too many direct reports?

Direct Reports: How Many is Too Many?

Blog #246

When I begin working with a new organization, it is common for the existing corporate structure to be a bit clunky. Typically, this is a result of the company going through growing pains.

I have witnessed numerous instances where a company functions well, but is not reaching its full potential for growth. Often, the senior leaders realize they need to reorganize the org chart for smoother reporting and less micromanaging. Sometimes, they have too many direct reports, so a significant amount of time is spent micromanaging the direct reports instead of trusting the team. In some cases, senior leaders will have 12 or more direct reports – the result of a legacy culture created by the previous senior leader or owner. Likely, the former leader was involved in every decision on the micro level, which is due to a myriad of reasons.

One reason is that the senior leader has been with the organization for many years and grew with it. When that leader first started working with the organization, it was much smaller, so they were needed to help with all the decisions. The organization grew little by little, and that leader held onto the old style of involvement and decision making. Eventually, this individual became the bottleneck for growth because they could not invest the time needed with each direct report. Although none of this was intentional, the company’s growth was stunted.

Other times this limitation comes to life is when a new leader takes over for the former leader, who was insecure. This may be the type of former leader who is reluctant to let go, and as a result, feels the need to be involved in every decision. Leaders with this behavior generally have low trust and an unwillingness to let others make decisions; they continue using numerous direct reports and have far too much involvement in the daily functions, which may be a reason the organization is stuck. The new leader may feel handcuffed to the old leader, unable to make the changes that are needed.

In either of these examples, the unintended consequences of the management styles are often the same. Usually, an excessive amount of people are in leadership meetings. Endless discussions happen, no one is truly heard, and very few issues are resolved (except by the senior leader). The meetings often become doom loops of discussing the same thing, but never solving anything. As a result, little gets done.

When a senior leader has too many direct reports, those direct reports might start playing politics to earn time with the management team; they become needy in this regard. Or, they may side-step and hide from accountability altogether. In other words, direct reports tend to associate their worth to the organization with which meetings they are invited to attend, and not necessarily the results they are driving.

I can’t say that I blame them. Direct reports are likely working off of a limited number of past experiences, leading them to believe they must be in that meeting to be considered relevant.

So, how many people should be at the leadership table? The answer is always, “It depends.” Ideally, each senior leader or director will have no more than seven to eight direct reports. If you feel you are able to do your job well, and your team is thriving, you may be able to succeed with fewer.

It is for this reason that when I am working with a new team, we always start with building an ideal accountability structure or functional org chart. In EOS, it is referred to as an “accountability chart” (I prefer to call it an “empowerment chart”). The studies suggest that when working in a senior leadership role where you are managing department leaders, it is not recommended to have more than eight direct reports. The primary reason for this is as senior leaders grow, the requirement for them to become better coaches and mentors for their team members grows exponentially. The highest and best use of their time often entails being a mentor and coach to help their teams develop better leaders.

As the facilitator of these structural sessions, it is my job to challenge the current structure while providing a safe space to have the uncomfortable conversations. There have been multiple occurrences where people who were initially at the senior leadership team table were no longer seated at the table following a structural rework. Sometimes, people get their feathers a bit ruffled; however, I have talked with many of these people about six months after the restructure, and I can honestly say that not one person has said they missed being in those meetings. Across the board, we have been able to restructure the accountabilities and empower people to focus on their strengths. As a result, everyone excels and the organization thrives.

So, the question is this: how many direct reports do you have and how many do you truly need?

As a senior leader, do you have too many direct reports? Do you need help with restructuring your organization to run more efficiently? Reach out to us today to find out how!

Keep Smiling,
Kris

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