Ask 5 people for their opinions on optimizing “span of control” and you’ll likely receive 5 different opinions. These well meaning opinions will often cite a few different rules of thumb on size and composition, and will undoubtedly refer you to someone’s version of best practices. Here’s the problem – they’ll all lead you astray.
What Should Be Obvious To All – But Isn’t
Nothing is more important for a leader to understand than knowing how to move the needle across the entire enterprise (strategically, culturally, organizationally, and operationally). Where many leaders become disoriented is by confusing platform with people, and position with responsibility. Here’s the thing – it’s not about the platform, it’s about the people. Without the people there is no platform, and ultimately nothing to lead. It’s not about you (the leader), but what you can create and influence through those you lead.
It doesn’t matter whether it’s the CEO, or a leader several levels down, knowing how to create the right team dynamics is paramount in determining success or failure. Want to know if a leader will be successful? Just look at the talent they attract, and the team they build – look at how they value and treat people. Any leader’s ability (or lack thereof) to effectively attract, deploy and retain talent will tell you everything you need to know about the leader. I have little patience for leaders who complain about talent. Leaders deserve the talent they attract and the teams they build.
Span of Control – Defined and Redefined
The commonly accepted definition of span of control is as follows: “the number of subordinates directly reporting to a leader/manager.” For what it’s worth, I really dislike the term and find it to be outdated at best, and destructive at worst. I prefer constituency management. I want leaders to think span of influence and awareness – to think open source not proprietary.
The goal is not to see how far you can stretch, but rather to use elasticity in the most fluid and flexible fashion. Smart leaders strive to achieve the proper levels of influence and awareness by increasing the right activities in order to attain the right outputs – this happens better through collaboration than by control. Great leaders don’t control people they align them around a vision, and they inspire people by setting them free to achieve great outcomes.
A Slippery Slope
Far too many executives fall into the trap of filling their plate with overly aggressive commitments to direct reports while not planning for the other inevitabilities of the job. By leaving little or no room for white space, much less other constituencies like customers, board members, capital markets, public policy, vendors, media, etc., inevitable conflicts and chaos occur. Again, I prefer to think of direct reports as just one subset of constituency management.
Operating within the narrow confines of traditional definition does nothing more than narrow leadership effectiveness. The myopia of viewing the world through the traditional lens of span of control not only affords leaders little room to maneuver, but it always has them out of balance and playing catch-up.
Following a 5 things every leader should work into the design of their constituency management plan:
Context Every leader is different, and as a result, has different needs with regard to numbers, skills, cultural dynamics, etc. If you don’t have the skills to lead or manage a broad span, yet attempt to do so, it will be your undoing. If your focus is too narrow, you’ll find yourself with blind spots and operational gaps. The average number of direct reports for Fortune 500 CEOs is 7.44, but some CEOs have more than 20, while others have less than 5. It’s not the number that’s important, but whether you’re getting what you need out of whatever number you have. Additionally, how a leader structures their span sends a very strong message (internally and externally) as to who and what they value, along with their capabilities, interests, and passions. Make sure you’re sending the correct message.
Understanding: Don’t focus on the team you inherit, focus on the team you need – if they happen to be one and the same consider yourself lucky. Are you looking for doers, thinkers, or teachers? Do you want to build a team of tactical geniuses, or brilliant strategists, or sage mentors? Compromise has its place, but not where matters of talent are concerned. When it comes to team construct, never settle for less than what you need. You will be held accountable for your decisions in this regard – choose wisely.
The Missing Link: The most commonly overlooked aspect of team dynamics is for leaders to understand learning and development are at there best when bi-directional. Smart leaders seek to be challenged and to encourage diversity of thought and dissenting opinion. One of the primary drivers of composition should be to find a group of talented individuals who will challenge you, stretch you, and develop you. Part of getting the job done is ensuring a certainty of execution, while always taking your leadership ability to new heights.
Time Is Your Most Valuable Commodity: Time; it’s the only thing we all have in common, yet it’s how we choose to spend it that defines and differentiates us as individuals. Time can either be your best friend or your worst nightmare. Time doesn’t slow, nor can it be accelerated or recovered. You can waste time or invest time, but the best leaders scale time. Good constituency management allows you to scale time by creating time leverage across the enterprise and throughout a leaders entire sphere of influence. I often hear people espouse the axiom “don’t work hard, work smart.” I have a bit of a different take on the subject – I encourage people to work very hard at working intelligently. Remember, time is a finite commodity, and once a moment in time has passed it is gone forever.
Trust Is Your Most Valuable Asset: A leadership team built on anything other than a foundation of trust is destined to fail. Leaders who choose to operate without trust do so at great risk. Know this – leaders not accountable to their people will eventually be held accountable by their people. One of a leader’s most important functions is to create an environment where trust and loyalty are the rule and not the exception. When it comes to trust and loyalty, the simple rule is you will not freely receive what you will not freely give. Here’s a question every leader must answer: If you don’t trust a member of your team, should they really be on your team?
There is a reason we can’t point to more “it” companies. There’s a reason we can find more examples of failed teams than great teams. Fact: it takes rigor, discipline, skill, and an unyielding focus on quality to create the right team. Team building is not a check the box exercise and leaders who treat it as such will reap what they have sowed. Thoughts?