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The Goldilocks Management Structure
If you show me the shape of your company’s org chart, I can tell you if you’ll have management problems.
You can screw up your technology organization with too few managers. And you can also screw up your organization with too many.
If a manager has more than around 8 direct reports, they’ll be spread too thin and manage poorly. There’s no way around it: there just isn’t enough time in the day to maintain the context, expertise, and energy to be an effective coach much beyond 8 reports. Even if someone is cruising with 10 directs, add an HR complaint or personal emergency and the house of cards will collapse.
I’ve seen managers with too many directs use a few solutions to cope, all of them bad:
You can grant your team a ton of autonomy in all situations. This absentee strategy works well in good times, but very badly when real problems arise. Unfortunately, you won’t actually know when these problems arise, since you’ll be absent.
You can be authoritarian, telling your team exactly what to do and demanding status reports to stay in the loop. Being blindly demanding doesn’t take much time or mental energy since it doesn’t require nuanced understanding – just boss people around! In the long run, however, this oppressive style leads to poor decision-making, unhappiness, and attrition.
You can also just try to be a great manager to everyone, no matter how much time it takes. This works fine exactly up to the instant when you burn out.
To prevent management overload you need to build a roadmap for team growth. You scale teams the same way you scale an application: by adding capacity a little bit before you really need it. Hire managers and ICs with intention, and anticipate the breakpoints that will strain you months before they arrive. And most importantly, give yourself tools to craft your org chart – if you struggle to hire a key manager, perhaps there’s an internal candidate who can take the reins and allow you to scale.
But you can also really screw your team up with too many managers.
Managers with 1 or 2 direct reports do fine. They have enough time to manage effectively and can usually still get other work done.
But an organization where most managers have relatively few direct reports is a bureaucracy. People management is distracting and a higher proportion of your team will have schedules consumed by meetings rather than focused work. An intensely hierarchical organization will also tend towards complex politics. And since it’s hard to find great managers, you’ll increase the odds of unqualified leadership.
The anti-pattern of too many managers arises for a simple reason: company culture indicates that management is important for your career, so everybody wants to manage someone else. To feed this demand, teams contort their org charts into pretzels in order to create more managers, leading to daisy chains of people with just 1 or 2 direct reports.
You can fight this tendency by crafting an individual contributor career track that parallels the management path, and really committing to it as a viable career option. Management should be a role rather than a badge of honor. By removing or at least reducing the prestige of management, you’ll be able to craft a more balanced org chart that can really scale.
Don’t overload managers. For a good rule of thumb, no one should have more than 8 direct reports.
Don’t hire too many managers. Your org chart should look like a squat pyramid, not a skyscraper.