A question many new leaders ask, and more experienced leaders should reconsider, regards how many direct reports a leader can manage successfully. When we examine leaders across many industries, it is not uncommon to see direct report numbers ranging from a handful to as many as 15 to 20. So, exactly how many direct reports should a leader have?
The answer, of course, depends on several factors, most notably the amount of time and energy a leader possesses to propel others forward and serve as a resource to their success. Leaders, especially those who are well organized, can come to believe there is really no upper limit on how many direct reports one can manage if role clarity is high and team members are comfortable working independently. Unfortunately, this line of thinking gets leaders into all sorts of trouble. Over the long term, leaders with too many direct reports find effectiveness implodes from a lack of oversight and input.
Simply stated, the number of direct reports any leader should maintain is directly proportional to the leader’s ability to have an in-depth, one-on-one conversation with each report every week. In the best form, these conversations include updates, issue exploration, troubleshooting, and advice sharing.
When weekly conversations don’t occur, a leader isn’t truly managing anyone or anything. Instead, they trust others to self-manage themselves and to reach for them when needed. This is a recipe for long-term disaster in every organization, as strategy and goals lose alignment and mistakes go unnoticed and unattended. Wheels can fall off an issue in even two weeks, which is why a weekly cadence is the leadership norm across the world.
The very point of leadership is to make situations and others better. Leaders can’t do this without an ongoing conversation with each and every direct report. Leaders who pretend they can manage team members without these essential conversations will ultimately underperform, as well as certainly lose talent to more interested leaders elsewhere. How many direct reports can and should a leader have? Look at your calendar and draw your own conclusion. Did anyone say six to 10?