John Knight discusses the rise, and now hopefully fall, of the ‘Accidental Manager’ in local government – and why more and more local authorities are taking a new approach that builds on maximising employees strengths.

Many employees didn’t plan to get into management, yet suddenly they find themselves in charge of a team, dealing in people and performance issues and not spending their time doing the things that they trained to do, are good at and they enjoy. Recent CMI (Chartered Management Institute) research has shown that 68% of UK managers categorise themselves as so-called, ‘accidental managers’. And our knowledge and experience of local authorities, which have traditionally had a system of promotion to management being based on length of service and seniority in a specialism, means we have no doubt that this figure will be considerably higher still in that sector.

So what exactly do we mean by the ‘Accidental Manager’? Most often it a highly skilled worker, who has consistently performed well and has extensive experience in their role, and is therefore ‘rewarded’ with the added responsibility of a managerial position. And not unusually, they are given little or no further guidance or training to undertake the role. Their job is entirely different and needs different strengths and skills, but without appropriate development to prepare for the role’s shift in focus – from delivering to directing – the manager is being thrown in at the deep end.

Whilst some people will flourish in this environment, discovering new abilities and talents that they never knew they had, others don’t fare so well. Management is a specific skill set, and one that has for too long in local government been underrated. An urge to move someone from a role they thrive at to one that is completely new (often driven in local government by inflexible and out-dated job evaluation processes that are built on assertions that ‘senior’ equals managing a lot of people – but that’s another story!) often doesn’t end well for the individual or for the organisation. It doesn’t seem that difficult to see that square pegs fit best into square holes, no matter how hard you try to bash them into a round one.

However, all is not lost. If a leader is prepared to think flexibly they will be able to nurture and harness the skills and strengths of their team, and recognise where they many need to supplement or develop them. At C.Co we have seen that where individuals and organisations are at their best it is when people are allowed and encouraged to play to their strengths. When we say strengths we mean the underlying qualities that invigorate and energise us, and we are great at, or have the potential to become great at. And these aren’t always the things we have had the opportunity to exercise at work on a regular basis so may be unknown to their leaders and colleagues.

A number of forward thinking local authorities we have worked with have already started to think differently and tear up the ‘greasy pole’ promotion rule book. Even though in some of the organisations we have had to convince some sceptical senior managers who have been brought up through that system themselves. I recall working at one local authority where we were helping to open up promotion, based on a series of management strengths rather than length of professional service.

One ‘forthright’ director (a senior environmental health officer) was clearly not impressed and his response to me was  ‘it’s all very well for them to be a good manager, but what if they are a really s**t environmental health officer?’.  He was half right of course, we didn’t want to design a process that rewarded really bad professional officers, but the difference was that he worked from a deficit based model when it came to dealing with his staff (that was real Theory X management in action), where you start with an assumption about someone’s shortcomings and try to correct them.

All the evidence and learning is clear; when people are allowed to play to their strengths – are put into roles that interest and excite them and are given opportunities for development to build on those strengths – they are likely to do well. Sometimes this is getting under the skin of an existing team to recognise and play to those strengths as a group, and sometimes it is about recognising where there are gaps and taking action to fill them.

The first step, however, is for individuals, for leaders and for management teams to understand themselves, and to understand their colleagues. We have used a range of tools and techniques to help with this understanding. The outcome of these can provide powerful development triggers for individuals and teams, as they open up dialogue about natural styles and impact, tendencies or preferences.

The results are, almost without exception, very positive. Greater engagement, higher commitment, better team working, increased effectiveness, leading to improved organisational outcomes.

To find out more about how we might be able to help your organisation please contact us at