Span Of Control – 5 Things Every Leader Should Know by Mike Myatt

View Original / Forbes / Mike Myatt

DeM Banter: Another great post by Mike Myatt…thing to ponder…all the time…everyday…

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 said 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 For what it’s worth, I really dislike the term and find it to be outdated at best, and destructive at worst.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 the more inclusive term constituency management. I want leaders to think span of influence and awareness, to shift thinking from rigid structures to loose collaborative networks, and to think open source not proprietary.

The goal is not to see how far you can stretch – this shouldn’t be a contest of he/she with the most direct reports wins. The days of corporate power plays and land grabs to gain control don’t serve anyone well. Smart leaders use elasticity in the most fluid and flexible fashion to extend their engagement, increase their knowledge, and to create scale for those they lead. 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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. The Missing Link: The most commonly overlooked aspect of team dynamics is for leaders to understand learning and development are best when they occur bi-directionally. 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. Remember – leaders who don’t develop themselves professionally will be replaced by those who do.

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