Operations in Infrastructure: Transferring Talent to Elevate Performance

Working in large-scale asset-based industries – such as energy, utilities, transport or manufacturing – it is universally accepted that operational leadership plays a critical part in overall business performance.

In each of these industries we often find unique sub-cultures and ways of working which have been developed, inherited and refined over many decades or even centuries. This typically results in operational leaders and teams who are well-trained, effective and like-minded. For instance, it is common to find an Operations leader in any of the aforementioned sectors who has worked for a business for 30+ years since joining as an Apprentice and knows the business inside-out. The value of sector knowledge and expertise is significant and should not be underestimated, however this can also lead to a one-dimensional perspective on what “good” truly looks like from an operational competency perspective within each organisation and/or sector. The cry of such leaders is often “that’s how we have always done things…” or “we’ve improved on last year’s performance”.

Knowing the value that diversity of thought can bring, we often challenge our clients to think about the value and impact that could be created by making one or two strategic “out of sector” hires into senior operational leadership roles, to sit alongside the existing team.

Imagine the following scenario:

‘A utility company has 6 Operations Managers and one of those positions becomes vacant’. There are different options to consider, generally falling into 3 brackets and each having their own merits:

  1. Promote internally;
  2. Recruit a like-for-like replacement from a competitor;
  3. Consider “alternative” candidates.

To execute Option 1 effectively, a thorough assessment of each internal candidate’s recent performance should be conducted alongside a deep dive into their career history. By reminding yourself of their whole career’s worth of experience, you may discover that certain candidates have a much broader perspective or alternative reference points from working in different industries / companies prior to joining the current organisation. There will likely be some candidates that have stronger “future leadership” potential than others. Promoting internally demonstrates a company’s commitment to developing staff and creating opportunities for loyal employees. It also causes a knock-on effect, creating further opportunity for others and retaining valuable knowledge inside the business. Nevertheless, some investment of time and resource is then required to help the candidate step up into a more senior role.

If an internal appointment is not certain, Option 2 is often seen as the most obvious and (relatively) low-risk option. Of course, this requires a proactive search and incentivising a candidate to move from one competitor to another, but this is generally an achievable goal and the candidate is in theory more likely to hit the ground running after a short on-boarding process.

Option 3 is often considered the ‘wild card’ scenario. In this scenario, imagine the impact that a new operational leader from, say, the oil and gas industry, could have alongside 5 seasoned utilities experts. The oil and gas candidate would bring new perspectives on standards, procedures and operational excellence from a globally integrated industry which could be adopted across the wider organisation driving enhanced performance and a more collaborative learning and improvement culture. This option requires the biggest investment of time and resource from the hiring organisation but, if successful, will have a higher impact and more long-term value than either option 1 or 2.

It takes a brave leader to choose Option 3, particularly if all three options are viable and achievable. There are many short-term measurable targets in Operations, meaning a safe pair of hands who knows the industry would be hard to say “no” to. However, with the general acknowledgement that diverse workforces create both cultural and commercial value for organisations, there is a valid business reason to think more strategically in regard to the long-term value that can be created by out of sector hires.

Operational leadership is a hugely transferable skill and by tapping into the experience of other industries/sectors/people, step-changes can be achieved rather than incremental gains. When the outcomes are directly linked to safety, customer service, asset integrity and bottom-line commercial performance, it is a topic that should be in the forefront of leaders’ minds when  making strategic decisions from a people perspective.

If you would like to discuss the points raised in this article, the wider market and/or any people challenges or plans you may have for the future, please do not hesitate to contact Chris Smith in confidence via chris.smith@normanbroadbent.com