Is operational proficiency overvalued?

Great Fire -- Narragansett Pier Casino

Great Fire of 1900 -- Narragansett Pier Casino

Most of the tips in The Intelligent Leader blog’s Management Tip of the Day are thought-provoking.  However, Wednesday’s tip (here) got under my skin a bit.  And not just because the idea that “risk taking” wasn’t a valued trait seems quaint considering how intensely the Wall Street Casino is burning right now.  And I think most of us will agree that raw ambition is a mixed blessing and that inspiration is a virtue in leaders.

However, I believe that a strong understanding of operations and initiative management must be part of the package a leader brings to the table.  To that end, I can’t let the perceived swipe at operational proficiency go by without some comments about how it fits into leadership and hiring. 

  1. Execution makes “opportunities” real.  How else do openings identified in confusing and ambiguous times get exploited?  Strategy + Execution — one without the other is useless.  The hiring executive should ask the “operator” to give an example of how he/she made strategy concrete via execution.
  2. Policies and procedures have their place.  They can, of course, stifle innovation and initiative if they monitor and control too closely.  Or even, they can focus on the wrong topics.  Again, interviewers should ask probing questions about how the candidate operationalized innovation, especially focusing on lessons learned about over-control and its consequences.
  3. Risk taking is an essential part of the leadership package.  Risk management is a blind spot for many “operators”, who often see their role are risk removers, not risk facilitators.  The conversation should validate the candidate’s understanding of the positive side of risk — especially the role of operations can play in enabling the firm to take on more risk, and thereby the potential for more reward.
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