The Accidental Manager

It was an accident.

Like many of you I moved into management because someone else left and we needed a body. Fast. At the lowest levels of most organizations – the interface between “line” and supervisor – succession planning is a term never used or considered.

Sure, we think of it at the top sometimes (data shows only one third of public boards actually does anything about it, and more than half of all C-level openings are filled externally) but at the bottom of the pyramid it’s given scant if any attention.


Even though organizations by and large have been flattening for many years the bulk of the employee base is still the team member and team leader. We might call them associates or individual contributors or even employees but the talent is still there still looking to leadership. These folks, team leaders, chiefs, supervisors, etc., are the first and strongest link between company and employee driving culture far more than any charismatic CEO can.

And yet we shunt them.

  • They are often the last to know strategic plans or direction
  • They have little knowledge around customer management even though they impact it tremendously
  • They are seldom given leadership, psychology or communications training often focused solely on compliance

In short, we provide this critical cohort practically nothing of what they need even as the organizational demands increase exponentially.

Some would argue that the first-line’s inherent leadership skills belie the need for this investment in training. Don’t be ridiculous.

The majority – vast majority – of first-line leaders are chosen because they’re technical experts or subject matter experts. Sales, marketing, production, accounting – if you are very very good at what you do (I operated a four-story extraction unit using the highly explosive compound n-Hexane: I knew what I was doing) you too run the risk of becoming a supervisor.

Why risk?

Consider what we still don’t know about internal motivation, reward theory, communication, coaching… This is a daunting role. And yet, we still operate as if technical experts are automatically enabled to become effective supervisors. When was the last time you saw a great salesperson morph into a great sales manager?

That’s what I thought: the skill-sets are entirely different.

So what to do?

  1. Recognize the demands of the supervisory role and develop a competncy model for this function: start by giving it the respect it deserves
  2. Develop curriculum and experiential learning for potential leaders as well as incumbents: put them in controlled environments so they can safely learn, exchange ideas and receive coaching
  3. Turn your succession planning upside down: the top (surprise, surprise) will take care of itself. Focus on developing potential leaders and ensuring they understand point 1 and have access to point 2

Throwing someone into a leadership role simply because they were technically competent and available when you have a need is akin to learning how to swim by being thrown in the deep end: it doesn’t always work and even when it does it can leave lasting scars.

Give a damn about your talent by caring about their leadership at the first level. Invest in your supervisor cadre so there are no more accidental leaders.



2 thoughts on “The Accidental Manager

  1. Excellent insights. You’re right on — we live in a world of accidental leaders. Change within in organization is initiated by the DESIRE to both care about and invest in leadership from the top down. Well-articulated post, Christopher. Thanks.

    • Very kind of you Stacy! That means a lot coming from you! Yes, I agree: leadership runs throughout the organization – we should honor all who lead, not just those at the top of a hierarchical pyramid. Thank you!

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