• Edwin and George

The Accidental Manager


Developing leaders remains a major issue as discussed recently in our blog posts. A survey by Deloitte (Global Human Capital Trends 2015) finds that:

Organizations around the world are struggling to strengthen their leadership pipelines, yet over the past year businesses fell further behind, particularly in their ability to develop Millennial leaders.


  • Eighty-six percent of all surveyed HR and business leaders cite leadership as one of their most important challenges.

  • A focus on leadership at all levels, coupled with consistent year-over-year spending in this area, is key to building sustainable performance and engaging employees in the new world of work.

The ‘accidental manager’ was a phrase coined by the Chartered Management Institute (CMI) some years ago. It describes someone who has been promoted to a leadership role without the necessary preparation. The CMI were concerned at the number of accidental managers in the workplace and initiated a number of schemes to help the development of people who found themselves in this position.

The accidental manager is showing no signs of going away. We’d probably expect the number to be reducing. Management succession has frequently been discussed as an essential part of strategic planning in recent management books and publications.

The reality is that many companies ignore leadership development to focus on more immediate challenges. Future success, however, depends on identifying and developing the next generation of leaders. The implications on operations, customer service and human resource management can be huge if the number of accidental managers is high.

There are different kinds of accidental manager.

  • There is a group that think they don’t need training to be successful. They find themselves struggling once they are working in a leadership role when the reality hits home.

  • Others work hard to overcome their lack of training. They take further training, or attempt to learn from others.

  • Some are placed into a leadership role without wanting it and battle the best they can. They realise what is happening to them but are unsure of the solution to their problems.

  • There are those who, without the training and support, are simply overwhelmed and simply quit.

John Adair describes how a great deal of focus of early leadership development thinking was based on the idea that leaders are born with certain qualities that make them successful. He calls it the Qualities Approach’ to leadership (‘How to Grow Leaders’). The conclusion to this approach is that one simply needs to find people with leadership qualities and then let them get on with the job.

Others have a different opinion. Warren Bennis, for example, the late US writer on leadership studies, argued that it is a dangerous myth that leaders are born and that minimal support is required. Bennis wrote about the notion that people simply either have certain charismatic qualities or not. ‘That’s nonsense; in fact, the opposite is true. Leaders are made rather than born.’ It’s clear from experience that companies are going through that Bennis is closer to the truth. Formal and effective leadership development practices need to be in place and, if they are not, the costs will be high.

Accidental managers can be a particular worry within smaller businesses. The smaller the firm, the more responsibility each employee has. The hiring process can be more informal. Reporting structures can be fluid. The demands on the accidental manager can be enormous. When you consider that 99% of UK companies have fewer than 50 employees, you realise the extent of the problem.

Demonstrating the precise quantitative impact that accidental managers have on overall business and people performance has proved difficult. Anecdotal evidence suggests that first time leaders can have a direct impact on levels of employee morale and engagement as well as absence and attrition levels. There are many research projects where staff have been asked questions about their relationship with their immediate level leader. Invariably any criticisms fall into the following categories:

  • Leaders do not communicate with staff and this impacts morale.

  • Staff do not get the support they need or feel valued.

  • Performance management processes are poorly or inconsistently applied.

  • Junior leaders do not work as a team and often have different standards or expectations.

The sad fact is that developing staff for junior leadership positions becomes a lottery if the focus within the organisation is elsewhere. This results in an abundance of accidental managers in the workplace. The consequences can be incredibly damaging.

Quotes – Bennis W, ‘The Economist’ 25 June 2008

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