5 min read

An Ops Manager isn’t your Personal Assistant

Astract image of two merged heads with overlapping mechanical and organic features.

I work in Operations Management, and over the years I’ve encountered many tea leaf readings of what this means. It’s always been uncertain where Ops Management ends, and while we can probably all agree that buying groceries and cooking for people is a step too far, the grey area before that is still quite wide. For example, is calendar management included in Ops Management?

In this post, I collate some of the definitions of Ops Management that have helped me crystallise the concept in my head, and I give my view on the important distinction between an Ops Manager and a Personal Assistant, which in itself helps clarify what Ops Management is.

Firstly, this year I came across the best visual description of what we do:

Though it took Sadie years to admit this to Sam, Marx did prove incredibly useful that summer. No, Marx wasn’t a game designer. He wasn’t an ace programmer, like Sadie, and he couldn’t draw, like Sam. But he did almost everything else for them, and his contributions ranged from the pedestrian, but necessary, to the creatively essential. Marx organized workflow, so Sadie and Sam were more aware of what the other was doing and what they needed to be doing. He made long lists of supplies they would need. He was more than liberal with his credit card—they always needed more memory and storage, and they were regularly burning out graphics cards—and he must have made fifty trips to the large computer store in Central Square that summer. He opened a bank account, and an LLC, Go, Ichigo, Go. He arranged for them to pay taxes (which saved them money in the short term by making their business purchases tax-free), and if, at some point, they needed to hire people, which he knew they would, he set them up for that, too. He made sure everyone ate, hydrated, and slept (at least a little), and he kept their workspaces clean and free of chaos.

I was taken aback when I first read this passage from Gabrielle Zevin’s ‘Tomorrow, and Tomorrow, and Tomorrow’. It was almost like someone was holding up a mirror to me.

Marx’s role in the book is that of a ‘producer’, which when you google it, isn’t all that dissimilar from the role of an ‘operations manager’. There’s a lot of vision-execution and behind-the-scenes work that falls to the producer, all in an effort to give the “creative” space to do what he or she does best. There’s an emphasis on logistics, support and turning inputs into outputs.

I believe you needn’t read anything else to understand Ops Management and its importance within organisations, especially early-stage ones. But let’s dig a little deeper.

Some quick back and forth with Gemini suggests the original idea of ‘manufacturing management’ comes from Adam Smith in reference to the ‘things’ that make manufacturing more efficient (e.g. labour specialisation). This became ‘operations management’ in the 20th century to encompass service industries, and a century later the Effective Altruism movement started using it almost ad nauseum (which is how I came across the term for the first time).

You’ll notice EA’s expansive definition of the term:

People in operations roles act as multipliers, maximising the productivity of others in the organisation via building systems that keep the organisation functioning effectively at a high level.

The breadth is well-meaning, intending to capture a whole swath of functions that otherwise need to be individually categorised (e.g. not much else ties HR and event logistics together). However, I tend to agree with Joseph Lamien in that the breadth of the term risks dilution and that there’s unexplored value in zooming in on the trees in the forest. His point about operations managers vs personal assistants is a great one:

I have seen a few pieces of writing within EA that conflate operations work and personal assistant work, and I want to prevent that from happening. I’ve also seen multiple job postings titled as operations managers that list personal assistant-type tasks. My stance is this: in certain scenarios you could make a reasonable argument that a personal assistant falls within the operations team/department, but in general we should not be conflating PA work with operations work. An operations manager should be creating/designing systems and processes, optimizing existing processes, establishing new processes, and generally helping business flow smoothly. An operations manager job generally shouldn’t include updating social media pages or handling someone else's emails/calendar/travel schedule.

I’ve also seen this conflation in posts within EA, but most notably, I’ve seen it in job ads. Recently, someone sent me an open Chief of Staff role at a high-growth start-up in case I was interested in applying (won’t name and shame, but I’ve archived the webpage in case you don’t believe me). Very high salary and interesting enough mission, so I thought that at worst I’d be able to simply donate a high portion of the salary I’d receive.

The description of the role put me off, however. The ad explains that the Chief of Staff would manage the CEO’s focus to ensure he was doing the right thing with his time, including calendar audits and daily stand-ups with him to sync on priorities and call prep and summarisation. This was the first thing listed, and I’ve written enough job ads to know that this is likely a massive priority for the role. In fairness, the job ad does go on to list more in-line ops functions, such as people, finance and security.

Managing the CEO’s calendar and handling a startup’s finances and HR are both ‘enabling’ functions, but the same roles shouldn’t do them. We’ve fallen into the trap of lumping these things together because labelling Ops Management as the neck that moves the head is only part of the story. I’d argue Ops Managers are a somewhat specialised function under that umbrella. A good Ops Manager will enable you to do more with less, finding efficiencies on both sides of the equation to set up the organisation for short- and long-term success. A good Ops Manager is a systems thinker with a bird’s eye view of how each gear in the machine works with each other and how changing one thing might have unintended knock-on effects elsewhere. Often there is a tension between the quick and scrappy solution today vs the robust and scalable solution tomorrow, and a good Ops Manager will be able to identify which situations call for each one.

If these functions are sacrificed because the CEO needs someone to gate-keep their calendar or handle RSVPs for an important event, then it’s time to get a Personal Assistant. In this sense, PAs are the enablers’ enabler, in that they allow Ops Managers to focus on oiling the machine’s gears and keeping a watchful eye over critical metrics. PAs also bring different skills, making them particularly well-suited for this work (more on that in a future post).

I hope my thoughts above clarify how I think about Ops Management, but I also hope they give my fellow colleagues in the space the licence to say ‘no’ to certain pieces of work and advocate for a different role to perform those tasks.