Four Principles to Successful Operational Leadership

Operational Leadership

This picture to the left here, while not a real highway infrastructure, is a good representation of how operations are often run in an organization and how it can feel to run the operations of complicated business that offers multiple products and services.

I have worked with over 50 business owners and colleagues over the last couple years on the topic of operations and operational leadership, in addition to running the operations of multiple companies. This has been primarily within the IT industry. It is so easy to get caught-up in the sales or growth of the business that operational leadership can fall by the wayside. Yet it is often the operations of a company that can cause and prevent the “fires” and headaches that leave many leaders in confusion and panic. Operations brings many aspects of a business into play, which is can be the source of the confusion. Aspects such as delivery and implementation, project management, cost reductions, efficiency, customer service, on-boarding, team building and others are, many times, at an opposing spectrum to the organizations objectives.

Success in operational leadership, whether it is data-center operations, service delivery operations, restaurant operations; or just about any operational capacity, comes down to four main components: People, Processes, Policies, and Systems. People, Process and Systems is nothing new.  Many books have been written on it, many companies like Toyota and others, model their company’s management after it.  It can and is applied to many industries and leadership situations.  I added “Policies” to this list, although many people group it with “Processes” I think it has a place of its own and I will explain why. I am going to touch on each of these operational leadership principles, briefly and hopefully provide some insight or at least a refresher for those that might be familiar with these concepts.

Four Principles to Successful Operational Leadership:

1. People in Operational Leadership

While technology might be in part taking over our lives and jobs, people are still at the heart of running an organization. It can be tough for leaders to focus on this though.  People are just so different and managing them and especially motivating them can bring even the best leader to tears.  I can’t even begin to touch upon the infinite number of problems to watch out for nor the infinite number of solutions to those problems.   What I want you to recognize is that it is very hard to have a great company, without great people.   As a leader, no matter what your specialty is, “people” is where you need to focus the majority of your time.  Learn about them, know them, understand what makes them tick, help them and serve them.  They can cause you the greatest pain or the greatest joy and success.

2. Processes in Operational Leadership

We need directions to put together toys for our children, why is it that many business owners do not take the time to write “directions” for their employees? You want to gain more time and spend less time “fighting fires”, write processes.   In working with business owners and employees, I have been amazed at the mass inability of people to write set processes. If you have to explain something to someone more than once, then it probably needs to be written down.  Want to be able to empower your employees with greater ability to get things done without coming to you, write processes. A process can be as simple as a checklist or  as complicated as an ITIL compliant flowchart.  Even if you area 1-man shop, you can start writing processes.  You cannot have scalability and exponential growth without a solid foundation of processes.

3. Policies in Operational Leadership

Processes generally apply to the “how” of getting things done.  You want something done a certain way, then write a process.  Policies though are the more official high-level things that one can or cannot do. You want your employees to dress a certain way to work, that is a policy.  You want them to be consistent with email signatures, that is a policy.  Many leaders are so busy that “policy” ends up being verbal instruction that comes from the leader or colleagues.  More in the form of warnings and often not correct.  It can be grudgingly boring to write policies and one should consult a professional when dealing with the legal aspects of some policies.  I think that in great companies, people know what they are supposed to do, how they are supposed to do it and they know what they are not supposed to do.  Don’t wait until you have problems, to start writing policies.

4. Systems in Operational Leadership

Unfortunetly I think many people start with systems because it is “more fun”. Depending on what the business is, it may very well be the first thing to focus on.  We live in such a wonderful world of technology and innovation.  There is software and tools to do just about anything for you. Find those systems, whether it be software or technology.  And most important, when you get those systems, learn ,them, train others on them and use 100% of them.

I recognize that this is a very high-level list of success principles for operational leadership success.   Thousands of books have been written on all the granular details that go into these four principles. I hope that as a leader, you will take a step back, look at your priorities and and take the necessary steps to fill in the gaps of what you might be missing.

About Todd Nielsen

Todd Nielsen helps organizations create miracles of success and profitability through the power of execution. Having served as Vice-President, President, Chief Operations Officer, Chief Strategy Officer, and Chief Executive Officer of organizations, he has learned how to create a culture that "Gets Things Done." He is passionate about leadership, and is a dynamic and inspirational speaker.


  1. If the idea of a company has permeated, even if confusion suits, there is no breakdown.

  2. Interesting article Todd,

    Love the picture, and would add that half of the hand-offs, by-passes and transfers in any operation are caused by people following the policies that you discuss.

    As well as writing new ones, having a sift through (and junking) the old irrelevant ones is always a good (if painful) way to go.


  3. Interesting article. The key, I believe after working with many companies over the years, is listening to your employees, paying attention to what's happening around you and working with your environment. Todd makes some very good points here, but a blend of the above is what's need combined with my remarks above.

  4. Cindy Allen-Stuckey says:

    Great article! Having spent many year in operations & in coaching operation leaders, I agree that people are at the heart of running an operation.

  5. craig baker says:

    Todd good fundamental article….u can have all the sales in the world but without good ops, it goes away very quickly….2 things, first, i completely agree on your people approach…everyone needs to understand how vital they are and need to be told. Secondly, the old adage of “if it ain’t broke don’t fix it” is no longer relevant…continuous improvement is not only necessary but the lifeblood of growth. Keep up the good work!



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