How Many People Can You Manage as a Manager?

In my first management role, I “managed” one person.  My managee didn’t need much management. He guided me into how to manage him more than I managed him. He saved me from making too many mistakes. It was great practice for me.

Later in my management career, I managed a “team” of 15 testers. They were not a team. They were a group. I’m not sure why my management insisted on referring to them as a team, but my managers did. My role was to match-make testers with projects.

I didn’t think of my role as allocating people to projects, because I kept people on projects long-term. I didn’t fall for the management myth that I could move people like they were chess pieces. That’s why I thought of my role as match-making. I managed the project portfolio for the test group, so I could match-make.

What else did I do with this group?

  • Conducted one-on-ones with everyone. Some one-on-ones were weekly, some biweekly. But I had a private conversation with each person at least every two weeks. I did career development with each person every two weeks at these one-on-ones.
  • Conducted a weekly meeting where everyone in the test group would learn something. This was a community of practice meeting. Sometimes it was about technical practices. Sometimes it was about tools. Sometimes it was about project management techniques. The group decided what they wanted to learn. I greased the skids and facilitated their learning. People took turns presenting something. Yes, I did too. Sometimes, we invited other people across the company to present. We had a long list of things to learn.
  • I made sure everyone knew what everyone else was doing. But not with a serial status meeting. Gah. I took people’s email status to me, collated it, and emailed it to everyone. If anyone was interested, they could read it. If not, they could trash it. The idea was that since they were all working on different projects, they might discover things each other might want to know. I knew I was no longer technical enough. I could not solve their problems for them. I could facilitate their problem solving, if necessary. I provided information. They could follow up.
  • I made sure that the right people were invited to the right meetings. This was more difficult than it sounds. I did not want to go to all the meetings. But I was invited. I had to get uninvited, make sure the right testers were invited, get off the email list, and make sure the testers were on the list.

I’m sure there was more, but that’s what I remember now.

I recently met a smart CTO of a company with about 100 engineers. He said he wanted a flat organization. Makes sense to me. Then he said this, “Every engineering manager should be able to manage about 15-20 engineers, and the projects that they work on, too.”

Oh, boy. You will notice that I was not managing projects in my list above. I was hiring like mad, in addition to the above management responsibilities, and I was full. I could not do any more. If you’d asked Mark, I bet he would have said I was past full. I did all my phone screens after dinner. When I needed to, I also wrote reports after dinner. I had no time during the day.

Could I have done any useful project management? No. Could I have managed any more people? No. Certainly not up to 20.  Why? Because I needed time to meet with everyone, some people each week.

Why could I manage 14 people? Because I was an experienced manager by this time. I’d been practicing. First with one person. Then with three or four. Then seven, eight. When I had nine people in my group, I realized I had to move to biweekly one-on-ones for some people. I asked the people who were more senior if they minded. No, it was okay. But if they were more junior and needed coaching? It would have been a disaster.

And that is the topic of this month’s management myth: You Can Manage Any Number of People as a Manager. If you don’t care how well you manage, you cannot manage any number of people and do a great job.  It’s the same principle as code or projects. If you don’t care how good the code is, you can write as much as you want. If it doesn’t have to work, it doesn’t matter. If you don’t care how good your project management is, you can manage as many as you want.

I’m not talking about micromanagement. I’m talking about providing coaching if the other person wants it, a learning environment for the people, a place for people to learn, a trusting relationship with each person every week. That’s it. I expected the people in my group to spend the rest of their time learning on their own and being responsible.

But because we were hiring, and because I had responsibilities across the organization, we were all busy. If I hadn’t made time for our one-on-ones, I could have gone for weeks, not seeing people. That would have been Wrong.

If you are managing more than nine people as a manager, rethink what you can do. If you are not having one-on-ones every week or every other week, what else are you doing?

Management is not about micromanagement. It’s about creating an environment in which everyone can do their best work. If you are too busy to do that, are you really managing?

Go read Management Myth 23: You Can Manage Any Number of People as a Manager.

About Johanna Rothman

I help managers and leaders do reasonable things that work.
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9 Responses to How Many People Can You Manage as a Manager?

  1. Snrky says:

    When managing 15 people, were they all direct reports? I think it gets tricky when you have reports of reports in a development (or testing) environment. You want to meet with them, but you don’t want to overwhelm them by having them meet with you and their primary manager. But if you’re not meeting with them, you’re both missing out on something (e.g. all communication from the front lines then becomes filtered through another person). I managed to maintain monthly 1-1s (still meeting with direct reports weekly) with up to 30 people, but it gets a bit nuts and I found that if I tried to catch up with some of them as I met them during lunch, in the halls, in estimation meetings, etc, then I could rely on them to tell me whether they wanted the official monthly meet or to skip one, which kept it workable despite the high density. And I hear you on the technical enough aspect. I was a tech lead/developer before I was a manager with a brief stint in technical training. I spend a lot of time worrying about whether I can still understand front line developers. The first two years were the worst. After that, I started to figure out what I can ignore and what skills I need to maintain to keep a dialogue going with technical staff and not seem like a waste of management.

  2. Hi Snrky, yes, these were all direct reports. I would never do skip-level meetings on a regular basis. That’s what their primary manager is for.

  3. Ian Mitchell says:

    Hi Johanna

    Suppose a line manager takes another approach, and focuses on the “gemba kaizen” thing. Suppose he or she walks around the building, observing what is happening, looking at information radiators, maybe taking in the odd daily stand-up if the teams are willing, assessing team dynamics, and asking questions about the impediments teams face and how to resolve them.

    If a manager shows that kind of interest, do you think it would increase the number of people that could be managed effectively?

  4. Ian, do you mean without the one-on-ones?

    I don’t think you can do MBWAL (Management By Walking Around and Listening), which Esther and I advocate in Behind Closed Doors: Secrets of Great Management, without creating a trusting relationship. You don’t have to have a one-on-one every week to do that. Biweekly is fine. That’s why with agile teams, I recommend one-on-ones biweekly.

    If you don’t have the trusting relationship, you’re butting in, sticking your nose where it doesn’t belong. You don’t have the context. You don’t know the work. If you have the relationship, you’re okay. The big question is this: How long does it take you to build that relationship?

    There is no recipe. That is the problem.

  5. Jim Grey says:

    I’ve managed 16 plus their projects, and boy howdy, was it ever a huge amount of work. I’ve never worked anywhere where the idiom was that people managers and project managers were different people.

    Thing is, I like doing both. So right now I manage seven plus their projects, which I find to be do-able.

  6. Jim, are you managing developers, testers, something else? Are the people on the same/related projects?

    I’m wondering if they are seven unrelated projects, or one project, or two/three related projects. Or what :-) My imagination has run wild…

  7. Jim Grey says:

    Johanna, I manage five functional testers (three on Product A, one on Product B, one on Product C), plus one test automation guy and a technical writer, both on Product A. (B and C go without automation/tech writing right now.)

    I spend most of my project-management time on Product A testing, as it is by far the biggest and most complex effort.

    If I add more than maybe one more functional tester, I won’t be able to balance care/feeding of my team with project management and ever see my family again. So I’ve asked for a manager for the functional testers for next year. I’m officially Director of QA, but when I got here early this year we were so small it made no sense to have a layer of management between me and the individual contributors. We’ve grown enough that we’re about to outgrow my current approach.

  8. A good rule of thumb is one manager can effectively manage 10-20 people at one time. This can be modified depending on what tasks they are supervising the team with and their skills at managing. If you have an experienced manager that has to supervise a team with a simple task, the number of people he can manage effectively can increase greatly.

  9. HI Ian, thanks for your comment. I also think it depends on whether the people are matrixed into projects or not. As you said, it depends on what the people are doing and how good the manager is.

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