How Many Direct Reports Should a Manager Have?

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Ah, the classic all-time question that has probably caused more arguments than it has resolved. The answer is, of course, it depends. However, there are some guidelines that can help you make the right decision, both for yourself and for your team.

Let’s explore.

Span of Control

The number of direct reports that a manager has is most commonly referred to as their span of control. It’s a bit of a strange-sounding term, but it’s what we have. Other terms used include span of management or wingspan.

Deciding an optimal span of control is a key part of organisation design, since it determines the relationship between the overall size of the organisation and the number of managers required to support it. If you have small teams then you’ll have more managers, and if you have large teams then you’ll have fewer.

There’s no hard and fast rule, despite what anyone says. Once again, as with a lot of writing on the internet, those who prescribe a specific number are either inexperienced or are trying to sell you something. In my own opinion, the sweet spot is around 8 direct reports. But, importantly, I’m just some guy on the internet.

The truth is that it depends on a number of factors, including:

  • Practical limits. If we expect managers to do their job effectively, then there are practical limits to how many people they can manage. For example, ten direct reports could mean ten one-to-one meetings per week in addition to team meetings, individual work, coaching and mentorship, and having the flexibility to deal with unexpected issues. It’s highly unlikely that a manager could do all of this effectively with twenty direct reports. Something has to give.
  • The seniority of the manager. Typically speaking, the more senior that a manager is, the larger their span of control can be. This purely comes down to their experience.
  • The seniority of the reports. Managing a team of senior individuals is typically less overhead than managing a team of inexperienced individuals. The former will be more self-sufficient and require less guidance, whereas new or inexperienced staff will need more hands-on coaching and mentorship.
  • A manager’s level of individual contribution. Some managers still contribute code meaningfully to their projects and therefore they may benefit from a lower span of control. Conversely, managers that delegate most individual contributor work and focus on strategy and planning are able to manage a larger team.
  • The type of work that the team does. Highly collaborative teams work better with a lower span of control, since there is more inter-team communication and coordination required. Teams that manage many smaller streams of work can be bigger as they work more independently.

Span of control has been a hot topic in recent years: notably during the economic downturn after the Covid-19 pandemic. After the most bullish of bull runs came to and end in 2020, many organisations were forced to make cuts to their workforce. After companies put the brakes on the rapid hiring of the previous years, many companies were left with managers that had too few direct reports.

This resulted in a number of companies flattening their organizations during layoffs in order to increase the average span of control of their managers. Many of the lower span managers were let go or had to convert into performing individual contributor roles: clearly neither option is ideal for someone invested in their craft. The lesson here is that if an organization’s span of control isn’t kept under control, then there can be a cascade of highly negative outcomes for individuals when times are tough.

Spans and Modes of Operation

I mentioned that my own personal sweet spot is a span of control of around 8. However, I can’t claim that what is true for me is also true for you. It’s just my experience.

However, what is true is that there are different modes of operation for managers depending on their span of control. These modes of operation are driven from the practical limits that I mentioned earlier: they are less of a choice of how to operate and more of a necessity because of the span.

Let’s have a look at this visually.

Moving across the diagram from left to right, we can see that:

  • A manager with one or two direct reports is effectively redundant in their role. There isn’t enough management work to do to keep them utilized and growing as a manager. Ideally, managers with spans of control this small should convert to individual contributor roles and have their reports fold into their manager, or they should be given a larger team to run. Given the flattening exercises that have been happening recently, you don’t want to be stuck in this position for too long: take action.
  • A team that is on the lower end of the ideal range (3-6) is suited to hands-on managers. If a manager is still a strong individual contributor, then with a small team they can still contribute meaningfully to the team’s output. This configuration can work well for those that are beginning in management (they have less people while they learn their craft) and for those that are able to perform as technical leads (they have more time to contribute individually). And to everyone who strictly says that managers should not contribute code, I say that you’ve probably never worked on a small team with a highly technical and contributing manager. They exist, and they are awesome.
  • The ideal mix falls in the middle of the range (5-10). This is the sweet spot for most managers. They have enough direct reports to be able to delegate work and provide support and guidance, but not so many that they are unable to do their job effectively. This span of control should constitute the majority of teams in your organisation.
  • A team that is on the large side (12-15) is where management and coordination tasks dominate. A manager with a team this large becomes effectively a coordinator, and gets everything done through delegation. They’re like air traffic control. This configuration is sustainable for temporary periods of time, but you should find a solution to this as soon as you can by splitting the team.
  • At the extreme end of the range (15+) is where managers become ineffective and diminished in their impact. There is simply too much going on to keep on top of. Just imagine what it’s like to do 15+ one-on-one meetings per week, in addition to team meetings, individual work, coaching and mentorship, and having flexibility to deal with unexpected issues. It’s not sustainable and you are not giving your manager the chance to do a good job. This configuration is a recipe for attrition.

With this scale in mind, you should revisit your org chart periodically to ensure that managers are performing in the right mode of operation for them, including addressing those at the extreme ends of the scale by folding or splitting teams. Do this by deciding what the ideal span of control is for your organisation, communicate the benchmark, and then work with those that are outside of the ideal range to find a solution.

It’s essential to do this to ensure that your managers and your individual contributors are set up for success.

Special People

Sometimes you may meet someone who will argue vehemently that they can manage a team of six bazillion people by either being so influential that their team is self-sufficient and driven by telepathy, or by being so incredible at their job that their two one-to-one meetings every year are like a religious experience for their direct reports.

Well, maybe those people exist. And more power to them. Maybe that works. But maybe their direct reports hated it and didn’t feel empowered to bring it up because the manager was running the company. Who knows? But really, who cares? Let those people be those people. For you: it’s simple, really. Aim for the sweet spot. It’s for Jedis and padawans alike.

Growth in a downturn: progression when you can’t progress

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Managing managers


A common frustration being felt in my network is that progression opportunities have been slim since the recent economic downturn. I have been speaking to people who are on both sides of this dilemma: those who have been denied progression opportunities themselves, and those who have been unable to secure them for their best staff.

The hard truth is that there isn’t really much you can do about it.

When the economy is fragile, the right thing for companies to do is to control their costs, and one of the biggest costs, whether we like it or not, is people like you and me.

So, if companies are controlling their costs, what can we control?

Epictetus would be proud

The most important thing to embrace, especially in middle management, is that there are things you can control, and things you can’t. I notice that many of these progression dilemmas are caused by people trying to control things that they can’t, and failing to control the things that they can.

What do we mean by this? Well, let’s take a look at an example. Let’s say that you’re a manager and one of the people on your team is a brilliant Senior Engineer. They’ve been in that role for a number of years and they have become the de facto technical lead on everything that your team does, with a clear and demonstrable influence across the wider organisation.

With their impact in mind, looking at your career tracks, it’s clear that they are ready for a promotion to Staff Engineer. In fact, you can make a clear case that they’ve been operating at that level for the last year or so. Since you’re worried that they may leave if they can’t progress, you promise them that they’re going to get promoted in the next window which is coming up in a few months. You talk about it frequently in their one-to-ones to reassure them that it’s going to happen because you’re concerned that they are going to look elsewhere.

You’re proactive: you work on the promotion case together, acquire all of the necessary peer support, and submit it to the promotion committee. But to your surprise, it gets rejected with little reasoning other than there are limited promotion slots available this year. Budgets are tight, and that’s just how it is right now. It’s nothing to do with your Senior Engineer’s performance, it’s just that there are other people who are higher priorities for promotion in the limited slots that are available.

Now the issue lies with you: you promised to deliver something that fundamentally you had no control over delivering, and now you feel terrible. What’s worse is that your superstar engineer is now demoralised and their trust in you and the organisation is damaged. After all, you said that something was going to happen, and then it didn’t. It was a promise that you couldn’t keep.

Reshaping the narrative

So what could you have done differently? Well, let’s look at what you can’t control:

  • The economy and its impact on your company.
  • Whether or not your company has the budget to promote people at any given time.
  • Whether or not your member of staff is one of the highest priorities for promotion across the whole department.

OK, but what can you control?

  • The narrative that you set with each of your staff around their progression.
  • The trust that you build with each of them.
  • The support that you give them to help them grow.

So what can you do? We could replay the above scenario with an alternative narrative that makes it clear that you can’t control the outcome, but you can control the support that you give them to ensure that they are in the right place when the opportunity to secure a promotion does arise.

When your talented Senior Engineer comes to you and asks about progression, you can lead with honesty about how the process works. You can reassure them that from your own point of view they are on the path towards the next level and that you’re going to work with them to make sure that they will have demonstrated all of the required competencies. You can make it clear that the promotion decision is something that happens outside of your direct control, but the journey that you’re going to go on together will be to build up a clear body of proof for those that make the decision.

Now, it goes without saying that if someone is completely blocked from progressing for an extended period of time, there is a good chance that they will leave. However, that scenario lands firmly in the “can’t control” category. As much as it sucks, there’s nothing you can do about it. You can only do your best.

You don’t control scope, but you do control impact

Let’s now go back to talking about you, rather than a member of staff. After all, the problem is the same! When it comes to career progression, fundamentally you are not in control of when your scope changes, but you are in control of increasing your impact.

Typically companies describe their career tracks in terms of a competency framework. A common way of visualising this is as a grid with job titles along the top and competencies along the side. Each cell in the grid represents a level of competency for a given job title. You can see over 75 examples of these progression frameworks on the website, but here’s a hypothetical example that is a subset of the career framework that I created for the Engineering department at my previous company.

If I was an Engineering Manager that wanted to progress to become a Director of Engineering, that would likely be a struggle right now. At the time of writing, our industry is in a downturn where we are not hiring significant numbers of new teams that need a newly minted Director to manage them. In fact, company sizes are shrinking.

One attitude would be to accept that progression is out of the question and therefore I should just stay in my lane and operate at the level that I am currently. Then, in the future when the economy is better, I can start to think about progression as we begin to expand again. However, whilst it is true that I can’t control the scope of my role, i.e. I can’t secure that promotion, I can control increasing my impact regardless.

An alternative attitude would be similar to investing in a downturn. Rather than pulling all of my money out of the stock market when the economy is bad, I can instead invest more when it is cheaper to do so for the possibility of a greater return in the future when the market conditions change. So whilst the scope change to Director is out of the question right now, I can still invest in my impact so that when the opportunity does arise, I’m at the front of the queue to take it.

Working backwards

A way of doing this is by creating a workback plan with your manager. This is a plan that you create together that outlines the impact that you want to have in the future, and the steps that you need to take to get there.

An example of a workback plan for a hypothetical Engineering Manager that wants to become a Director of Engineering is shown below. We build on the progression framework diagram we saw earlier. We also assume that there is an important authentication project that is coming up that will have a significant impact on the company.

A workback plan may evolve over time, but it is an important artefact of progression that can be used in promotion cases. It makes crystal clear between you and your manager what you are working towards.

Using a tool like this means that you can be confident that you are investing in your impact and stretching it into the next level of scope, even if that scope isn’t available to you right now. However, when the opportunity does arise, you’ll already have a clear body of proof that you’re ready for promotion: it’ll be backwards-facing, because you’ve already been operating at that level already.

If you think about it, why do senior roles get filled by external candidates? It’s because they already have demonstrable experience. So why not take the same approach as them? If you can demonstrate the skills, you’ve already got the upper hand by having far greater context and domain knowledge.

That makes you sound like a safe bet to me.