Operations manager: a day in the life

Sharon Costigan is operations manager for an ACT community service organisation. Before that, she worked in HR consulting and organisational development across the construction and community. Sharon joined us to share her experiences as an operations manager, her challenges, and how she tackles them.

EE: Sharon, what’s a typical day look like for you?

Sharon: Trying to juggle lots of balls, keeping them all up in the air. And if they do hit the ground, hopefully they land in a soft spot.

Times like end of financial year are particularly tough. You’re working on the budget, dealing with pressure from the board while hunting for grants. Then there’s looking after HR, managing risks, sorting out IT…

EE: So what does an operations manager add to the organisation?

Sharon: Breadth. Being able to work across the whole business’ functions, and contribute to each one. The operations manager is often best placed to streamline an organisation’s operations and reduce duplication.

My role’s also about anticipating consequences. If we hire more people, we need to make sure they have computers.

EE: What skills do you need to do your job well?

Sharon: You’ve got to stay straddled across the operational and the strategic. Let’s say I’m rewriting a job description. I need to also be asking, ‘Is this meeting the strategic direction of my organisation?’

At the same time, let’s say I’m in a strategic conversation about where we’re going as an organisation. I have to keep coming back to the same questions, ‘How are we going to do that?

What has to be in place for it to happen?’

Some people are really good at strategic thinking, but aren’t sure how to make it happen. Other people are very process-driven, but don’t see the big picture. As an operations manager, you need to bridge that divide. You need to talk it and walk it.

EE: What about mindset?

Sharon: When you’re operations manager, you have to learn how to be friendly with people without necessarily becoming friends. You’ve got to build that rapport and gain trust. But at the same time, knowing that you might have to fire someone tomorrow. Or just tell them that they’re not getting the new computer they asked for.

EE: What was it like for you, stepping into this role?

Sharon: For me, I came to the role after years in HR strategy. So I had to move quickly to get across the finance side.

And vice versa. If someone comes from a finance line, or as a business analyst, they’ll be very strong on the numbers, but need to get up to speed on HR skills.

Because operations manager covers so much ground, there’s always going to be a learning curve when you step into it.

EE: How do you deal with all the conflicting demands on your time?

Sharon: Firstly, you’ve got to manage up. When the CEO says, ‘Make it happen’, you say, ‘Well, we have this due, this due and this due. What do you want me to focus on?’

That’s easier said than done. I’m very conscious that the CEO has her own workload to worry about.

Second, you try to manage down. For me, in a community sector organisation, that’s tricky, because almost all the staff below me are counsellors. If I delegate to them, I’m pulling them away from their work. Luckily, we have the EA from heaven.

It’s easier in a larger organisation where the operations manager has more supporting staff to pass work on to. Even here, though, there’s a resourcing question. If you’re in childcare or food retail, putting on back-office staff is money that you’re not spending on frontline staff.

I have to think pretty creatively about how we can deliver better services.

EE: So where do you look for efficiencies?

Sharon: Most small-to-medium organisations have a whole lot of ad hoc systems. Finance is run in one system. HR is running on a spreadsheet. Staff are constantly jumping around between systems. There’s no flow.

And all the processes are in people’s heads. They’re not documented anywhere.

Right now, my organisation is moving our client management system into the cloud. When you have a proper system in place, it takes away that human element of error. It’s also far more customisable. If I want to run a report and the IT person is away, I can still do it all myself.

EE: If you could tell your organisation one thing about being an operations manager, what would it be?

Sharon: If you’ve got a problem, try and think of a few possible solutions first before you come and talk to me. It makes my job as an operations manager so much easier. A good operations manager doesn’t pretend to be the expert in everything. They’ll want your know-how.

If you want something changed, make sure I understand the context so I can see why you need things done that way.

And if I’m frowning, it’s not because I’m angry. I’m just thinking.

Find out how easyEMPLOYER can help streamline your organisation’s HR systems. Visit our website for more information.