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8 Strategies for Leading a Large Team

One of the principles of the Australasian Inter-service Incident Management System is “span of control.” This is the concept that there’s a limit to the number of individuals or groups one person can effectively supervise. There’s no question this is an important factor in responding to an emergency incident, but it’s no less significant in managing a workplace team. Behavioural experts generally agree that the ideal number of direct reports to manage in the workplace is somewhere between five and seven, with various reasons proposed for sliding the number a little higher or a little lower.

Factors like the size of the organisation, the type of work being performed, and the experience of the manager all influence what would be considered “best” for a particular work environment, but if you’re managing 10, 15, or even more direct reports, the experts all agree that you’re facing a challenge!

Often, the size of the staff team we manage is not something that can be changed quickly or easily. So, rather than worry that you’ve found yourself outside of some researcher’s sweet spot, below are a few thoughts on what to be aware of in managing a large team, and some practical tips to make sure your direct reports are able to contribute, grow, and receive the support they need to perform effectively.

1. Continually re-state your vision

Vision leaks. I used to think this meant that vision kind of drips from the top of the org chart to the layers below. Which is true! But when we say “vision leaks” we’re really mean that vision leaks out of a team like water from a leaky bucket. It needs constant topping up.

To mix the metaphor, vision can also be diluted. If you lead a large team, it’s likely that some or all of your staff have their own ideas and opinions as to the organisation’s direction and where the priorities ought to lie. This potential for dilution increases with every additional member added to your team. Since your 1:1 time with each direct report gets compressed for each new staff member you add, you’re less able to impart and clarify vision to each one directly, increasing the potential influence of all the alternative versions of the vision your team members are exposed. I’ve often said to church leaders that establishing a new church is like paddling to an island in a lake with a bunch of other people in your canoe. If everyone wants to paddle to the same destination, great! But if some in the canoe want to paddle to a different island, or some just want to circle round in the water for a while, or if some of your paddlers don’t even want to leave the shore, then you’re in for a world of pain!

Keep re-stating your vision! This doesn’t mean reciting your vision statement daily, though I know of organisations that print their vision statement on all meeting agendas to keep the language in front of staff. But as a manager, create opportunities to remind your team of the organisation’s direction and purpose. Lead by example in making decisions according to the roadmap established by your vision. When your staff are evaluating potential courses of action, ask them how the different options will help realise the vision. If you establish a pattern of restating your vision and using it as a framework for evaluation and decision-making, you’ll likely see your direct reports doing the same with their teams, and this pattern of stating, clarifying, and following the vision becomes part of team culture.

2. Establish clear roles

It’s sometimes assumed that a large team is necessarily an unwieldy team. While large teams can devolve to this state, it doesn’t have to be this way. Assigning clear roles to each person in your team becomes more important as your number of direct reports increases.

Be as clear as you can in setting out each team member’s responsibilities and what’s expected of them. A clear role description (especially a written one!) shouldn’t be thought of as restricting someone’s turf, but freeing them up to operate in the whole space appropriate to them. When your team know what they’re responsible for and what types of decisions they’re expected to make, there’ll be less need for them to check in with you unnecessarily, freeing you up for the work that really needs your attention.

Where it’s possible, distinguish between the roles you create. If your direct reports are in different workgroups or at different classifications, this is fairly straightforward. It might require more planning and forethought if you have many direct reports in the same area or at the same level. But this is when it’s most important. You don’t want 20 “Assistant Strategy Officers, Central Region,” or 15 “Office Managers.” I used to umpire basketball as a teenager, and as a newly qualified umpire, you were assigned to the Under 10s games. I have no doubt that the kids’ coaches tried hard to explain the positions and roles of the 5 players on a basketball team, but in reality, there was a constant gaggle of 10 kids huddled around the ball, chasing it wherever it went. Everyone was doing exactly the same thing: trying to get their hands on the ball so they could shoot for goal. Though the objective of the game is to score, that almost never happened, in part, because everyone was trying to play the same role. There was no complementarity. There was no playing to strengths. But there was much confusion about who was doing what next. Multiple staff might share the same job title, “Senior Operations Officer,” but be clear among the team where people’s roles differ. Think of your team members’ responsibilities like the circles in a Venn diagram. There will likely be overlap – everyone shares the task of responding to walk-in queries from the public – but seek to enlarge the non-overlapping section as much as possible, according to business needs, capability, and interest. Once you’ve established these, resist the temptation to delegate to someone a task in another team member’s area, simply because that person is the first one you saw when you looked out of your office! Sometimes you may need to, but each time you do, you wind back a little bit of the clarity for which you’ve worked so hard. 

Clear and diverse roles promote accountability. Everyone knows what they’re responsible for, which helps reinforce high performance, increases productivity, and cultivates a sense of pride and responsibility in their work. If a team member doesn’t know what their particular contribution to the team is, and how that fits with what everyone else is doing, it’s almost certain that that contribution is missing. If everyone knows what others’ roles are, and who is responsible for which part of the operation you’ll see an increase in collaboration, trust, and teamwork, all things we eagerly desire in a large team!

3. Delegate frequently and deliberately

Delegation is not about getting other people to do the tasks a manager doesn’t want to do themselves! Though we sometimes treat it like that. Delegation is an essential part of leading a large team. The first step in effective delegation is to clearly define tasks and responsibilities. This includes setting specific goals and objectives, determining the resources required, and allocating roles to team members based on their strengths and capabilities. This last point is significant because effective delegation isn’t simply sharing round the same tasks among a group so that everyone gets a chance to do everything. Rather it’s entrusting a task to someone who has the strengths, resources, and ideally the interest, to complete the task effectively.

Always remember that even when a team member doesn’t complete a task to the same standard as if you had done it, there’s still a good chance that it’s a better outcome than if you had, and it’s almost certain that the long-term outcome is better than if you hadn’t delegated. Not only have you been able to distribute your workload, freeing up your capacity for other high-priority tasks, you’ve also created learning opportunities for your team member, and contributed to building trust and fostering teamwork. And it’s just possible that with experience and the right feedback, your staff member will end up doing the task differently to you, but better!

I sometimes talk to leaders about “fat pipes” and “thin pipes” in delegation. Think of the life of a task or project as a pipe, with the task being delegated as an input at one end, and the objectives as outputs at the other. The walls of the pipe are the constraints you establish; how prescriptive you are in the approach you want taken, how frequently you check in with your team member, the level of detail you require in updates from them, and the degree to which you make changes or suggestions along the way. For the same task or project, in delegating to some staff, you’d use a thin pipe – you’ll be quite prescriptive, check in frequently, and make lots of suggestions. Imagine the task frequently bouncing off the internal walls of the pipe as it progresses, being re-directed and refocussed by your inputs again and again. With other staff though, you’ll delegate with a fat pipe – perhaps little more than stating the objectives and the due date and assuring your team member of your help if they come asking for it. This time the task hardly ever bounces off the internal walls of the pipe as there’s less need for redirection by your constraints.

Knowing where your team members sit on the “fat pipe – thin pipe” spectrum for any particular task is a challenge as you’ll need to consider each person’s experience, capabilities, familiarity with the task, confidence, and more. However, employing a thin pipe (delegating with lots of constraints and detailed input) with a team member who feels they should be given a fat pipe will frustrate them, and using a fat pipe with a team member who needs more input and refocussing, can create unsettledness, anxiety, and ambiguity.

4. Encourage collaboration and teamwork

With a large number of direct reports, you’ll work directly with each person less than you may be used to, so foster an environment where your team members can work together and share their ideas. Not only does this facilitate new communication pathways within the team, which is essential as teams get larger, but your direct reports also get to learn from each other. They can see strengths, weaknesses, experience, and perspectives to which they may not have been exposed otherwise. We may have a habit of turning to peers in the workplace for advice or brainstorming assistance when we hit a roadblock, but imagine how much more effective we could be if our team culture was such that this collaborative approach was employed at every stage of every process.

Building trust and relationships generally gets harder and takes longer as a team increases in size, so peer collaboration is a great way to help develop trust and deepen relationships in ways that are hard to achieve otherwise. I tend to be sceptical of typical team building exercises (trust falls and high ropes courses, anyone?!) for a few reasons, but primarily because the objectives are rarely aligned with the real-world needs of the team. Trusting that your colleagues will catch you or observing how well they complete an obstacle course generally helps very little when you’re desperate to know who you can trust to help solve the problem that’s weighing on you with a deadline looming! The best way to have high levels of trust and effective relationships in our team’s work is by developing that trust and those relationships within the work itself. Why do elite military units basically never go on team building excursions when compared to the average government or private sector office group? Because the military unit develops their team skills – trust, relationships, teamwork – through the work they do every day.

When you’re allocating tasks to a team member or being briefed on their progress, encourage them to draw others into the process, to seek advice from their peers, and to ask team members to contribute their ideas. As a general rule, always go back through the team member taking the lead and suggest or direct them who to approach, rather than personally asking others to assist them with their task. Not only does this further the relationships and communication among your team, it also mitigates the risk that you appear to be interfering, or rescinding the delegation of the task.

5. Let your team know what matters to you

Let’s face it, there are some aspects of our work that we care less about than others. Or perhaps to be slightly more specific, there are aspects of our work where we have fewer fixed preferences regarding methods and approaches. You might be a stickler for starting meetings on time, but happy for the meeting’s papers to be presented in any format from a sticky note to an email printout. Or perhaps it really matters to you that stakeholder engagements are carefully structured and follow a set format, but when it comes to performance reviews, you don’t mind whether supervisors conduct them annually with a 10-page pro forma, or quarterly over a coffee.

As your number of direct reports increases, you’ll need to narrow the areas of your team members’ work that you try to influence, so let your team know what matters to you. If you want them running meetings in a particular way, or if it matters to you that briefings follow a set format, it’s only fair that your team know that! Whenever you delegate a task to a team member for the first time, be clear on which aspects you want done in a particular way, following up with them afterwards to reinforce, clarify, or find out why, if your preferred method wasn’t followed. And make sure your staff understand your reasoning, so it doesn’t seem like an arbitrary requirement. In the same way, make sure you’re clear on the areas where you’re happy for your staff to do things their own way.

Of course, letting your staff know that you want a task completed a particular way without giving them the means of doing it, is a sure-fire way to create workplace anxiety. If it’s important to you that client briefings are presented by speaking to slides without notes, or that tasks are logged in the organisation’s tracker, ensure your team have opportunities to observe it done the way you’re asking, be trained in the method, and have a go – with feedback.

As your number of direct reports gets larger, letting them know what matters to you will increase your satisfaction with their work, and increase their confidence. Win – win!

6. Formalise Communication Channels

With a larger number of direct reports, communication – from vision-casting to allocation of tasks – generally needs to become less personal. In a smaller team, it’s quite likely that you’ve been able to trade on relationships, familiarity, and the general “rubbing shoulders” in shared tasks to include and communicate with your staff. As the FTE number increases, this needs to become more formalised because your day-to-day contact with each direct report decreases. 1:1 catch-ups become fewer and team briefings become more common. The elements of communication that are tailored specifically for individuals will become less, replaced to a significant (though not total) degree by more generic communication channels and methods.

Communication needs to become more deliberate and guarded jealously in your diary. Build in planned opportunities for communicating and seeking feedback. Some managers with large teams send a weekly email in the early afternoon every Friday to ensure no staff have missed out on important information from the week. Others allocate a time in the week for a deeper engagement with one or two direct reports, rotating through the whole team over a period of weeks. The key is to find what works, build it into your week, and protect the time. Of course, “what works” doesn’t need to be the perfect solution! Any approach that helps you meet your objectives and lead your team is better than nothing!

7. Be aware of complex team dynamics

When leading a large team, it’s important to understand not just how each team member functions and how they relate to you, but how the various combinations of people in your team interact and function together. When you add a direct report to your team, you grow the team by one, and you increase your direct managerial responsibilities by one, but you increase the number of two-person relationships by the number in your existing team!

That is to say, when someone joins an existing team of 12, there is one new member and one new person for you to manage, but 12 new 1:1 interactions, plus a much larger number of possible multi-person relationship combinations! Managers of large teams are often surprised at the impact of adding “just one” member to a large team. They expect only a small change to team dynamics, since the personnel increase is proportionately small. However, the large number of new combinations and interactions can generate a body of management tasks, needs for vision re-statement, etc that feels disproportionate to the change.

It’s really outside the scope of this paper, but the converse is true when someone leaves your team, so it’s worth bearing in mind. When Person A leaves, your team is now without their collection of skills, experience, and knowledge. This is what we expect and it’s part of the reason that, as managers, our hearts sink when someone tells us they’re moving on. But just as significant is the change to the team dynamic that occurs. Without Person A, the aspects of Person B’s personality, creativity, and problem solving that only Person A seemed to be able to bring out are also now gone. The calming influence that Person A had on Person C is removed, and Person A’s habit of answering questions before Person D had a chance no longer impacts the team. These wider dynamics can often have a larger impact than the absence of skills and experience, so be prepared for changes in team relationships after someone leaves!

8. Invest in relationships

The other side of the coin to the idea of formalising communications, is that as your number of direct reports increases, it becomes more important than ever to invest in individual relationships with those team members. Perhaps it sounds like a contradiction, having just said that communication becomes more formal, but it’s really the matching, opposite piece.

Think of a team meeting in the days when it was you and two other staff. Not only do you communicate strategy, tasks, vision, etc, there’s also plenty of opportunity to invest in relationships. There’s likely talk about aspects of life outside of work, and how people are feeling about work challenges. There tends to be less time pressure. Lots of people are generally happy to be fairly open and forthcoming in a small group. Now think of a team of fifteen. You generally have to move much more quickly to and through the agenda (was there even a written agenda when it was just the three of you?!) and there’s less time and tolerance for anything peripheral to the matters at hand.

Your relationship with your team members, your understanding of how they work, respond, and thrive, and to some degree, your knowledge of other aspects of their life and priorities, will help you lead them – especially when the pressure is on. This doesn’t mean you need to be their best friend, but learning how different team members respond to last minute requests enables you to make the right call on who to pull into a late task. Understanding a direct report’s career goals and ambitions helps you get buy-in when you’re delegating. And having a sense of what work your team members enjoy helps you allocate work that’s fulfilling and interesting, both key contributors to workplace satisfaction.

So how does a manager with lots of direct reports invest in relationships when they’re already very busy?! There are a couple of key elements to this. Firstly, be deliberate. Look for opportunities to strengthen the relationship. Create space for team members to share their observations about work and other matters. Whenever possible in 1:1 meetings, make time for each team member to share what they need from you for their current or upcoming tasks. And secondly, ask questions that will help you build relationships. When a team member finishes a task, ask how they found it. What were the challenges? What was unexpected? Is this the sort of work they’d like more of in the future? Where appropriate show that you’re interested in their life outside of work, and that you value them for more than their professional output.