Are you an Accidental Manager?

Imagine you’re a violinist in an orchestra. You’ve been playing for 20 years and have dedicated years of your life to practising your technique, the theory, instrument maintenance, ensemble and solo playing. Over time your peers have come to recognise your exceptional technique, your command of dynamics and they respect and admire your mastery.

Now imagine that you arrive to rehearse with your orchestra and before you pick up your violin, you’re handed two batons and are guided to a small podium in front of the orchestra. You’re the conductor now.

You’ve been taking guidance from conductors for years, you’ve seen them conducting, but you’ve never conducted and – worse – you’ve never thought about conducting. You don’t know how to hold the batons, and you don’t know how to give cues, control the tempo, the dynamics or the mood of the performance. You don’t know how to conduct.

But due to your expertise on the violin, the patrons of the orchestra expect that you’ll be able to conduct the entire orchestra quite naturally. They’ll actually be surprised and disappointed if you can’t do it. After all, you’re the best violinist they’ve heard for decades.

As implausible as this scenario might seem to any musician, this is exactly what is happening in almost all workplaces around the world. According to the Chartered Management Institute around 2.4 million people in the UK have been handed this metaphorical ‘baton’. This accounts for 70% of all managers, so for example in the USA it would equate to 17 million people. These are our accidental managers.

70% of all managers are ‘accidental’.


An accidental manager is someone who’s given people management responsibilities despite having no structured training or guidance on how to manage people. Accidental managers are normally appointed to positions for which they may be unsuitable due to being particularly good at something else. In our orchestra example, while the violinist has been part of an orchestra for years, they understand orchestras and are an expert player, they have never conducted the orchestra and they don’t understand where to start. Those same feelings of disorientation, confusion and anxiety exist for writers promoted to become editors, top-performing sales people promoted to manage sales teams, coders promoted to become software leads, waiters promoted to become restaurant managers and GPs expected to run integrated healthcare services.

Like playing the violin, coding, welding, serving food, writing and diagnosing patients, people management is a distinct skill that you have to learn and develop. Being a good manager is not simply a natural consequence of being good at something else. In fact, being particularly good at a certain skill can often be a barrier to becoming a good manager, especially if the ability to coach, mentor and transfer skills is lacking. Excelling at a certain discipline in the absence of management skills can often foster an attitude of ‘it’s quicker for me to do it than to show you’.

This is not to say that all accidental managers are bad managers. Some people who find themselves managing people will excel at it, either through intuition, emulation, proactively developing themselves – or most likely – a combination of all three. But they’ve succeeded in spite how of they became managers, not because of it.

So, if your role includes the management of people, and if any of these four descriptions sound familiar to you, the chances are that you’re one of the 70% of managers who are accidental managers.

You were the best in your department at a specific role or skill
This is one of the most common pathways to accidental management. You were the best and most experienced practitioner of your particular skill, and faulty logic has dictated that you must therefore be a natural fit to lead others. You are removed from the talent pool for the very thing you are best at, and transplanted into a role to which you are not yet suited. Promoting someone to a management position is often an act of misguided benevolence. The people who made the decision may have been acting out of loyalty or trying to reward an excellent employee.
You reached the highest level of technical expertise
Concerned with your career progression, your employers have decided that you have nowhere else to go in terms of career progression other than into the management structure. You may have consented to this decision on the grounds that management is your route to better pay and rewards, or simply that it felt like the logical next step.
You never proactively wanted to be a people manager

This is one of the more subtle, yet obvious-in-hindsight clues that you are an accidental manager. Some managers have considered their own suitability for and desire to lead teams and departments. They have explored the different types of management and have expressed an interest in learning how to develop people management skills before they were promoted. Accidental managers often ‘sleepwalk’ into the position without really contemplating their own desire for taking on the demanding responsibilities entailed in management.

There were no other outstanding candidates

Employers often encourage competent and well-liked colleagues to apply for management roles without thinking about their suitability or aptitude to engage and motivate people. This may be due to a lack of succession planning, challenging recruitment markets or just bad luck. In the absence of a stand-out candidate, either hired internally or recruited, employers may ask the person with the most on-the-job experience to fill the role of manager.

What are the risks of being an accidental manager?

Becoming an accidental manager carries a number of risks, both at an individual and organisational level. The most obvious risks are that accidental managers spend most of their time doing something they have relatively little experience in, while not doing the thing they are best at. This can have a negative impact on team performance, in the absence of competent and strategic leadership. It can also have a drastic effect on the morale and engagement of the managers themselves, as they struggle to grasp the requirements of their new role.

It might or might not surprise you to learn that 71% of companies do not currently offer people skills training to managers stepping up into their first people management roles. So you are not alone, but it’s now in your gift what you do about this.

71% of companies do not currently offer people skills training to managers stepping up into their first people management roles.

What should I do about being an accidental manager?

The good news is that your route into management, whether by accident or design, doesn’t determine your future success. And you need not be defined by your informal diagnosis as an accidental manager.

The first thing you can do is to adjust your mindset from being a do-er to being an enabler of others. This is often the hardest shift for managers to make. Your job is no longer to write code, produce articles, analyse data or indeed play the violin. Your job is now to empower, guide and motivate your team to achieve results through their own endeavours.

If you’re interested in developing your current skills and expertise around your people management role then speak to your own manager and explore what options are available within your organisation to further develop your people management skills.

If they don’t have any easily accessible options available you can introduce them to the STAR® Manager suite of programmes, which is academically proven by LSE to transform management capability, and can also include a range of optional management qualifications and accrediations inside or outside of apprenticeships.

If you enjoy reading then the concepts explored in, The Answer is a Question: The Missing Superpower that Changes Everything and Will Transform Your Impact as a Manager and Leader, was written for people like you. 

In it, you’ll discover some easy ways to adapt how you work with colleagues and team members that enable you to improve the performance of those around you, recoup some of the time you spend on high-effort, lower-value tasks and generally supercharge your ability to help others succeed and in doing so develop your own career. It’s all based on asking powerful questions.

What are you going to do to move from accidental manger to outstanding manager?

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We partner with organisations all over the world, combining our unique experiences to create mutually beneficial and collaborative relationships. If you’d like to explore teaming up with us on this journey please do say hello and we’ll schedule an informal call.