Is Your Exec Managing Too Many Direct Reports?

Adapted from my newsletter, The Briefing. Originally published March 18, 2019.


One C-suite exec I did some work for struggled with having 13 direct reports after coming to a high-tech company from a more traditional manufacturing business where she had managed 5. I say “struggled” because she characterized it that way but also because just having regular 1:1s with 13 people took an inordinate amount of time and wasn’t sustainable in a constantly-adapting, high-growth company. Were 13 too much? Too little? How would she know? How could her chief of staff influence her thinking?

The exec in the example above could minimize or eliminate regular 1:1’s, just asking her directs to set up time when needed and articulating and enforcing some boundaries around what constitutes “needed.” As Organizational Psychologist Adam Grant posted on LinkedIn this week:

Too many managers value presence instead of performance. Let go of face time. Ask people to show up for collaborative work—and let them do their individual work wherever and whenever they choose.

The questions about the number of direct reports is not unique to this exec. The topic has come up in our current Chief of Staff Mastermind Cohort as well as my research in the CoS role, generally.

In the March issue of HBR, physicist and entrepreneur Safi Bahcall argues that the ideal number of direct reports, what he calls management span, is ultimately a question of organization design and depends on what you are trying to accomplish. Specifically, if you’re trying to build an organization that continuously innovates, flatter can be better, which means more directs.

Narrow spans (fewer average direct reports at each management level, or more total levels and a deeper hierarchy) aren’t inherently worse than wide ones. Narrow is better if you want lower error rates and high operational excellence. Wider spans and looser controls are better for experimenting and developing loonshots and new technologies…. Google’s former head of engineering, Bill Coughran, once had 180 direct reports.

13 doesn’t sound so bad in comparison, and it makes sense in the context of comparison between an innovative tech company and a more established traditional parts company.

Of course, the term “span” connotes span of control, as even Bahcall notes. With more and more holocracies coming online and fewer and fewer traditional, command-and-control structures that work in today’s world, the game is changing. Honestly, I’m not sure how much, or how quickly, because a lot of companies still operate with command-and-control hierarchies, but it’s changing. And your answer to the question of how many probably depends on which type of organization you’re in.

As Mike Myatt, author of Hacking Leadership, offers:

I want leaders to think span of influence and awareness, to shift thinking from rigid structures to loose collaborative networks, and to think open source not proprietary.

The truth is, there are no 3-easy-steps to figuring out the right number of directs. As with a lot of things, it takes thoughtfulness, intentionality, and contextualization to know what a defensible number is (there is no “right number”).

What happened with the exec above? The exec’s chief of staff, who had been watching a number of dynamics unfolding across the entire organization (changing needs, services from one department that multiple departments could benefit from, and multiple departments that had similar, redundant processes) posed a couple minor restructuring scenarios to the exec, which ultimately made sense for the organization to work more effectively and not just for the exec’s “struggle.” One of the scenarios reduced the total number of directs to 10, and that’s the one the exec rolled out.

Email or call me today if you or your exec need a thought partner in determining the right number – and funcctions – of direct reports.

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