What is the best way to raise a child?  What is the best investment strategy for long-term growth in the current economy? What car is the best choice for a young family of four?  How much life insurance is enough?

All great questions concerning which there are about as many opinions as the people who ask and answer them.  The same is true with regard to “what is the ideal span of control for a manager?”  How many employees is enough to manage and how many is too many?

In my workshops, I routinely ask participants to share the number of years they have been a manager and the number of people they supervise.  Answers to the second question have varied from as few as four or five, to as many as one-hundred.  Since the conventional wisdom on this subject has generally suggested “the fewer individuals one directly supervises the better”, where does that leave those managers at the higher end of the employee range?

The trouble I’ve usually had with the span of control debate over the years is that it generally focuses on “the number of people” question, not on the “core responsibilities a successful manager  must fulfill, for those officially assigned to them.  Moreover, the very use of the word “control” makes most of the best managers smile, if not downright laugh.

I have managed small groups and very large ones and have never felt much in control of but a few things.  I have often joked that I carried the title “Director” for many years and never actually managed to figure out how much I was truly directing on a daily basis, or be confident that everybody was actually following my lead.  Most days things seemed to get done just fine without much direct involvement on my part.

Thus, I believe the real value in the span of control discussion lies in focusing on the span concept, as it applies to the critical core responsibilities  every employee generally expects their management to fulfill.  Although we can debate the exact number of these core responsibilities, I believe the following six are critical:


  • Someone in the know who can answer questions, provide clarifications, relay communications, and with whom they can confide when necessary.
  • Someone who provides meaningful performance feedback aimed at the employee’s growth, development, and performance quality.
  • Someone to ensure they have access to all training and experiential opportunities necessary for their job success.
  • Someone who can provide direction, clarify assignments and roll responsibilities, referee conflict, and assure adherence to acceptable behavioral norms within a work team environment.
  • Someone to ensure that smooth teamwork and full collaboration are the characteristics of the work teams to which they are assigned.
  • Someone secure and mature enough to allow them full access up the chain of command when that is necessary.

For line managers who have no officially assigned managers beneath them, a large number of subordinates generally necessitates delegating some — and perhaps all — of these responsibilities to specific, carefully chosen subordinates who carry them out on their boss’s behalf.  Often called “team chiefs or leads”, or “section heads or chiefs”, these individuals derive their authority to carry out these core responsibilities from their line boss.  But it is always the boss’s ultimate responsibility to ensure compliance, for they alone will ultimately be held accountable.

While there is undoubtedly some number of assigned employees that stretches oversight responsibilities to the breaking point — even with delegation — and creates an unmanageable work situation, focusing on the core responsibilities every employee should expect to depend upon in a high performing organization, keeps the emphasis where it belongs: on those who do the work.  The best managers never lose sight of the reality that it is through the effective exercise of these core responsibilities that they expand the talent levels and potential of those entrusted to their management skill, and fulfill their corporate responsibility for creating a work environment conducive to innovative and creative achievements..

Categories: Exercising Responsibility, Managing People

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2 replies

  1. Just what honestly motivated u to create “SPAN OF CONTROL | What the Best
    Managers Know and Do©”? Icertainly appreciated it! Regards ,Alisha

    • Alisha……the inspiration to write this article came from one of my manager workshops during which a spirited discussion about span of control took place. As usual the emphasis was on finding the right number and on the notion of control. I have long thought both of those things are irrelevant. For me the real point has to do with whether subordinates have access to the six things I highlight in the article. They are basic, legitimate expectations for all of us as employees. If a manager — regardless of how many subordinates are assigned to her or him — has taken the steps to assure these six things are in place, then she or he is doing their job. Hope this answers your question. Glad you enjoyed the article. Cheers. TERRY

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