We hear it all the time.

“I’m just completely swamped during this transition, I now have 18 direct reports until we find someone to fill this spot.”

Or

“I don’t even have time to know if my direct reports are doing what they are supposed to do, let alone hear about their issues each week.”

Or

“With 16 direct reports, I can only focus on the top third and hope to make sure we get the most out of our A players.”

As managers, it’s a very chaotic world executing every day to achieve our team goals.

Most companies live in a sht-o-cracy. The more successful and capable you are as a manager and leader, the more sht gets thrown at you. What get’s lost from upper management is the construct of what is feasible. Kobe Bryant could not score 80 points a night, every night.

Organizations constantly restructure and fill positions. One of the major questions leadership must ask is: “Are we setting our leadership up for success?” A strong indicator of success is the number of direct reports each manager is leading.

This is the part of the blog post where every reader wants a specific number. Oh we’re going to give it to you but there is a caveat with the number — come on, our office building is next to a bunch of lawyers.

Remember, this post is titled: How many direct reports can a manager successfully lead? “Successfully” is a key component to this post.

The simple answer to the question is 9.

Through our research and experience, nine direct reports is the maximum number of direct reports a manager can successfully lead.

Our logic is simple: assume the manager does one on ones with each direct report once a week for 30 minutes, that’s 4 and 1/2 hours a week. Only 1 half day of a work is required to spend individual time with each direct report — many managers still don’t have time for 1 on 1 meetings! There will likely be 1 or 2 team meetings depending on the manager’s feedback loop. That leaves at least 4 days to do what managers should be doing to increase manager effectiveness.

Of course managers can lead more than 9 direct reports but with only 28% of employees engaged, it’s going to take a lot of work to maintain high levels of leadership for more than 9 direct reports. We’ve learned that any number over 12 direct reports is not really managing and more supervising.

Want a more comprehensive answer as to why nine? Read this Harvard Business Review article titled: How many direct reports? It dives into many factors surround that question including: cross organization collaboration required, where you are in senior-executive life cycle, scope of role, time management, and much more.

If you’re managing more than 9 people, really assess your time and see where you can make more leverage-able activities. If you’re managing more than 12, it’s time for you to bring it up to your leadership that it will be hard to produce the results you’ve provided in the past by being so stretched thin.

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