How to rescue the accidental manager by revamping roles and bringing in ‘coach AI’

Organisations can use robust learning and employee experience to break the cycle, says Pavan Bilkhoo

Pavan Bilkhoo

Research from the Chartered Management Institute tells us that a shockingly low 27 per cent of employees consider their line manager to be highly effective. It’s no wonder, given that so many managers fall into their roles with little to no formal training or support, with many given extra responsibilities with limited reward. Indeed, swathes of managers are walking out because of it.

Whether it’s the micro manager, the nervous remote manager repeatedly checking whether you’re online or the totally absent manager, we’ve all had experiences at work where leadership falls short. 

Burnt-out middle managers get the brunt of top-down and bottom-up requests, juggling management responsibilities with delivery work while also being responsible for percolating culture and values to their teams. The result is often poor manager experience and a staggering 68 per cent of managers suffering burnout themselves, according to the Adecco Group. 

How can organisations use a robust learning and employee experience strategy to break this cycle? Evidently the way someone manages their team will incorporate a blend of personal style and experience, but it should also be strongly influenced by the organisation they work for. 

It becomes a business issue if poor management results in a flurry of symptoms, including toxic cultures, attrition and poor business profitability. 

The rise of accidental managers: a legacy or contemporary issue? 

We’ve seen a rise in the term ‘accidental managers’, but what does it really mean? The term is used to describe individuals given managerial roles with limited training. Despite it coming to the forefront recently, it is a persistent challenge that continues to evolve. 

High-performing individuals are thrust into management positions because of the lack of alternative career pathways or filling urgent leadership gaps, regardless of whether they have the necessary knowledge and skills required for success. Where a new manager is fortunate enough to receive management training, it is often compliance led and focused on HR policies, with a sprinkling of coaching theory.

McKinsey research shows that top performers flourish in hybrid working models, yet only 15 per cent of managers said they are comfortable managing remote and hybrid teams. This discrepancy shows that the managerial skillset is evolving and training needs to keep up. 

Is the role of the manager changing? 

Advancements in technology have changed how work gets done. Workload management, organisation and prioritisation are, for most work, driven by technology and data. While a manager may still play a role in communicating outcomes, technology and new ways of working remove the reliance on managing day-to-day team work.

In much project-based work, it is far more likely employees actively seek support from their project lead or subject matter experts rather than their manager. The impact of a manager being removed from the work puts them in the precarious position of managing performance of a team member, without the full knowledge of their role and, in turn, putting more emphasis on seeking feedback from others.

With this dynamic it becomes more important that managers create an open and safe environment to understand work, productivity and performance from their team. 

Leading organisations are taking steps to design work differently. Some purposefully design two management types – a ‘people manager’ and a ‘manager of work’. One is more responsible for the employee experience and career coaching and the other is focused on prioritisation, driving productivity and measuring outputs. These two roles are rarely performed by one person and their requirements differ depending on the industry, culture and nature of the work.  

The challenge facing most organisations is that people experience-focused roles have not been purposefully designed, with clear pathways and the right support for managers for the role to succeed. Once established for the here and now, a continuous learning approach is needed to stay in step for the business to succeed.

Is ‘coach AI’ the solution? 

In many cases, today’s managers need to unlearn traditional responsibilities and instead exploit technology and data to help them manage their team. 

Generative AI may be the answer for some activities by acting as an AI coach, perhaps on growth mindset, or providing data on team productivity, progress tracking and insights on team dynamics.  

Where previously a line manager would be expected to provide real-time feedback on professional style, new tools give presentation coaching. AI can then recommend training and development to improve, building a personalised learning pathway. Once AI understands a person’s aspirations beyond their current role, it will generate bespoke career pathways and long-term skill-building roadmaps.  

The potential for AI to act as a coach for work, learning and careers must be coupled with a heavy dose of reality, whether that is on-the-job learning or targeted human interventions. Managers therefore need the ability to take information from AI and translate that into opportunities for their team across the organisation – whether that is identifying project work, closing skills gaps or assigning a mentor. To do this, a manager needs to be able to navigate outside of functional silos, embrace a mindset of trust and inspire a growth mindset. 

Fostering human skills in a digital world 

In a world where talent and skills shortages are pressing issues for governments and organisations alike, there must be a focus on creating the right work environments for people to thrive.

Managers play a critical role driving great employee experiences but can only do so when their role is designed correctly. Managers need the right skills to blend data-driven insights with emotional intelligence and the ability to create positive work environments. 

Building great managers in a digital world means embracing AI, using it to assess an individual’s potential for management roles and to design training to close any identified gaps.

At the same time, organisations must recognise that manager training cannot be a ‘one and done’ approach. Scenario-based training can put the right foundations in place but must be reinforced through real-time feedback with the push of appropriate micro-learning interventions linked to that feedback. 

Nevertheless, training alone cannot combat accidental managers. HR must tackle the root cause by redesigning career pathways so that there are multiple respected career routes – for managers of work and managers of people, as well as skilled workers who do not require management responsibilities to reach certain pay bands or access additional incentives.

As AI reshapes the way work gets done, how organisations will create meaningful work and motivating people experiences for success will be top priority. Therefore we must evolve the skillsets of our managers to navigate these changes.

Pavan Bilkhoo is director of talent and skills transformation at Lace Partners