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How To Help Your Accidental Managers

A manager handing over a pen and paper

Did your first line managers plan to get into management?

Many people’s first taste of management comes because they are high performers - it’s a reward for excellence.

And it means they often begin the roles without management training to help them survive in the deep end.

The term ‘accidental manager’ has been coined to describe those in this situation.

And research from the Chartered Management Institute has shown 68 per cent of UK managers regard themselves as accidental managers.

So, how can your organisation better help them make that transition? And how can accidental managers help themselves?

I caught up with Dan Boniface, one of our leadership and management coaches, to answer those questions.

“We have to be careful ‘accidental manager’ is not a derogatory term,” he said.

“It is a term for people who have been a high performer in their job, get promoted and then realise they’ve got to manage people rather than just themselves.

“And that adds a new dimension to the working day.

“I’ve done a lot of leadership and management training in the NHS with middle to senior managers. And I’ve seen nurses with brilliant clinical skills get promoted to ward manager roles.

“That’s a lot more administerial and requires more managerial skills. And they struggle to make the transition from focusing on the clinical side to managing rotas, finance, training and all the different components that go into managing the ward.”

That change can feel daunting for anyone moving into a management role.

Dan said: “I think there are two parts to it feeling daunting. There is the fear and anxiety that comes with gaining promotion and thinking about how you will manage. Typically, you will manage the people who were your peers.

“So, there is that forward-thinking aspect, and then when you get into the role, there is that moment where you go ‘there is more to management than I expected’.

“As a manager, you get pulled in many different directions and have to take in lots more information from those around you – from your team, manager and peers.”


Dan believes the starting point for accidental managers is to recognise they deserve to be in that position despite feeling daunted.

“You need to remember that you’ve proved yourself, got the skills and deserve to be in the position,” he said.

“And then view yourself as a role model. People will look up to you because they respect you.

“When you view yourself in that way, it enables you to think about how you behave and conduct yourself on a daily basis.”

Good people

It is also crucial to surround yourself with good people.

Find people willing to share their experiences and knowledge who can help you improve – no manager has all the answers, particularly at the start of their leadership career.

“Get yourself a mentor,” Dan said. “There will be lots of situations you come across that you have not had to deal with before.

“Find someone who has been there and knows what it is like to be an accidental manager. And lean on them. Use their experience and knowledge and see what they would do in different situations.”

Time management

It can be easy for an accidental manager to lose track of time.

You can quickly find yourself doing less in more time as you adjust to your new responsibilities.

“One of the biggest challenges we see during our leadership and management courses and in the conversations we have with accidental managers is they become time-poor,” Dan said.

“As a first line manager or middle manager, everyone comes to you with their problems. And typically, we take them on because we think we are being kind and supportive.

“But what we are doing is taking responsibility away from the employee. And we end up doing three or four different jobs rather than focussing on the role we are paid to do as a leader and manager.”

In essence, by taking on the problem ourselves, we are removing a chance for your team member to learn a new skill or develop.

To overcome this, accidental managers need to become better at prioritising tasks.

Dan said: “You need to know what needs to be done immediately, what is crisis mode and what is urgent and distinguish that from distractions and noise.

“If we get the prioritisation right, we have control over our day.”


Delegation is a vital leadership and management skill that is closely linked to time management.

And it can also prove to be a large stumbling block for accidental managers.

“First line managers often feel they need to take everything on themselves,” Dan said.

“And that is a challenge.

“You need to find the people you can delegate to, make sure they have the capacity and competence to do it effectively. And if they don’t, invest time in training them.

“Once you’ve developed the skills, keep doing it. Don’t slip back into bad habits.

“The sooner you master this skill, the more effective you will be as a manager because you get time back to do the quality things you need to do, like strategic planning and budgeting.”

But isn’t it easier to do these tasks yourself?

“This is the thing we hear about delegation all the time,” Dan said. “And it probably is quicker for you to do that task yourself today.

“But if a task takes you 30 minutes today and would involve an hour of training for someone else, train them up.

“If that is a weekly task, within two or three weeks, you are making time back in your day. The return on your time investment comes pretty quickly.”

What about if your team comes to you with a problem? How do you avoid taking those issues on and trying to solve them?

“This is where business coaching principles come in,” Dan said.

“You need to ask the right question at the correct time.

“Ask open questions to understand the issue and what they are trying to achieve and drill that down so the conversation is about what they will do to make that happen.

“The final question a manager should ask in this situation is, ‘what will you do next?’. That gets buy-in and gives the other person ownership of the problem.


Empathy is probably the most talked about leadership and management skill currently.

And it can separate good managers from great ones.

So, it is a skill accidental managers need to quickly pick up.

“As a manager, leading with empathy shows you care about your team and those around you,” Dan said.

“As humans, we need to feel cared for, and have a sense of belonging.

“It is vital your team feel cared for and listened to. Leading with empathy means seeking first to understand and then be understood.

“The more we understand our teams, the more we can positively influence and help them reach their potential.”

Is this harder for an accidental manager if they are leading a remote or hybrid team?

Dan said: “It is because you don’t have the opportunity you have in the office environment for checking in on people.

“In the office, you might walk past a desk and see one of your colleagues with their head in their hands, and that’s an opportunity to check they are ok and see if there is anything you can do for them.

“If they are working from home, you won’t see that.

“So, if you are leading a remote or hybrid team, you must make a conscious effort to pick the phone up and check in with your team.

“The situation will not come to you if you are working remotely.”


What guidelines and principles do your accidental managers use in their decision-making?

In the early stages of management, it can be hard to find your values.

But the sooner you do it, the easier management becomes.

“In my early management career, I didn’t know who I wanted to be as a manager and what my values were,” Dan said. “And that tore me in different directions at times.

“As a manager, we can try to be so professional that we don’t build a relationship with our team.

“But we can also go the other way and become too friendly. And then it is hard to show any authority.

“So, you must get the right balance and find your values in the middle. If one of your values is honesty, when you get something wrong, be open and honest about it with your team.

“Your actions have to back up your values and thought processes.”

I wondered if this also means accidental managers should avoid trying to emulate - or be the opposite of - the person they replaced.

“A common mistake in early management is trying to be exactly the same as that great manager you’ve just taken over from or not being like that bad manager you had,” Dan said.

“Comparisons with others do not help in our management career.

“We must find our path and lead through our personality.

“People will buy into us because of our personality and how we conduct ourselves.”

Fear of failure

Many accidental managers have a fear of failure.

It can result in a reluctance to try new things, procrastination, lack of confidence and a willingness to only do something if you feel it can be done perfectly.

Dan believes organisations having the right culture is a crucial factor.

“I think most manager feels that pressure of failure early on,” he said.

“But it doesn’t help you thrive. Fear of failure means you are just trying to get by and will always take the safe option. But we need managers to be creative and make bold decisions. Sometimes it is good to take a risk.

“But to do that, we need to have an environment where it is ok if things don’t work out.

“If it is an open and honest environment, accidental managers will be more willing to try things. And so will their team.

“If things go wrong, it is not a problem. It is a learning opportunity.

“Be honest about it. We all make mistakes. As long as we learn from them, we are winning.”

Ask for help

That fear of failure can also lead to reluctance to ask for help.

After all, it is a sign of weakness – right?

But Dan believes accidental managers should not be afraid to show people what they don’t know.

He said: “In my early management career, I thought asking for help was seen as a sign of weakness. But looking back now, there were situations where I needed support and guidance from my manager.

“I blagged my way through it. And most times it turned out ok. But we could have had much better outcomes if I’d asked for help from experienced team members.

“I think there is a much better culture now where many business people have coaching, and it is recognised asking for help is positive.

“It is ok not to know everything. And a collaborative, well-functioning team will work things out together.”

Succession planning

So, there’s a lot of advice and tips for accidental managers and their organisations.

But there is a question we still need to address.

Would it be better if, instead of putting high performers in management roles, their talent is identified early, and steps are taken to prepare them for leadership?

“Succession planning is crucial,” Dan said. “Businesses can fall down pretty quickly if they don’t have contingency plans in place, and that involves people and the role they can perform.

“When I worked in the health and fitness industry, I took on six apprentices.

“I took them through their fitness qualifications over a two-year period, and one showed an aptitude for management.

“I knew it wasn’t going to be my job for life, so we succession planned. A year before I moved on, we started training her, she shadowed me, we got her a leadership and management qualification, and she took on some of my responsibilities.

“And when I left, there was no question who would get the role.

“It was a seamless transition because we spent time training her and giving her the ability to succeed.

“And I think this is something overlooked in business. We shouldn’t be afraid of training people to take on our role.

“Things change. You might move up or sideways, and we should prepare people for the future.

“With succession planning, we could remove accidental managers altogether.”

Need more help?

Our First line management training gives new, inexperienced and accidental managers a firm foundation to start their management career.

The programme covers a wide range of topics and includes units on effective communication, managing your team, managing yourself, delegating, setting objectives, effective planning and personal development.

Speak to us about our face-to-face, remote and online training options.

The BCF group has been helping organisations develop their talent, inspire their people and overcome obstacles and challenges for the past 25 years.

We deliver training that makes a difference. Find out more about our business coaching, management training and interpersonal skills options.

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