Why we need to stop creating 'accidental managers'

Improve the quality of your managers by hiring them intentionally. Your star player will not necessarily be a great manager.

by Stefan Stern

This article is from our Management Matters series, which argues it's time for a management revival. Businesses should reward, value and respect managers, because they are often the answer to their intractable problems.

Here is a truly radical idea: why not put people into management roles who a) are actually good at it and b) enjoy it?

The traditional career ladder, and closed corporate thinking, have not always allowed for such a deceptively simple approach. Instead, ambitious colleagues – who may be performing well where they are – feel obliged to take on management responsibilities, even when they are not suited to that or have no particular appetite for this kind of role.

Sally Bibb, author of The Strengths Book – discover how to be fulfilled in your work and in life, and now a partner at PA Consulting, has long advocated a strengths-based approach to both recruitment and career planning. It is about putting round pegs into round holes.

“You can’t just make people love being in charge,” she says. “I love managing people – but not to be ‘in charge’. I’m really interested in other people, I love helping people. One of the highlights of my job is having a 30 minute check-in with members of my team every week,” she adds. “It’s not a threat, or a formal ‘1:1’ or ‘appraisal’ – it’s all about offering to help.”

This echoes an argument that Professor Cary Cooper, perhaps the UK’s best-known psychologist of the workplace, has long made. Technical skills may mark you out as a top performer in the business. But this does not mean you possess the full repertoire of skills that a manager needs.

Unless there are also so-called ‘soft’ skills – listening, showing empathy, understanding other people’s point of view – you are not necessarily equipped to manage. The shorthand label for this set of skills is ‘emotional intelligence’ – although this can be a misunderstood term. The point, Prof Cooper says, is to respond to situations with rounded humanity, not a narrow (if technically proficient) approach.

Why has this apparently obvious management mismatch not been dealt with already? Perhaps in the British context there has been too much inhibition about acknowledging the human factor at work. We have preferred a more chilly and impersonal style – the ‘stiff upper lip’ – and just expected people to knuckle down and get on with it.

But as the Chartered Management Institute (CMI) has shown, the vast majority of managers in UK businesses and organisations seem to end up in management roles almost by chance. Around 80% of people promoted into management positions get no training in how to manage or lead, the CMI says. We are a nation – an economy – of “accidental managers”.

Ann Francke, chief executive of the CMI, recently told the FT’s Working It podcast that there were cultural reasons for this less than serious approach to management. “The cult of the gifted amateur, muddling your way through…somehow that’s to be admired,” she said. That is not the case in the US or Germany, she added, where there is more pride in the role of being a manager or a leader. It is probably not a coincidence, she said, that Britain’s most famous manager is David Brent, the character in the hit comedy show “The Office” created by the comedian Ricky Gervais – the ultimate accidental manager.

This is not just a subjective impression: there is academic evidence to support this view. A paper published in 2019 in The Quarterly Journal of Economics by three US researchers argued that “the best worker is not always the best candidate for manager”.

Their study of around 130 companies found that “firms discriminate in favour of high-performing sales workers by promoting them ahead of lower-performing sales workers with greater managerial potential.”

This can have obvious negative consequences for the subsequent performance of the (less well managed) business. But there could also be some other less expected problems as a result of putting the wrong people into management positions:

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