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How Many People Can a Manager Manage?

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This question came up during lunch this past week, and it's a good question. I'll start with my stock 'It Depends' of course, and from there I think it really is a matter of the type of work and how many different tasks are under way. For example, I've watched managers in a call center handle 12-15 employees without problem. They all had similar skill sets and the manager had at most two projects running. When I managed a team of 12 developers & help desk staff, I had a wider range of skill sets and usually 16-20 projects going on a once - just chaos. Managers always feel like overhead and it definitely looks better on a spreadsheet to have managers averaging 15 people rather than 5.

I haven't fully thought it through, but here's my starting point on critieria for figuring it out:

  • A manager should be able to handle having 1-2 new team members at any point without the ship sinking (so always manage at less than true max capacity)
  • Set a top end of 10 separate projects that are assigned to the manager. If everyone employee has 2 projects, that's a max team size of 5.
  • Team should not require an assistant manager to do the work the manager would be doing if they weren't busy (not the same as a technical lead responsible for style & substance coaching)
  • The manager should be able to work a 40-45 hour week, get all their "work" done, and still be spending a significant amount of time with team members

The challenge with some of those is that they are more about the ability of the manager than about raw numbers. An experienced manager is going to be able to handle more employees than a new one.

If I had to write down some first numbers, I'd say 4-5 employees per manager with less than 24 months experience, no more than 10 for a manager with more than 24 months experience and proven ability.

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