Q: Like many others, my company has been restructuring recently. I am a department head and, although our overall headcount has fallen slightly, the new, flatter structure means that the number of my direct reports has almost doubled. How can I maintain my effectiveness?
A: 'Flatter structure' sounds appealing - less hierarchy, fewer levels from top to bottom, so potentially better communication and more opportunities for autonomous work and career advancement. The trouble is that swapping to a shorter vertical line and an extended horizontal one doesn't always work very well, for a number of reasons, of which not having enough time for genuine management activity is predominant.
The late John Harvey-Jones flensed the number of senior reports he inherited as CEO at ICI down to five - which, as he was fond of pointing out, was the size of legendary Greek fighting units. While you may not perceive yourself to be engaged in a war, some of the same elements of success apply, for example, clarity of direction, shared purpose, good communication and trust. Trying to achieve this degree of coherence with more than five or six people reporting to you is, as you have recognised, a very tall order.
The other problem with a flatter structure is that it tends to suggest that all your reports are of an equal level of skill and experience, which is highly unlikely. Each person who reports to you is an individual with his or her own strengths and challenges, and requires separate and individual management attention. Rather as the saying goes in relation to being fair to each of your children, you succeed in treating them all the same by treating each of them differently.
Your high-performing, more experienced reports are likely to want (and need) less time with you and the new structure may allow them more empowerment than previously possible. To establish an appropriate level of self-management with these people it is desirable to agree on the scope of their responsibilities, the matters that need to be escalated to you and the manner and frequency with which you will be kept in the loop on what's happening in their areas. This should preclude you from being accused of micromanaging or your self-managing reports from failing to feed back important information.
Overburdened senior managers tend to fall into the trap of having contact only with self-sufficient reports when something's gone wrong, thus missing out on the more positive contribution such people could be making to their organisation, for example, in terms of innovation or in building culture and values. To avoid this, it is important you also convey that you are happy to be involved on those occasions when they need a sounding board for something or when they need an additional source of ideas. In this way, you will be their coach, recognising that the work and talent is theirs and that your role is to encourage them to keep performing at a high level.
The people who are likely to take up more of your management time are the ones who are newer to their jobs, those who are under-performing and those who oversee problem areas of the organisation. Here your role is to increase their self-sufficiency without exposing your team to challenges they are ill equipped to handle. This is another aspect of your role of manager as coach. By discussing and agreeing goals and exploring individuals' ideas on how to achieve them, you will gain an understanding of how able they are to complete their tasks. And by reviewing outcomes on a regular basis, you will be able to monitor the progress that will lead to greater autonomy for that person and less involvement from you. Where there's a lack of progress, you will have the evidence you need to remove or redeploy that person.
Another common mistake senior managers make is to hold regular, long meetings with all their reports together. These meetings are often the least effective and most resented, as the content and manner of delivery is boring to all except the person speaking, and the contribution of some more introverted participants is drowned out by more loquacious attendees showing off their achievements. Instead, when you do get the group together, it should be to engage everyone in solving problems, explore development options or for when you have important information to convey. Routine reporting can be done in other, more effective ways.
Miranda Kennett is an independent coach. If you have a problem you'd like her to tackle, email: firstname.lastname@example.org.