Editor’s Note: Each week Maynard Webb, former CEO of LiveOps and the former COO of eBay, will offer candid, practical, and sometimes surprising advice to entrepreneurs and founders. To submit a question, write to Webb at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Q. I’m a founder whose company was acquired and I’m now at a fast-growing startup where the chief technology officer is managing 30 people directly. Is this normal? It doesn’t feel right. He seems overwhelmed and I feel like I’m being micromanaged.
-Founder now working at big tech company
Wow, do I have a visceral reaction to this. I can’t believe this is happening. Even stranger, you are the second person to ask me this in the last two months.
Something is really wrong here—this is so off kilter from what I believe is right. I’m floored because I know that people can’t be treated well in this scenario—and it certainly won’t scale.
Having 30 direct reports is not a good idea. When all roads go through one bridge there are traffic jams. Think about the Golden Gate Bridge at rush hour. It’s not efficient. Same thing here.
How can this manager have 1:1s every week and know what everyone is doing? Furthermore, it sounds like the company is growing. That means your problem is growing. There may be 2X the number of engineers reporting to the CTO next year. This organization is not set up for success. It is not positioned to scale. And, it will not end well.
I believe that having anything more than 15 people directly report to one person is too much—and a recipe for disaster. The best way to solve this is to have the CTO keep 5 or 6 direct reports and have those lieutenants take on bigger leadership roles and manage others. (Of course, you don’t want to go too wild with this; some companies are a little too eager to give out manager titles, so they wind up having a lot of managers with 1-2 reports. That’s also a little ridiculous. A goal of 8-10 people reporting to one person is more reasonable.
Companies are not static. They are always shrinking or growing. At eBay, we constantly asked ourselves: “When does it break?” We looked at under what volume or what load the site would break. We had to ask, how much more capacity do we have?
What does this have to do with you? Capacity is not all about systems. It’s about people too. Like systems, you can run humans too hot—and when they get near their fault line they crash.
I think you should speak with both the CTO and the CEO about the situation. It’s best if the CEO gains wisdom and is then able to provide guidance and implement change. This is a complicated situation because your new boss may not realize things are as bad as they are. This has to be delicately managed, but it starts with awareness that there is an issue, and then offering suggestions on how to make it better. You must not approach this from a position of blame, but more one of curiosity and partnership. I am a fan of addressing it directly: “Here’s what I’m seeing. What are you seeing? Are my concerns off base?”
If there is a head of human resources, that person should also be working on solving the problem. You can ask that person for advice. You can also make some suggestions that take nibbles at shedding light onto the situation, such as suggesting that you do upward feedback or assessments of how happy people are and then use the data from the surveys to illuminate where you are and help the company get better.
I understand that you are in a risky position, but the situation needs to get addressed. It will not help the company, the CEO, or anyone if you stay silent on this.