Managing Twenty-Five Direct Reports
Director of Engineering at Mapbox
No one should have 25 direct reports. Ever. But in real life, this kind of scenario can happen without warning. Suddenly I have found myself managing 25 reports after two of my EMs left. It seemed at that moment that the only sustainable way out was to upscale the entire team and do it from the get-go.
By delegating work to other team members, I managed to upscale the team and soon ease the tension caused by having too many direct reports. Shortly I stopped being a bottleneck blocking other people. I was able to offload more and more of my responsibilities to the team while focusing on more strategic matters.
Delegating is all about trust and failing. You need to trust people and then let them fail. But you also need to be there once they fail so that you can coach them and explain how they should have done it. I started to gradually delegate most of my responsibilities -- from how to design something to how to lead a project.
From the moment someone would express their willingness to take on some new responsibilities, I would pair them up with a mentor. It would be an opportunity that everyone could benefit from -- a report from acquiring new skills, a mentor from honing their coaching skills, and me from being less hands-on. I would have a mentor do coaching and I would do regular check-ins. If a person is new on the team and if I delegate a significant workload, I would do more frequent check-ins. I want to be able to stop them from going in the wrong direction timely. But, as I would build trust and become more confident that they could do it, I would slowly start stepping away and empowering them with more authority. My method, in a nutshell, is: I coach a person, and then I coach the team to go to that particular person for advice or decision.
When I know that I can pass it to someone else, I am no longer a bottleneck. That builds a self-sustainable ecosystem that allows me to step away entirely and have people grow in their competencies. I would start to build that ecosystem even if not needed at the moment. Because delegating and coaching takes time, and once you need it, it could be too late.
When people can move into your role, you can find something else to do and further grow your skills and competencies. Many people are afraid of becoming redundant, and that fear drives them to stall the growth of others. But there is no such thing as being redundant in the tech world -- every day brings new opportunities to those who dare to move forward.
- Don’t allow yourself to become a bottleneck. If you have too many direct reports, find mentors who could replace you. Managers are responsible for connecting people, not taking up everything on themselves. I am always there, and people can reach out, but I need to broaden the pool of people who can advise or coach my reports. Also, I try to find a mentor who is someone a report can more easily identify with in terms of experience or background.
- Never be afraid to coach someone to take your job. Many people are hesitant to do it because it makes them replaceable. But only if you can be replaced can you move forward.
- Be prepared for change. When people take up on your responsibilities, they will likely change some things. When you do the same things for five years, it is hard to escape the blinders that keep you on track. However, a new person will come with a fresh pair of eyes that can question the old ways. By doing so, it’s not only that they will grow, but you will also grow by learning new things.
- Invest in people regardless of where their career path will take them. My job is to teach them everything I know, but I will not be the one to tell anyone what career choices they should make.
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Director of Engineering at Mapbox
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