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How to become an operations/departmental manager

A quick click on The Guardian’s jobs page as this piece was being written threw up 911 jobs for ‘operations manager’. One might be forgiven for thinking there is a shortage of qualified people for this role, but far from it – it’s a reflection of just what an important cog it is in an organisation’s machinery.

Alex Turner is a former business journalist with the Liverpool Daily Post and is now joint Managing Director of leading news and events company Between the two, Alex was in charge of operations at a company called Ambitious Minds.

He said: “Operations manager is a really important middle managerial role. Those people who thrive and enjoy it are in the process of developing the right skills to have the pick of jobs and have a quick and significant career progression.”

So, before finding out more about Alex, what is an operations or departmental manager? An operations or departmental manager is someone who manages teams and/or projects, and achieving operational or departmental goals and objectives, as part of the delivery of an organisation’s strategy.

They are usually accountable to a more senior manager, CEO, or business owner. Working in the private, public or third sector and in all sizes of organisations, specific responsibilities and job titles will vary, but the knowledge, skills and behaviours needed will be the same. Key responsibilities may include creating and delivering operational plans, managing projects, leading and managing teams, managing change, financial and resource management, talent management, coaching and mentoring.

And that’s why they are so important to an organisation’s success. It is a key role.

But in practice, what is it like? When Alex Turner left his job as a business journalist it was to gain more responsibility managing a team and view business firmly from the inside: “I was keen to gain some managerial experience and this role came up.

“Even though I knew I would have a lot to learn I felt I already had a key attribute to make it work – a thick skin! As a journalist I was used to being shouted out by the newsdesk and sometimes the public. So busy days and working to strict deadlines were the norm for me, plus I am very organised.

“The job is to make sure things are delivered day to day. An operations manager or departmental head has to take the big corporate strategy and translate it into the real activities of the business, which usually means engaging with customers and suppliers.

“It’s the CEO’s job to make sure a business is thriving long term, but it’s the operations manager’s job to make sure it thrives today and this week – in other words overseeing the short-term strategy.”

Chloe Young is now PR and marketing manager for Venturi Cardiology, a fact she attributes to her experience as operations manager of Liverpool Science Park for six years.
Keen to shine as an executive assistant to the CEO, Chloe jumped into everything with enthusiasm and her talent was noticed, which, coupled with knowing everything about the organisation, landed her the operations manager’s hat: “It was a very busy job which I really enjoyed and which gave me a broad base and strong foundation to move into other areas like business development, events management, facilities management or PR and marketing.

“Being curious is a key attribute because the role is so broad, and I wanted to know all parts of the business and it’s therefore rewarding because no two days are the same.”

Alex agreed: “Subject knowledge is key, whatever department you are running you need to understand how it works. You need strong organisational skills, be able to lead yourself before leading others.”

It’s not surprising, given what Alex and Chloe do, that good communications skills are important for an operations manager. Chloe said: “You meet and work with people at all different levels and you need to speak to them and not be fazed by speaking to people more senior.”

Alex said: “Communications becomes much more important than usual, to be able to pass on the vision from the top, but sometimes overlooked is the skill of managing up. While you will mostly be translating what the company and the CEO wants, an important skill is to do that in reverse to ensure your team’s voice is heard and that you support and back them when it’s appropriate.

“Persuasion is also a really important soft skill. Successful operators are those who can get people on board positively rather than in an authoritarian manner.”
Both Alex and Chloe are testament that an operations manager’s role can be a steppingstone and not just a career’s destination. Challenges are varied and if they are met, then the world’s an oyster.

“It’s important to be organised”, Chloe said, “not getting distracted or being pulled down rabbit holes. You only really need to get into detail when needed, so prioritisation is a daily task.”

Alex said: “I am a business owner now, but at heart I still am an operations manager and skills learned previously help me now. One is asking the right questions: ‘what is that we are trying to achieve, what’s important, what’s going to make money and what isn’t and what are the priorities?’ It’s also about learning to ask the right questions of others and developing a sixth sense for problems and issues.”

As with many jobs, the acquisition of experience and more skills opens new doors and a successful operations or departmental manager is a step towards becoming a departmental or operations director and beyond – perhaps running an organisation.

There are currently more than 900 jobs for this role on Guardian Jobs and that sounds like a huge number of doors being opened in the future.

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