The 10% rule for managing staff

As you move into a management role, the things that you do on a day to day basis will evolve. As a “geek”, you are probably the type that wants to stay hands-on with the technology, yet want to keep your career moving forward. It is important to realize that moving into a management role will require you to spend less time hands-on, and more time managing. The question is, how much time?

Once you add staff responsibility to the mix, demands on your time will be spread over your other tasks. In addition to your hands-on functional role developing, or building and maintaining architecture, you now have the added responsibility of managing your staff. Managing their workload, assigning tasks, authorizing vacations, performance reviews and everything else takes time away from your technical work.

The key to managing this is to be realistic about the demands on your time. If you have 100% of your time at your disposal, in the past, you had almost all of that time for your functional role. The rule of thumb is that for every person you have reporting to you, he or she will take 10% of your time. I call this the “10% rule of Managing Staff”.

In other words, if you have 2 people reporting to you, you will probably spend about 20% of your time managing them, and 80% of your time performing your functional role. If you have 5 people, then your time is spent half-and-half. Any more than 7-8 people and you are essentially a full-time manager. It is unrealistic to expect to do your functional role effectively in only 20% of your time.

Obviously, this is an estimation. Some staff members and some roles will require more supervision, and others less. Some organizations require more onerous administration work associated with staff, while others have very little. At certain times of the year this percentage will increase (during staff reviews or at year-end), and at others it will decrease (when things are really busy and everyone is focussed on meeting a deadline), but take it as an estimation and it will help you to plan your group.

Why does this matter? Every geek that I know would like to stay in touch with the technology. How strongly you believe in that will determine whether you are looking to manage large groups or small ones. Know that if your team grows beyond 4 or 5 people, you will spend less time working on your own tasks. That doesn’t mean you are removed from the technology however, keep in mind that you will spend more time helping your team with their tasks, and your team will be able to accomplish more with more people, allowing you to touch more variety of projects. It just means that you will not be as hands-on.

It also means that it is unreasonable for you to manage more than 10 people. Now, don’t get me wrong, it is possible – I’ve done it. But if your group starts to grow beyond that level, it is time for you to look at breaking up your group into sub-teams. If you create three sub-teams, each with a team lead, then you only have three people reporting to you, and the three team leads each have three or four people reporting to them.

Always keep the 10% rule in mind. If you have 7 people reporting to you, and can’t figure out why you can never get anything done, now you know. If you have 12 people reporting to you, and are completely buried, now you know.

This rule also helps you to evaluate changes you are proposing to your organization. If you are completely buried with 12 people reporting to you, and your plan is to promote one of those 12 people to manage them, now you have 1 person, and that person has 11. You haven’t solved anything, all you’ve done is moved your workload to someone else. Always keep this in mind when planning your time.

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