The struggles of 4 accidental managers at Nigerian startups

May 22, 2024
4 min read
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The term "accidental manager" might be a recent addition to workplace vocabulary, but a 2023 HR trend list proves the concept has always existed.

It is commonplace to see companies offering managerial responsibilities to people without determining if they have senior-level skills and experience to handle them. It's also not surprising to find that this is encouraged by the startup culture.

"I am one of those young people whose Nigerian parents warned against working at a private-owned company, worst still an even smaller version of that group — startups. But they were happy to hear about how much I've climbed up the professional ladder in six years. But, was I ready for it? The honest response is 'No'," said a creative lead at a Nigerian startup.

Interestingly, this growing trend of promoting unprepared individuals to leadership roles without considering their suitability might remain in the coming years.


Startups are fast-growth

Startup culture thrives on rapid growth, often leading to a lack of focus on structured career development for those thrust into management positions.

Imagine an entry-level tech hire joining a two-year-old startup. By year three, the company's growth requires it to onboard more entry-level roles. The natural solution is for existing employees to become trainers and unofficially lead the new hires.

"Before you know it, you're already a team lead," says the creative lead with a hint of sarcasm.

This contrasts with what you’ll find in established organisations, where promotions follow a structured path and leadership roles require experience.

"It took me 12 years in service before I became a sectional head. By then, managing other teachers wasn’t strange to me," says a retired teacher.

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This lack of preparation can become an issue if not managed properly. A 2023 study by the Chartered Management Institute (CMI) and YouGov found that 82% of new managers lack formal management and leadership training.

Since this isn't entirely bad in itself, an HR professional establishes that it should ideally be followed with the necessary training required to succeed in that role. The study also revealed that people who get drafted into managerial positions without proper training end up becoming terrible managers.

Promotions aren't bad, especially considering the accompanying perks, but some exceptional individual contributors may not desire management roles, preferring to focus on their strengths.

The creative lead who would have declined the promotion if she could, says, "It seems I was so good at my job and they assumed I'd be able to lead people. I actually prefer to be hands-on. But it's hard to keep that up at a startup."

Another team lead from a Nigerian fintech startup echoes this sentiment, highlighting the pressure to embrace leadership roles in startups.

"It'd be self-sabotage to be in a fast-growing environment and try to cloak your strengths because you do not want to be considered for a leadership position."

The Peter Principle

I heard about the Peter Principle for the first time in 2022 when a friend was searching for an explanation for the struggle they were experiencing while navigating a new leadership position.

The concept explains why promotions can lead to incompetence. It is ideal to promote employees based on their current performance and not necessarily the skills required for the new role. However, this can lead to early struggles for accidental managers, potentially making them appear unfit.

Beyond official promotions, there's a crop of accidental managers who emerge due to a dysfunction in their team, an absent or incompetent line manager, for instance.

A visual designer shares how she became an accidental manager a few months into her role, a situation that came about by her casually covering up for a new line manager's lack of technical expertise.

"When he resumed, the team found out that he didn't have the technical knowledge and a couple of skills that are important to lead a content team. He couldn't give creative direction for visual content.” 

This limited his ability to lead the entire team. Going by her skillset, an eye for design, and obsession with quality, she then became the go-to person for other team members, like the photographer and 3D designer. While unofficial, everyone recognised her additional responsibilities.

"It's overwhelming at times," she says about juggling those responsibilities alongside her official tasks, “I have to work round the clock because a lot is expected of me."

While she would have happily taken up the role upon request, she believes the company should have handled the situation better.

May the best accidental manager win

Another creative hired to do strategy and communications had a similar experience with incompetent line managers. Though demanding, the opportunity opened him up to others in product, marketing, finance, and stakeholder management.

The visual designer also found a silver lining.

"My teammates said they'd be upset if I didn't get the creative director position because I was already doing the work."

While she's still developing leadership skills like providing feedback, her team's response suggests she's on the right track.

The pressure to scale quickly with limited resources forces startups to rely on employees to wear multiple hats. There's often little room to consider if someone excelling in a technical role will excel in leadership.

Ultimately, employers are responsible for the impact accidental managers have on their businesses. As Dr Laurence J. Peter, the proponent of the Peter Principle, suggests, companies should invest in training and mentorship for these unprepared leaders.

If training doesn't help, reassigning them to roles that better suit their skills is better than termination. After all, they might be incompetent managers, but not necessarily incompetent employees.

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Human enthusiast | Writer | Senior reporter | Podcaster. Find me on Twitter @Nifemeah.
Human enthusiast | Writer | Senior reporter | Podcaster. Find me on Twitter @Nifemeah.
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Human enthusiast | Writer | Senior reporter | Podcaster. Find me on Twitter @Nifemeah.

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