Too many direct reports

Last week I was talking with someone with 'too many direct reports'. I've been here before and commonly the statement comes with a request to know what the 'right' number of direct reports is that someone should have. Fortunately this wasn't part of the conversation I had in this instance.

The start-point was to find out more by completing the sentence, 'I have too many reports – to ….. what?' We discussed 'to control', 'to pay sufficient attention to each of them', 'to run successful meetings with', 'to develop their skills', 'to manage my own work-load', 'to know what's really going on', 'to focus myself on the strategy and big issues', 'to network with my peers', 'to develop my own skills and knowledge' and so on. We were trying to find out whether the issue is actually too many direct reports or it feels like that because of other things. (See a book QBQ! The Question Behind the Question for good tips on this type of conversation).

Getting to a span comfortable for a particular leader means understanding that various factors play into the mix. An article by Julie Wulf in the Harvard Business Review (April 2012) How many direct reports suggests five important areas to consider and recommends exploring the implications of each. PWC has used three of the five points from the HBR article and ranged some questions under them to form the 'C-level span of control diagnostic tool' adding in one additional aspect not in the HBR article – I've listed these at the end of this piece.

The tool 'allows you, in just three minutes, to get a sense of the target number of direct reports based on your current leadership situation'. I am deeply dubious about the '3 minutes' to even get a sense of things but I pretended I was the person in question and did the diagnostic (and got an answer of 5 – 8 and wondered if that was the single answer to any permutation but didn't explore that thought further).

The value in this tool is less in the answer it throws up and more in the conversation and reflection that it generates around what a large number of direct reports 'gives' the leader and what it 'takes from' the leader. (See a research paper Span of Control and Span of Attention for some insight on this). The dialogue facilitates further reflection on what a smaller number of reports could give and take and whether this would be beneficial to the situation.

Assuming that there is a case for reducing the number of direct reports the tricky thing is then to actually do it without confusion, conflict, wounded feelings and people feeling demoted. I've presented a negative because that's what I've usually observed in this situation. Only a few people are thrilled to be now excluded from the 'inner circle'.

One way through this is to have a discussion with the current large number of reports on the thinking behind the statement and get their views on how a reduced number of direct reports could be achieved. They might come up with things like experimenting with a 'job share' i.e. halving the number of direct reports by pairing them up so only one of the pair appeared at management meetings and trusting them to keep each other/the leader briefed, or inserting a deputy who handles functional reports while the manager handles operational reports.

How would you handle reducing the number of direct reports? Let me know.

Listed below are the five HBR areas with the related PWC questions + the additional PWC area with questions.
1 Evaluate Where You Are in the Senior-Executive Life Cycle

  • How long have you been in your role?
  • How many direct reports do you expect to change?
  • What is the status of the strategy?

2 Assess the Degree of Cross-Organization Collaboration Required

  • How much time do you spend on collaboration across units?
  • How related are your businesses?
  • How global are your operations?
  • How adept at collaboration is your team?

3 Consider How Much Time You Spend on Activities Outside Your Direct Span of Control

  • How much time do you spend with others besides your direct reports (e.g., customers, regulators, field operations)?
  • Are these "outside" activities aligned to advancing strategic priorities?

4 Consider the Scope of Your Role
(Not in PWC diagnostic)
5 Consider Your Team's Composition
(Not in PWC diagnostic)
Current span and situation (PWC)

  • How many direct reports do you have now?
  • What is your level in the organization?
  • What is your role/function?