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How to not hire the “Accidental Manager”

Updated: May 17

Melissa Twigg’s recent article in The Telegraph “Managers are everywhere and  they’re mostly bad” caught my attention, as it not only summed up how important hiring is, but also how easy it is to get it wrong – meet the “Accidental Manager.”

The “Accidental Manager” is given a leadership role, based on their strong technical skill set, rather than on the harder to evaluate ‘softer’ skills, that are crucial to these sorts of positions. This is a well-documented theory, also known as “The Peter Principle”, from the 1969 book by Laurence J. Peter and Raymond Hull, that states a similar problem: “In a hierarchy, every employee tends to rise to his level of incompetence”. This is because someone competent at their job will earn a promotion into other jobs that require different skills, such as management skills, and so will eventually become incompetent.  

While we could all sit here and discuss our hiring misfortunes, hiring the wrong manager is particularly damaging. Why? Because it has an impact far more broadly than a drop in productivity from a team member. Leaders are just that, they lead. They set the vision and the tone for the team, they bring those individuals who need additional support, and reward those who deserve it. They understand what the company needs and come up with a plan on how to get there, all the while maintaining a well-motivated staff that wants to stick around. It is not an easy task and not everyone can do it.  

The Telegraph article comments that, in Britain, only 27% of employees felt that their bosses were highly effective based on research by the Chartered Management Institute. This indicates that there are a lot of underperforming teams and unhappy workers out there.  

According to the article, many “Accidental Managers,” are internal promotions. Promoting internally makes sense because of the proven cultural fit with the organisation, and it also rewards good performance as a team member. However, this does not necessarily mean they are equipped with the soft skills to be a leader. Equally, hiring externally often falls into the trap of focusing on technical skills rather than the behavioural competencies for leadership – mainly because technical skills are easier to assess during the interview process. 

Based on the above, teams would perform better, and staff retention would be higher if there were a way to hire managers with the right skill set for leadership. That is why our ‘Best-fit Search’ process focuses as much on the candidate’s behaviours and personal style as their track record and skills. 

We recommend several key elements to consider while making a leadership hire.  

  • Looking externally as well as internally during a recruitment process allows you to compare candidates and focus the mind on the different skill sets available to you, even if you eventually settle on your internal candidate. 

  • Ask candidates, both internal and external, to complete personality profiles, focusing on the skill set that you are hiring for. This is not a tool to rule people out; it is a tool to understand where people’s strengths are and where they might need support in the role. Additionally, it adds some objectivity to a process that can be very subjective. The personality fit is not only important for the firm to know whether the candidate can perform in the role, but it indicates the extent to which the role is a natural fit for the individual and how happy they are likely to be in it, potentially affecting performance and longevity in the position. 

  • Reference checks are crucial to verify behaviours and temperament. Referencing former colleagues is needed to understand how people operate as leaders. Preferably, these checks should be completed before potential candidates are contacted, instead of at the end of the process. There is little point in going through a lengthy interview process only to find that the final reference checks have flagged problematic behaviours and eliminated the candidate. We therefore recommend that informal references be taken early in the hiring process, as well as more formal references towards the end. 

  • For internal candidates, 360-degree feedback should be collected, focusing on style, coachability, emotional intelligence, and temperament. 

  • All of the above also requires an understanding of the professional skills and management style you are looking for and asking questions about that skill set. Again, a search firm can help you determine the profile and how to get the best out of an interview. As part of this, it is worth understanding the type of company you are. Company Culture dictates the type of leadership style that works best, and this, in turn, influences the skills and behaviours required from candidates.  

  • If you already have an “Accidental Manager” in place, then training, mentoring, and coaching are crucial. We would advise this for anyone stepping up into a role that requires a broader skill set. 


If you would like to discuss how our ‘Best-fit Search’ process could help you to better evaluate internal and external candidates for leadership positions, don’t hesitate to get in touch with us here

Last edited 12th December 2023


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