Balancing a large number of direct reports

Learn some quick tips and tricks for staying on top of managing several people.

While the perfect date may be April 25, there’s no real “ideal” number of direct reports for your team. You’ll often hear anywhere between 4 and 8 thrown out, but this is highly dependent on several factors:

  • Seniority of both the manager and their direct reports (a more senior manager can handle more directs, and a higher level of seniority in your team typically requires less hands-on management)

  • Focus of work completed by the team (interdependent work often requires fewer reports due to higher-touch communication)

  • The manager’s involvement with writing code (an EM tasked with writing code will typically require fewer reports because their attention is split between management and hands-on work)

With that said, this is a highly personal decision, and it’s going to change as your team evolves. I currently have 10 direct reports across two distinct teams (engineering and IT), which is on the higher end of comfortable but not unsustainable given my seniority as an EM, the makeup of my teams (generally high senior) and the fact that I don’t write any code.

If you find yourself managing 8+ engineers, you may at times find it challenging to keep track of what everyone’s working on and address all needs and blockers that arise. I’ve adopted my process over the past year, and here’s what has worked best for me.

Split up your 1:1s to be every other week. Let’s say you’re managing 10 engineers, and each engineer has a 30-minute 1:1 with you. If you meet with all 10 engineers every week, you’ve just spent 5 hours of your work week just in 1:1s. In productivity terms, this is typically an entire workday’s time of productivity. If you count in the rest of the meetings you have in a given week plus the additional work you’re likely doing, you’ll quickly find your calendar completely filled with meetings. To address this, I split up my 1:1s to be bi-weekly with each of my engineers, and if they need to meet on their “off week” we can schedule time then, or if they are an engineer that requires higher touch (e.g. their performance is slipping), you can always switch them to be weekly.

Use some sort of to-do app to track your tasks. As I meet with my team, every to-do item gets added to Things. Every task also gets a description, because I have learned from the past that when I put vague tasks in my to-do list, there’s a 100% chance I’ll forget why I put it there in the first place. I dump all new tasks during the workday into my Inbox, then sort and add due dates at the end of each workday to make sure everything gets updated.

Use some sort of system for note-taking during your 1:1s. I used to use Notion before we started using Lattice at Spot AI, and I cannot say enough positive things about Lattice. I’ve talked about it in previous newsletters as well, but the gist here is you should have a public notes section (to share with your team) and a private notes section to keep notes to yourself. This is especially useful for when you need a paper trail of conversations you had with the engineer in the past that involve a performance conversation.

If you find your current direct report count unsustainable, speak up. It’s much better to ask for help from your manager than to find yourself constantly underwater, doing a disservice to both yourself and your direct reports. You can’t boil the ocean, and things are absolutely going to slip off your plate. If you find you have too much to handle with your current directs, ask your manager how they would recommend prioritizing the work. One step at a time.

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