What's your problem

I indirectly manage a team of about 45. Although I'm their ultimate boss, I have little contact with individual employees.

by Jeremy Bullmore
Last Updated: 31 Aug 2010

I've tried staff away days, but they have only a short-term impact. I would like to improve the situation, but I have a limited amount of time. How can I open up lines of communication without spending hours speaking to each employee in turn?

A: Not many management theorists recommend respectful study of the armed forces - particularly during a period of what we like to pretend is peacetime. It's an unspoken belief that the modern, caring, sharing, tie-less, door-less, call-me-Mick executive has nothing to learn from those fiercely hierarchical, class-ridden structures wherein the Officers issue the orders and the Men mutely obey.

But after centuries of trial and error, one of the things the armed forces seem to have got right is an understanding of the optimum size of manageable groups and how to maintain communications between them. So, starting from the lowest layer, they have sections, platoons, companies, brigades, battalions - don't hold me to all this - until you eventually get to the Commander-in-Chief.

I forget the optimum size of a section, but it's a lot less than 45; say, 12. I'm not encouraging you to march about your office with a swagger stick, but you should think very seriously about formally appointing section leaders (you'll know what to call them). Appoint four. Keep them constantly in the loop and make it clear you expect them to do the same with their own people. Get involved lower down only when they ask you to or you smell trouble. An annual awayday for all 45, a party at Christmas and a few unscheduled wanders round the corridors and workstations should be quite enough to counter any risk of fragmentation.

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