Article | Harvard Business Review | April 2012

How Many Direct Reports?

by Gary L. Neilson and Julie Wulf


If senior executives are feeling ever more pressed for time, why would they add more to their plates? It might sound counterintuitive, but research by Booz & Company's Gary L. Neilson and me shows that over the past 20 years the CEO's average span of control, measured by the number of direct reports, has doubled. It stands at almost 10 today. This gives fresh relevance to a perennial question for senior leaders: Just how much should they take on? We suggest five areas to consider: Where are you in the senior executive life cycle? How much cross-organization collaboration is required? How much time do you spend on activities outside your direct span of control? What's the scope of your role? What's the best mix of roles for your team? A diagnostic tool provides guidance for leaders considering these questions and can help them estimate their optimal span of control. The issues explored are ones many senior executives-not just CEOs-should revisit throughout their careers. The best leaders stay mindful of the evolving demands of their job and continually tweak their team as they go.

Keywords: Leadership; Governance Controls; Managerial Roles; Adaptation; Personal Development and Career; Cooperation; Management Teams;


Neilson, Gary L., and Julie Wulf. "How Many Direct Reports?" Harvard Business Review 90, no. 4 (April 2012).