The Manager Ratio

Managing a team is a noble endeavor. I have tremendous respect for any person who raises their hand and says, "I will take on the responsibility of others’ activities". The relationship between the manager and the person reporting to the manager is very special; it is one of the secrets to success for the organization. Overloading, or under-loading, that relationship can result in problems. Enter what I refer to as the "Manager Ratio".

We all need to be managed a bit. We need someone to look out for us, to help us prioritize, to cover for us when life gets hectic, to pick us up when we fall down and to cheer us on. These things and more are what managers do. They take responsibility with us and for us. In doing so, our ups and downs become their ups and downs.

I find that when managers have too many people reporting directly to them they cannot adequately relate to everyone on the many dynamics of their lives. People have all sorts of stuff going on in their lives that affect them at work. A manager gets the positive and negative ripple effect of all that activity. That is what makes it such a noble profession and demanding role.

How would you answer this question: What is the perfect number of associates a manager should have directly reporting to them? I realize in a large organization managers may have hundreds or thousands of individuals they are ultimately leading, but I am referring to the direct reporting ratio. You might say it depends on the roles, the education, the geography, the compensation or any number of professional items. I start on the other end. I always wonder how many people another human can adequately care for and keep up with. To me, that number keeps coming back to six to eight. When I have had 10 or more people reporting directly to me I have lost track of the life events going on with everyone. I spend most of my time with the two or three that have the most problems, and the others do not see me as much. When I have had just two or three people reporting to me, I tend to get too involved in their day-to-day activities and smother them. There is something about six to eight direct reports that seems balanced to me.

I do think it is healthy for the number to float around a bit, but I do not think it is healthy to be out of balance for too long. There have been periods of time in our growth where I have had 10 or 12 people reporting directly to me. During those times, I have worked more hours so that I could identify who among that group was best suited to expand their role so that I can get back into balance.

Each year I ask our leadership team to print out their organization charts with just boxes and the ratios, no names or titles. We are looking only at the ratios. Nobody likes it when I do this. My goal is not to make them uncomfortable, but to show visually any situation that is not in balance and have a discussion about it. I have seen some managers tend toward too many direct reports, and I have seen some tend toward too few. We all need someone helping us think through our organizational structures and discussing with us how we are growing and adapting. It is healthy, it is normal to flow back and forth and it is necessary to routinely step back and assess.

For managers, I would encourage you to find that balance number for yourself. Yours may be more or less than my six to eight, but find that balance and ask for input to ensure you are seeing the full picture. Over time you will learn how to expand and contract the number of people reporting to you as your organization naturally adapts. For all of us I would say, give your manager a hug today! He or she absorbs a lot of the business activity for your team, but even more they feel the highs and lows of your life and everyone on your team. If they seem to have too many or too few people, realize that is part of what they do from time to time; they adjust and adapt to keep us all moving forward.