How Many People Do You Manage?

If you’ve been in any sort of management position, you can relate to having to answer this question, time and again. Recruiters; hiring managers; even fellow people managers—it’s one of the easiest heuristics to quantify scope and experience for a role notorious for qualitative measurements of success and unreliable feedback loops. With the size of the team, at least it signals some level of responsibility imbued by the company and whatever upper management team you report into.

It’s also quite easy and tempting to read too much into a singular quantity.

Curiously, I find that there’s more value in the number in the extremes: where a manager is either managing a handful of folks, or they’re managing thousands or tens of thousands. In the former, there’s a good chance that they’re inexperienced managers: either just starting out, in an extremely niche domain1, or unable to grow their team. In the latter, only the biggest companies in the world employ those numbers of workers, and someone who has reached the upper management levels in those types of environments should be familiar with how to operate at that scale2.

It’s really in the “middle” management areas—the “two pizzas” teams, the couple-dozen (i.e., typically a manager of managers) multi-layered teams, and the hundreds-sized organizations—where the size of the team is overloaded to imply multiple things at the same time. The fact that there’s no real standardization of title3 across functions and companies for managers of these team sizes is a strong indication that the quantity alone is insufficient in denoting level of impact and influence.

I frame this approach to team sizing as mostly bottoms-up; as in, it infers the types of management tactics employed by the manager in question. At the aforementioned handful-of-reports, the amount of people management ability is likely minimal. At two pizzas, the manager should know enough to run a single team well. At the leading-leaders stage—per The Leadership Pipeline parlance—the manager should be able to onboard and coach line managers themselves. Though there’s still a wide variance in skill and experience, there’s at least these expectations of how a manager needs to run their team, based solely on the sheer number of people there.

What it does not necessarily imply is the top-down level of impact to the company as a whole. This is where having a team of 50 people can mean very different things, depending on whether the company itself is 100 vs. 10,000 people. The team’s ownership of the overall business strategy requires additional context.

And this is important because that can be a signal into where the manager’s level of strategic thinking lies within the organization. If 50 people is really half the company’s employees, the leader of that team has to necessarily think about the business, the interactions and collaborations across functions, plus the morale and behavior of their own team and how it impacts everyone else. On the other hand, the leader of a 50-person team within a much bigger organization will not need to worry nearly as much about these factors; most of it will have already been defined by upper layers of management4.

Even that is probably reading too much into a raw number, a quantity that is necessarily lossy in trying to compress multiple dimensions of ability into a comparable value. I want to say that good interviewing is the panacea, but consistently interviewing managers well is itself a whole other, tougher, challenge.

  1. Which makes deep management unnecessary.

  2. Though it’s an open question as to how they’d do with smaller teams, or even how they’d grow a smaller team orders of magnitude bigger.

  3. Of course, there’s the entirely separate issue of title inflation and mismatches between titles and capabilities.

  4. I’ve started to think about a team’s size in relation to the overall company’s as a %, but even there it’s imperfect; I don’t have enough data points to fully flush it out.

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