A manager’s ability to do their job well is linked to employee engagement, retention, and even company revenue. According to a LinkedIn study, employees are increasingly requesting that managers are available for problem solving, can show compassion, and can help make clear, informed decisions. 

Practically, this isn’t always possible when managers have too much on their plate or their span of control is too far-reaching. To mitigate this concern, we’ve pieced together some insights and tips to help managers measure how many direct reports they can take on at once to maximize success across their team. 

What are direct reports? 

A direct report is an employee who is required to report to someone immediately above them in the organizational hierarchy. A manager may have one or more direct reports (people who report directly to them) to whom they can provide direction and assign responsibilities. As such, the manager is responsible for delegating tasks to their direct reports, as well as helping determine the personal and professional growth goals for each of these people. Often, a manager is deeply involved in the hiring process for their direct reports as it’s these people with whom they’ll spend the most time for day-to-day functions. 

Meetings worth showing up to

A well-run meeting with your direct reports can foster communication and collaboration by including an agenda everyone can contribute to. Try using a tool like Fellow!

What is the span of control? 

The span of control can somewhat be compared to one’s workload, or how much you have on your plate. In people management, the span of control more specifically refers to the amount of control you have in the organization based on how many direct reports you have. A manager’s span of control should be a number of people they can successfully manage without compromising any other employee’s ability to access project guidance, professional and personal growth opportunities, or other forms of support from a manager. 

How many direct reports should a manager have? 

According to a McKinsey & Company article, the ideal number of direct reports a manager should have is dependent on the type of role and level of experience the manager has. There are five managerial archetypes based on time allocation, process standardization, work variety, and team skills required:

  1. Player/coach
  2. Coach
  3. Supervisor
  4. Facilitator
  5. Coordinator

Typically, a career manager begins at the coordinator level and works their way up to become a player/coach. At the coordinator level, it’s possible to have 15 or more direct reports, as this manager is responsible for supervising day-to-day tasks that are already standardized or automated.

Facilitators have more responsibility for managing the daily functions of other team members and it’s common to have one process that functions across the role. Therefore, the span of control is between 11 to 15 direct reports. 

A supervisor role typically manages 8 to 10 direct reports. The work in this role gets more complex and the supervisor often has a level of individual responsibility as well, which requires skill and experience to balance effectively. 

Coaches have a high level of individual responsibility and work with direct reports who have more variation in their roles. Therefore, a coach should only have between 6 to 7 direct reports. 

Finally, a player/coach acts as a leader in the company and has to make new strategic decisions and manage employees with large or multiple areas of responsibility. Therefore, a player/coach should only have between 3 to 5 direct reports. 

The effects of having too many direct reports 

  1. Inability to effectively track progress and growth
  2. Fewer new opportunities for each employee
  3. Higher likelihood of communication gaps or misunderstandings
  4. More frequent missed deadlines
  5. Burnout from a consistently busy, full calendar
  6. Overwhelming administrative burden
  7. Employees forced to work without required support needed
  8. Less alignment across full team
  9. Less likelihood of deep team connection and compatibility
  10. More difficulty enforcing consistent workplace culture
  11. Manager lacks time for their own responsibilities
  12. Disconnection from other departments in the company due to internal team struggles

How to determine how many direct reports a manager should have 

1Determine how big the company is

The bigger a company is, the more variation there is between the number of direct reports that a manager might have. According to McKinsey & Company’s article, companies that have four or more levels of management will see higher managerial levels with less direct reports and lower managerial levels with more direct reports. As the functional role gets closer to the CEO, the manager has more individual responsibility, which affects their span of control. Additionally, larger companies often have more budget to hire more team members, which then creates more need for managers. 

2Look at the size of your team

A small company of 10 or less people may not find itself with managers who have clear direct reports. In fact, it might even be more common that the CEO manages all departments. However, as the company grows, the need for more managers grows. Taking care of employees, assigning work, and supporting growth all take time, which a manager of a large team may not be able to provide to all of their employees. 

3Evaluate your team members’ skills 

As a company grows, employees with new skill sets join the team to help improve the company’s competitive edge. If you’re working with new or less experienced employees, it will take more time each week for onboarding, training, and supporting them through projects. On the other hand, a tenured team member may be able to do a lot more work independently and therefore won’t require as much check-in time with their manager. 

When a team grows to a certain size where it’s no longer feasible for one person to manage the full team, teams may break up into smaller functional teams. Alternatively, some organizations may opt for team members to be assigned direct reports of their own to keep the department under one higher-up leader.

4Determine your responsibilities

According to the Harvard Business Review, C-level executives should be decreasing their span of control as their time at a company continues. In the first year, the span of control should be wide enough to set new strategic measures and implement necessary programs, for example. However, as the executive tenures, they should narrow their focus to pinpoint strategic functions and gain a deep knowledge in the applicable areas. As such, their direct reports will narrow down to those who specifically meet that need. 

Use Fellow’s Streams to keep track of all your responsibilities in one place.

5Define your workplace culture 

Workplace culture refers to the unwritten but well-known values and expectations held by members of the team across the full organization. It can determine what is acceptable for working hours, quality of work, level of effort, frequency of communications, and type of communications, among other aspects. A manager in a slower-paced workplace culture may find themselves managing more employees when they have the time to work through more challenges and when there are less tasks to delegate. On the flip side, a fast-moving organization may break up teams into smaller teams each with their own manager so projects can be analyzed, approved, and optimized at a faster rate. 

6Consider the complexity of the work

The more complex the work, the more attention each employee may need from their direct manager. While considering the complexity of the work, it’s also important to factor in if the employees are going to be working alongside each other for their projects, or working on entirely separate projects. Working separately may take more energy for the manager to manage, measure, and support each project as compared to supporting individual members working on a large, combined effort. 

In very specialized functions like software engineering, it’s common for employees to be broken out into smaller, defined teams that have a specific function, and for a manager to guide that process. Then, a higher-level manager can view each specialized team’s progress to tie it to the strategic objectives and overall success of the department. 

7Assess how many one-on-ones you’re able to have

A 2019 study observed that 82% of managers meet with their direct reports for a one-on-one meeting either on a weekly or bi-weekly basis. These meetings are crucial because they allow managers and their direct reports to exchange information, strategize solutions to new challenges, and ensure the direct report employee is on the best growth path. 

Depending on other factors like the employee’s experience level or current projects, a manager may consider having more or less frequent one-on-ones. It’s also important to remember that managers will need to have these meetings with each of their direct reports, so it can take up a large portion of a given week’s available meeting slots. 

Try this free one-on-one meeting agenda template:

8Analyze the budget

Budget is likely one of the top concerns that managers (and especially upper management) consider when determining if their team should grow or shrink. When factoring in the budget for hiring, there are two main aspects to look at. First, the company should have enough funds internally to afford hiring a new position (remember to account for benefits packages, insurance, taxes, and any other additional costs). Secondly, the “business case” should be presented to see how the position will add value to the company. Some positions like account managers may provide direct revenue, while other positions like operations or project coordinators may increase the efficiency, speed, or capacity of work done, which indirectly improves revenue for the company.

Parting advice

An important part of being an effective manager is ensuring that you can be there to support your employees alongside running the team effectively and meeting strategic goals. Russ Laraway, in Episode 103 of the Supermanagers podcast, shared, “People forget being a manager is actually real work, there’s a real unique set of activities. And it doesn’t scale well, like, you have to usually do those activities for every single employee.” 

To drive your organization to success, ensure you’re operating within a span of control that is maintainable over a long period of time. Not only does it keep your employees happy, engaged, and supported, but it also ensures that managers don’t feel burnt out, overwhelmed, or out of control within their roles.