Ironically enough, on the flight to Chicago for the Effective Managers Conference, I read a piece in the WSJ entitled "Overseeing More Employees - With Fewer Managers". The article discussed a European trend to have more subordinates per manager. The article quoted Michael Hammer, who is a well-known advocate of corporate restructuring ("Reengineering the Corporation").

What struck me about the article is that they never asked if the managers who are taking on 30+ direct reports are doing it well! Since the operative term this week is "effective" - how effective can you be with 30 DRs and is there a maximum above which seriously diminishes our ability to be effective managers? One manager quoted in the article said " I don't really manage them in a typical way. They largely run themselves." Hey now...this seems to go against everything I have listened to on this site.

So...what are other people's experiences with large numbers of direct reports? I know that I feel pretty good about the size of my team, but 30+ makes me want to pass out!

TomW's picture
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If you're a full time manager, you could spend 1/2 hour each with your 30 employees and only have 15 hours spent. Maybe 2 hours for a staff meeting, 2 more hours for coaching.... what do you want to do the other two and a half days every week? ;-)

BJ_Marshall's picture
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[quote="dbobke"]Since the operative term this week is "effective"[/quote]

It's only the operative word for [i]THIS[/i] week? 8)

I'm sure there isn't a single number over which diminishing returns set in. There's a balance between quality and quantity. I'm still pretty new, so my threshold is probably lower. If the quality of their work and your relationships suffer, the quantity is too high. M&M say you'll never get that last 10% of productivity out of someone if you don't have good relationships. The effectiveness of MT gives one the edge to get more quality despite higher quantity.


mikehansen's picture

I also read this article, and I think there are three factors that shape the decision: desired management style, the manager’s additional responsibilities, and their level and experience in the organization.

As BJ suggests, a relationship (or service) based management style takes an investment in time. The managers described in the article almost certainly do not do O3s, or coaching (and probably not much feedback either). For the average manager, I would think a relationship based management style starts to become difficult over 10 directs.

I suspect most managers do not have the luxury of just managing their folks. We have to juggle many other items (see the Juggling Koan So the number of directs a manager can effective handle will depend on the size and number of the balls the manager has to (or chooses to) keep in the air. My personal goals for the time split is (20% time with directs, 20% strategy, 20% tasks, 40% meetings, admin, boss time). I would have to increase the time with directs if I went over 8 (the 20% includes more than just O3s).

Lastly I think their level and experience makes a big difference. A new, first line manager should take more time per direct than someone who has been leading a team for 3 years. Also, as you move up from first line manager to managing managers or a functional manager, you will have to spend more time with other managers and functional leaders, which will impact your time with the directs. I just started reading The Leadership Pipeline which talks about this. I will post to the books section when I finish it.

So there are some thoughts to consider. I am sure most of us would agree that there is a not a universal magic number that works for everyone.


t4mof's picture

When I moved into my current team I took over a team of 23. I had them on my own for 4 weeks before my colleague was appointed and that was long enough to be honest. At the time I had been a manager for just 6 months with sole responsibility for my own team for only 4 months so it was a very steep learning curve to suddenly have to manage that number of people.

My team is now at 14 and this works fine for me. I think I'd start to get pressed if I had 16+. Our company tends to try and keep teams at around 15.

AManagerTool's picture

Sounds more like herding than managing to me but I'd love to hear his logic and examples. Any chance you can post a link?

I would think that something like this would work (poorly) in McDonald's or a large call center where you expect to have extreme turnover. In a knowledge worker environment, this is a recipe for disaster.

jhack's picture

One on ones are so powerful - they need to be done weekly with all full time employees, and twice a month or so for part timers. You will be repaid many times over.

Tool hits on a good point: what is the nature of the work? In food service, you often have a large number of part time workers. Since the work itself is routinized, there is less time spent on individualized coaching and delegation. It's also less likely that you'll spend a lot of time in "strategy meetings" and all the other time sinks of corporate life.

If you're managing creatives in an ad agency, each person will require more effort around their career development, and you'll also be pulled into more activities NOT related to managing your directs.

There is no one right answer to "how many." But do the one on ones regardless.


madamos's picture
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TomW wrote [quote]If you're a full time manager, you could spend 1/2 hour each with your 30 employees and only have 15 hours spent. Maybe 2 hours for a staff meeting, 2 more hours for coaching.... what do you want to do the other two and a half days every week?[/quote]

The other two and a half days are your boss' staff meeting, your one on one with your boss and spending time observing your folks.

I am currently managing a team of 12 and I spend roughly 2 full days on O3's and the staff meeting (including time to prepare for the meetings and time to take action after the meeting).

I already see how I could be more effective with more directs. Delegation! This is the key to handling a large number of direct reports.


MsSunshine's picture

Listen to the podcasts on calendar management and delegation. Madamos is right on with delegation being how I handle it. (I have 16 directs.)

At the start of each week, I plan out things I have to get done and block out time in my calendar. Yes, sometimes those do get overridden by my bosses boss scheduling something or another mandatory meeting but I Friday morning always blocked for planning and readjust my priorities if necessary.

Secondly, follow the rule religiously of delegating everything you can. I have the comments "Is this something that I and only I can do" and "What is the best us of my time RIGHT NOW?" and "Do what is important not what is urgent" on my cork board as reminders. I just started doing this last month and every time I delegate something, the person is so thrilled because I give them good stuff.

mikehansen's picture


Do you do O3s every week with your 16 directs? I had 13 at one point and was able to do it, but it was tough. I am curious what your experiences have been.

MsSunshine's picture

Personally, I find having the 03s weekly critical. My situation is that my directs are in 3 different locations. (Only 3 people are co-located with me.) There are people in the other locations that I talk to multiple times a day. But some of the people are more junior and work directly with leads. This makes sure that I talk to them at least once a week. I do them all on Tuesday & Wednesday.

It has been a challenge for me to establish relationships with people I've never seen in person. But after 3 months of 03s, I'm finding that even the very quiet ones are starting to open up more. I did push very hard to have the whole team together for a week in a few weeks which was hard to get funded but everyone is so excited about doing. They've been working together for more than a year and some have never met face to face!

I also have 3 other 03s with my boss and peers each week. We also have weekly project meetings run by the Project manager, 2 15 minute standup meetings for the project and I have bi-weekly staff meetings. That all adds up to 2 days of fixed meetings.

What it has forced me to do is become better at time management and delegating. The podcasts and other things I've read help a lot. The things I specifically used are the following.
1. I block off every Friday morning to do planning & assessment.
2. Every Monday morning I lay out all my priorities, look at my calendar free time and schedule in the top tasks that I have to do.
3. I never cancel an 03 but they do get moved around a lot. I did ask everyone for preferred times and try very hard to stay in those windows. Especially the ones around 10-3 get bumped by people above me who just seem to send out invitations without looking at my schedule! :o

btwalsch's picture

I’m a resource manager for be creative department of a mid sized ad agency. When I started my role a year ago, I had 1.5 years management experience under my belt. I am by no means a seasoned manager.

I have seven bosses essentially (none of which mentor me on a regular basis). 

I have 75 direct reports (creatives). As resource manager, I respond to team requests sent to me from 18 different project managers and producers who represent 19 client accounts (agency PR / new business included) with account teams of anywhere from 5 to 15 account executives on each team. The majority of the job requests are not forecasted or accurately forecasted, leaving it very difficult for me to plan ahead who will work on what. 

We also have no recruiter so I’m responsible for not only filling any creative positions but am expected to be constantly pipelining and “grooming talent.” I am also responsible for managing all freelance contracts. 

I was told when I started that I would have an assistant but I do not. 

I am also on the Operations Committee and expected to research new innovative management software that affects the entire agency, onboard the whole company and “champion” the new process.

So even though I am a manager of 75 creatives, I rarely speak to them throughout the week. I’m lucky if I can speak to a handful of them a week. I spend all of my time reacting to unexpected requests from the other 100 people in the building, or doing the best I can to keep an accurate read on where all of these projects are at any given time (each creative works on 3-15 projects at a time that are constantly changing in scope.)

We are all exhausted. It is difficult to get support from the executive leadership team as there are committees assigned to any and all initiatives, which gets us no where.

I keep thinking that I must be lazy or that I’m doing a terrible job and then I stop and realize I have way too much on my plate to be effective. This must be why all of my bosses tell me they feel for me and that I have a terrible job. (Yes, they tell me my job sucks).

btwalsch's picture

I’m only now noticing that no one has posted on this forum in 10 years. Sigh.

uwavegeek's picture
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I’ve had 24 directs before and I’ve found it very hard to manage with any level of quality.  I could keep the wheels on the bus sure, the inability to focus ultimatley was hurting.   As such, I broke the work up into three subgroups and IDed manager candidates and restructured the org along lines of focus.

With 75 directs, you need 7-8 managers under you in my opinion.   Not knowing the situation, having them in place would likely improve the focus and hence performance of the newly created sub-groups.   Ideally, growing current folks is desirable and sends a great message.   I’d bet with 75 folks, you already have leaders doing some of this already.  Alternatively, replacing via attrition or firing low performers could create openings.   

Good luck!




sdvf's picture

@uwavegeek When you restructured your group, did you leave any individual contributors reporting to you? How did you break up the team into the subgroups? Was it a straightforward break? Any info would be appreciated as I need to do the same as you. Thanks!