One of the most dangerous things for any leader is to have too many direct reports.
I was talking to an executive last week who was saying that he had 12 direct reports at one point in time and he was just able to reduce that to nine. Unfortunately, I think he still has too many on his hands.
You see, the difference between a manager and a leader is that a leader pushes things forward. A leader propels to the next level. A manager maintains the status quo.
Can you really push things forward, can you really take an organization to the next level if you have nine direct reports?
My Max = 5
I have found that the optimum number of direct reports for me is somewhere between three and five. I think the vast majority of people probably can only handle five as well. More than seven just flat-out scares me. Once you get over seven, it’s almost impossible for anyone to do anything more than maintain the status quo.
You have to have time, not just to do check-ins and see how people are doing or have a weekly team meeting, but you have to have time to think about each one of your direct reports and how to push them to be better leaders. How do you push their organizations to perform better? That’s the first reason why you shouldn’t have more than five or seven.
Build a Team
Secondly, you need to build a team. Your direct reports should be a team. Your team requires teamwork and if you have more than five or seven, it’s excruciatingly difficult to develop teams.
Teams work together in small groups. They collaborate, they build trust, they build relationships. It’s almost impossible to do that with nine or 12 people, especially if you’re working to create a high-performing team.
Responsibilities Beyond the Team
Finally, you have to remember that you’re not just managing these people. You have responsibilities to push the organization as a whole together. You need time for yourself.
It’s not just about building teamwork and it’s not just about leading individuals and having time to think about how to push them to the next level. It’s also about how you push yourself to the next level.
How do you take care of your own responsibilities? Too few leaders spend the time strategizing, thinking, and blocking off time to take themselves to the next level.
No Kingdom Building
For these three reasons, I believe the number of direct reports that’s optimal for any individual is between five and seven, no more. And you know what, if you can get fewer so be it.
Get out of the mode of kingdom building. It’s not about how many direct reports you can have, it’s about how effectively you do your job.
Think about organizational structures in a way that supports your strategy. Think about how to optimize the structures, the team, and the individuals within it. When you take the time to do that, I think you will find that you are whittling down your direct reports and reorganizing the organization to be optimal.
My One Exclusion
If you are truly a manager – you are managing the activities of staff – you may be able to expand the number of direct reports you are managing. This is a rare exception for leaders. Quite frankly, managers who are organizing activities in the field really are managers, not leaders. Organizations simply don’t scale without staff that are organized into operating units.
That said, find a way to teach them to be leaders. Encourage them to be leaders. Grow them into leaders – and as you do so, figure out how to ensure that they are leading an optimized team as opposed to a kingdom.
How many direct reports do you find to be ideal?