Avoiding the “Accidents” of Accidental Leadership

JANUARY 24, 2018

Five Essential Success Factors for the “Accidental” Leader

Andrew* couldn’t believe it. After just a few short months in his current role as an IT developer, he was being approached to take on a new role. The company was in the process of preparing for an acquisition and Andrew’s manager was being pulled into the integration work. They needed Andrew to add a people-management component to his role, which to date had always been as an individual contributor.

And why not? Andrew was well liked, had always had good reviews and at his last development discussion, his manager had raised the idea of Andrew moving into management at some point. So why not Andrew? And why not now?

This simple example is likely one that sounds familiar. Perhaps it’s happened to you – or perhaps you’ve had to make this decision – pulling your own ‘Andrew’ into a new role in a not-quite-planned, or ‘accidental’ way. And while this might be the best decision that could happen for Andrew, as well as his team, it helps if there are some specific foundational pieces put into place that might not be so…well, accidental.

Success Factor #1: Building on a Strong Foundation

Employees like Andrew, especially those in more technical roles, are often rational and process-driven. They may be self-starters and naturally organized. All reasons they may excel at their roles – and be considered as good candidates for promotion. The watch-out here is that these skills and natural aptitudes may not translate directly into management. People are not always rational or predictable. Helping the employee recognize how to translate existing skills into a new role AND identifying new skills that may now be required is critical. Expectation setting can also be important – unlike prior roles where feedback may have been relatively quick (i.e. the new software does or does not work), feedback related to successful leadership may not be immediately available and the new manager may need to understand how to ask for, and receive, this kind of feedback.

Success Factor #2: There’s A Lot Going On

Often the reason a person is unexpectedly pulled into leadership is based on changes that are taking place within the organization itself. These changes may be large and preoccupying – making it difficult to focus on the support that new leaders like Andrew may need. This can lead to early challenges and even burn-out – before he really has an opportunity to succeed. It’s essential the organizations be mindful of those individuals who are focusing and managing the day-to-day initiatives or activities, even when other notable changes are underway.

accidental leadership

So why not Andrew? And why not now?

Success Factor #3: Letting Go is Hard to Do

A new leader, especially one that has historically been successful in his/her individual role, may naturally fall into an “it’s easier to do it myself” pattern because that may feel more comfortable. Delegation can be a challenge for new leaders. But without appropriate delegation, the leader runs the real risk of burn-out and the staff can feel disempowered and unmotivated. Helping the new leader understand how delegation can be used to manage work-load as well as empower employees may be quite helpful, especially in the early days of management.

Success Factor #4: R-E-S-P-E-C-T

New leaders may be naturally easy-going and generally liked. And that can be a great place to start. Of course, being liked isn’t essential for good leadership, but it doesn’t really hurt. Research is clear on this point, if you are in the game for the long term, you want your leaders to respect those they work with and you want to be able to respect your leaders. New managers may find that they are experiencing new levels of stress, which may lead to unexpected negative behaviors. Finding ways to address the stresses that are consistent with a basic standard of respect will pay dividends to the new leader throughout his or her career.

Success Factor #5: What It’s All About

Not surprisingly, communication may be the most important factor in helping an accidental leader achieve success. It’s essential that he clearly understands the expected results for himself and his team. He needs to understand the success metrics that will be used to measure those results and he needs to understand the specific goals and objectives that will help him and the team get there. For a new leader, it may require the ability to see the bigger picture and how the team fits into that picture.

Of course, it’s a logical goal to try and avoid the “accidental” leader where possible. This means focusing on the “deliberate” leader – one that has been identified, developed and prepared for their new role in management. These individuals (hopefully) have had the opportunity to establish a vision for themselves as a leader and to think deliberately about their style and the values they will bring to bear in their new roles.

But since today’s business climate can be anything but predictable and may not always feel particularly stable, it’s good to have a strategy for those moments when you may need to call on your own “Andrew”. After all, in real life, Andrew ended up being a great manager – an ‘accident’ the company benefited from for many years.

Schedule a complimentary discussion to discuss how TLS may helpful to you as a leader, or for leaders in your organization.


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