‘I’ve got too many direct reports!’

If the number of people reporting directly to you is approaching double figures, it might be time to ask other team members to step up. Two HR Directors from People Puzzles advise on how to go about it.

Do you sometimes find yourself pulled in so many directions, that there simply isn’t enough time in the day to focus on developing the business? It could be because you have too many people reporting to you and asking for decisions that could easily be made by others. ‘Being bogged down in day-to-day activities often means managers are not using their skill set to the optimum,’ says Alison Cooper, HR Director at People Puzzles.

And it’s not just the manager who suffers these symptoms. ‘It’s not good for the people who report into them either, because they’re not developing their management skills, and not getting decisions made quickly enough,’ says Mark Davies, also a People Puzzles HR Director.

How many is too many?

Around five direct reports seems to be the optimum number, according to Mark and Alison, although there are some scenarios where up to nine can work.

When it comes to the senior team in a company, however, too many people reporting directly to the owner manager can really hold the business back. Alison recalls working with someone who had 13 people reporting directly to her. ‘She had to do 13 appraisals at the end of every year!’ she says. ‘It simply wasn’t an effective use of her time. She was a superb client-facing leader and developing client relationships was where she needed to focus to grow her business.’

Both Alison and Mark agree a senior team should typically include no more than those in charge of key functions, such as finance, production, sales, operations and marketing, depending on the functions you have in the organisation. ‘You need to have direct access and line of sight over the main functions of your business,’ Alison says.

What do I do about it?

Of course, letting go and delegating effectively is a key part of reducing the number of direct reports, but it’s also important to create the right framework. ‘It’s all very well saying delegate, but if you don’t delegate within a framework, people don’t know where they stand and won’t be sure what they can and can’t do,’ says Alison.

There are usually several framework options and the best one will depend on the direction you, as the business leader, wants to go. It will also depend on where the strengths lie in the team.

Design a framework

A key part of that framework, according to Alison, is in developing the talent that sits below you so you have people who are capable of running sections of your business and that they understand what their decision-making levels are. ‘They may have to refer back up to their line manager or the owner of the business for certain things,’ she explains.

Keep it simple

Alison warns of the dangers of creating too many managers, resulting in a ‘giraffe’ structure where you have too many layers. ‘This inhibits decision making,’ she says. ‘The new framework needs to be appropriate for the organisation.’

Develop the right people

Alison advises to look carefully at the team to see who would best fit a managerial position. It might not be the person who’s been there the longest. ‘Even if someone has managed before, don’t just expect them to slot straight into a management position in your organisation,’ she warns. ‘It’s about how they manage other individuals or teams. Would they be comfortable having those more difficult conversations and help their teams learn and grow?

Manage expectations

Sensitivity may be needed at this time for those passed over for managerial responsibilities; while some may be relieved, others might get despondent and become disengaged as a result. As well as being able to give the rationale behind your selection, there may be a transition period as your employees go from always having access to you, to having a level between you. Maintaining high levels of communication at this stage can provide extra reassurance that their voice is still being heard.

Empower and engage staff

For capable staff however, a more structured hierarchy creates a potentially more enriching work environment. ‘For many people, it’s a development opportunity and most people are looking for those,’ says Mark. ‘The added benefit of not having to make all the decisions is that you get empowerment and trust, engagement and retention,’ says Alison. ‘It provides confidence for those individuals if they have clarity in their roles as well as accountability for what they’re responsible. You may need to finely define those responsibilities at first, but as they learn and grow, there will be an opportunity to expand them further.

If you need help restructuring your team, call People Puzzles on 0808 164 5826.

Alison Cooper
Alison Cooper, HR Director

Mark Davies
Mark Davies, HR Director

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