How Many Direct Reports Can You Handle?

May 6, 2014

how many direct reports should a new manager have

Less experienced managers sometimes make the mistake of taking on an excessive span of control. It is easy to do. Nearly everyone would like to report directly to you. It gives them better access to the decision-maker and brings with it a certain status within the organization. The problem is that you can only effectively manage a limited number of direct reports.

When managers allow an excessive number of people to report to them directly, it becomes a free for all. They can find a line at their door every morning and an email inbox full of messages. They then spend their entire day trying to respond to all the needs and questions of their direct reports. They are rarely successful getting through all their requests for guidance and decisions, then start the next day behind and rarely have time for any long-term thinking and planning. An excessively broad span of control is a set up for failure.

So, what span of control is right for you? There are a number of variables you need to take into account. One is the physical location of your direct reports. You can handle a broader span of control if they are located in the same facility as you. The ability to meet with them in person will ease communication. Another factor is their level of experience. A direct report who is a proven performer is not likely to require as much of your time. A new employee, one who has recently been moved into a new position or one who has been given additional responsibilities will probably require more of your time, at least for a while.

Plan for “One per Day”.

A good rule of thumb is not to have more direct reports than you can meet with once a week. By meet, this means actual one-on-one face time. The meeting may be in person or a video call, but it needs to be a face-to-face, one-on-one meeting—not a staff meeting. In that you have a lot to do in addition to meeting with your direct reports, five is a good maximum number. This allows you to have one of these meetings each day of the work week.

Do not let these meetings slip. They are a vital part of your being able to manage well and efficiently. If your direct reports know they will get face time with you every week, they will be able to save up items they need to discuss until that meeting. It is much more efficient to address issues in this setting than when passing in the hall, on a phone call from the airport or by trading text messages or emails.

“One-on-Ones” Result in Efficiencies

If your direct reports cannot count on having a regular opportunity to communicate directly with you they will be more inclined to track you down whenever anything comes up that they think requires your attention. The negative results are twofold; a lot more ad hoc contacts that do not facilitate thoughtful decision-making and more issues being brought to you than needed. If you can abide by weekly meetings with your direct reports and train them to hold as many issues as possible until those meetings, you will be surprised and pleased to see how many things they learn to resolve themselves that they otherwise would bring to you.

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About The Author

JIM McCORMICK is the former Chief Operating Officer of the fifth largest architectural firm in the United States. A full time speaker and organizational consultant, he works with organizations to help them identify and incentivize their optimum risk posture. More information is available at:

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