Too Many Direct Reports
30 June, 2020
I joined my previous company eight years ago and at that time we were a rather small team. In the meantime, product scaled, we had more and more customers and consequently had to hire more engineers. Little by little I ended up having around 20 direct reports spread into four teams. Managing such a large number of direct reports was overwhelming and time-consuming. I was made to wear too many hats which ended up feeling that I was dropping the ball in some critical areas due to lack of bandwidth.
I was hoping and waiting for the company leadership to fix the problem. However, at one moment I realized that I had to drive that change myself. Moreover, the company was lacking a structure to groom people from IC to management and support them through the transitional period. I had to come up with how to do that. For me, it was a pivotal change in my career -- from doing too much I moved to delegating more while also driving a big organizational change within the company.
First off, I mapped my responsibilities especially highlighting where I was being a knowledge bottleneck. I documented all the things I was doing and how much time I was spending on each of those as well as pinpointing where I was dropping the ball. In addition, I sketched down what I wanted to do in terms of my own growth and have envisioned my ideal future role. To be able to focus on more high leverage tasks and I had to give up on some things and find people who would manage four of my teams.
With clearly stated objectives and a solid plan, I pitched my CTO and Director of Engineering and got approval from the leadership team to move forward with hiring. Based on projected needs we wrote down a role description for the people I needed to manage each of my four teams and also for my updated job description.
I could have gone out in the market and hired people quickly, but I thought that would send some wrong signals to our employees. We advertised those positions internally and ran several rounds of well-structured interviews. As I knew what would be the skills and competences of a good hire for the role, deciding on the candidates was no hard task. After I selected four who were the best fit for the role, we reached out to all candidates and provided thorough feedback. This had to be handled with care as we wanted to make sure that they are not disheartened and see their strengths as IC and growth opportunities for future management positions. We had a plan for both the people who were not successful and those who were successful but had little experience in how to lead the team.
Transitioning from an IC to a manager is a demanding and often perplexing experience and I made sure that our new managers would be provided with a guided transition. In parallel, I had to do a handover and coach new managers on how to actually manage people.
Finally, I was able to take a step back from the day-to-day responsibilities and micro-managing by a hugely reduced amount of 1:1 time and become more strategically oriented by proactively picking my battle(s) instead of letting them come to me. On top of everything, I found immense enjoyment in coaching managers and being part of their personal and professional growth.
- For a while -- probably too long -- I was struggling with the problem of having too many direct reports but didn’t take any action to address it. At the end of the day, it is all about you -- sometimes you need to be that change and make things happen. I learned that if I see a problem I should try to fix it and not wait for my managers to do that for me.
- From a retention and engagement perspective, it is wise to invest in your own people first. When applicable, invest in your people before looking to the outside. Advertising those roles internally was very important and people were hugely motivated to apply and learn that there was a path to grow inside the company. Also, for ICs on those four teams, having familiar faces to report to, made the transition all much smoother. Managing expectations is harder, though. Make sure that you provide thorough and constructive feedback.
- While transitioning to managing managers was extremely satisfying and rewarding, I felt that spreading the too-many-hats I was wearing was a bit destabilizing. The feeling that I made myself redundant was certainly interesting and it took me a little while to adapt to my new role and shift my vision from short-term to mid-term objectives.
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