willingness to embrace, perhaps even learn to enjoy, the ambiguity and volatility of the commercial world.

Understand the market

When seeking promotion to MD/CEO, Operations Directors often encounter challenges associated with their commercial experience, and potentially their limited understanding of the market they supply.  Lack of proven track record in the critical areas of sales and marketing can also lead to credibility issues with the rest of the senior team. Those that successfully make the transition demonstrate good business knowledge, a clear understanding of the challenges facing the company and, above all, confidence in their ability. In parallel, they ‘fast track’ their familiarity with the trends and dynamics associated with their marketplace, capitalising on the expertise of colleagues and spending time with customers. They fundamentally grasp that, whilst producing good quality product is absolutely essential, it is also totally insufficient – they demonstrate an appreciation of the ‘sell-side’ of the business process.

From management to leadership

Leadership is a key requirement when running an entire business, including the ability to generate buy-in to a clear vision, and to develop and execute a coherent strategy. Operations Directors have an advantage here, because usually they will already have demonstrated people-management skills, often being responsible for managing the bulk of the headcount. So the aspiring senior operations professional needs to demonstrate that they know the difference between management (maintenance, standards, doing it right) and leadership (change, inspiration, doing the right thing). Perceptiveness is also important; the best leaders can read people and understand how to adapt their style according to the needs of different individuals and situations.  More broadly, successful leaders are sensitive to emerging situations, they anticipate problems and are prepared to act accordingly, so a bit of courage does not go amiss.

Tough but warm

The management literature increasingly highlights emotional resilience as a key requirement in any senior role, especially the top job. The MD/CEO must recognise that, as the figure-head of the business, they are likely to experience a level of pressure, scrutiny and usually criticism. This can make for a lonely experience and success is dependent on the ability to demonstrate fortitude and tenacity, and by building a good support network. The best leaders are able to project passion and enthusiasm for their business during both the highs and lows, retaining a focus on the company’s short term objectives and long-term strategic goals.

Follow the money

Finally, in addition to developing their commercial acumen and market knowledge, many aspiring MD/CEOs need to improve their mastery of the numbers. The ability to understand a balance sheet is a key requirement here, as is the know-how to use management information to make sound commercial judgements. This is not about learning to become a management accountant, or about maintaining an in-depth, granular understanding of every number. Rather, it is about developing a comfort and confidence to understand, utilise and monitor the most crucial metrics. The FD needs to know that the MD/CEO is alive to cost, revenue and profit, and understands the levers that affect them.

Ultimately of course, the path from Operations Director to MD/CEO will vary according to individual experience, capabilities and interests. For an informal discussion about the best way to make the step up and/or to identify individuals capable of making the grade, please contact Jerome Bull on 01625 508100. 

 

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