The Short Answer
A common question I hear in my technical leadership workshops is, “How many people can someone (e.g. a Tech Lead or Engineering Manager) lead?”
My answer is generally 5-7 people for an experienced leader, but many factors affect the final number. Some of these factors include their leadership scope, other leadership roles, the experience level of the leader, the experience level of the team, and the level of organisational bureaucracy.
The Longer Answer
Let’s look at each of these factors and how they might affect someone’s ability to lead.
A leader’s scope will influence the number of people they can lead. The broader their responsibilities, the less time they have to lead effectively. For example, a typical Tech Lead Engineering Manager (Tech Lead EM) archetype has a broader scope than a typical Team Lead Engineer Manager (Team Lead EM) archetype. The Tech Lead EM role needs to spend more time on technical topics such as guiding architecture decisions, spotting technically risky implementations, or negotiating with security and other technical teams to agree on interfaces and processes. The Tech Lead EM has less time to take care of people, team and process or delivery responsibilities. Many Tech Lead EMs often prioritise the technical work (e.g. choosing frameworks, libraries and design or architecture choices) over people or team responsibilities to their team’s detriment. On the other hand, a typical Team Lead EM is less involved in technical discussions, giving them more time to focus on building a high-performing team and the line management responsibilities. They can spend this additional time investing in their people through regular feedback, holding more effective 1-1s on a weekly basis, helping people grow and looking at optimising how everyone works together as a team.
Other Leadership Roles
In a typical cross-functional software team, a leader’s role is influenced by other leadership roles in that team. For example, a team with only a single leader requires that leader to shoulder all responsibility. This might range from planning, technical decision making, people and team management responsibilities. In my experience, an experienced leader in this situation can lead a maximum of 3-4 team members in this team configuration because they have so many responsibilities.
Organisations can increase the number of people if they split leadership responsibilities across different roles, with different people leading different areas. Consider a common Product Manager (PM), Tech Lead (TL) and Engineering Manager (EM) leadership combination. In this type of team, the PM leads the product planning, working with internal/external stakeholders, prioritising the next set of outcomes, and all launch activities. The TL in this team leads the technically focused topics such as aligning technical decisions in the team, steering architecturally significant decisions, managing technical stakeholders (e.g. ops and security) and writing and reviewing code. An EM in this type of team typically looks like the Team Lead EM or Delivery EM, focused on optimising the flow of work throughout the team and people and team management.
A team with additional leadership roles gives each person more time to focus on leading their area but requires more synchronisation between the roles. With experienced people in each position, the “leadership group” can lead a bigger overall group (e.g. 7-10).
Experience Level of the Leader
The greater and the broader the leader’s experience, the more people they can lead. Consider two teams, one with a first-time leader and the second who has been leading teams for 5+ years.
A first-time leader is going to be doing a lot of learning on the job. A first-time leadership role requires a significant shift in skills, some of which the person playing that role haven’t yet developed. As an example, a common transition of a developer to an Engineering Manager means they should be giving regular feedback (i.e. a learnable skill), but, likely, they never spent time as a developer learning how to provide effective feedback. A less experienced leader spends more time on the same leadership activities as they have to follow up more, deal with any confusion they caused and explore alternative approaches that work for different people in their team. For less-experienced leaders, aim for a smaller team (i.e. 2-3) because they will need more time to grow leadership skills they haven’t necessarily mastered.
Now imagine a seasoned leader who has been working across many teams in many different organisations over five years. They have built a robust set of leadership skills and grown their toolkit to deal with various people and team situations. This experience allows them to lead a larger team (e.g. 4-5) more effectively. With more experience, this sort of leader can anticipate risk earlier, communicate clearer and they spend less time fulfilling their leadership duties.
Experience Level of the Team
The experience level of team members also affects how many people a leader can lead. As an example, many startup companies attract younger and less experienced team members because they cost less. Some of these people might be in their first or second job. A leader leading a less experienced team typically adopts a more directive leadership style. They need to spend more time teaching, mentoring and coaching. They need to spend more time driving technical conversations and reviewing designs and code to manage risk.
Compare this type of team with a leader working with very seasoned and experienced team members (e.g. each with 10+ years of building software). In a more experienced team, the leader adapts their leadership style to be more facilitative and supportive than directive. The leader can rely more on the collective experience. The leader can and should delegate more complex or risky topics instead of needing to actively drive conversations. A more experienced team can spot risks earlier and deal with them without a leader pointing them out. A less experienced team suffers from the “unknown unknowns”, which means a leader needs to worry and manage risk more.
A more experienced team doesn’t guarantee a leader can lead a bigger group, but it certainly helps.
Level of Organisational Bureaucracy
One final factor that affects a leader’s ability is the level of organisational bureaucracy. High levels of bureaucracy take time away from the leader to deal with tasks and activities outside of the team.
For example, I worked with one client in the pre-cloud days, and we wanted a new server for continuous integration. To obtain a new server, we needed to fill out several physical forms, each demanding a review and approval of several managers. This process existed so someone could determine if there was enough compute capacity, and if not, ensure there was enough lead time to buy and set up the hardware. I spent about four elapsed weeks and an estimated four full days of effort. I spent this time meeting people to uncover the process, fill out the paperwork, determine where my request was, and influence people to get approval. Compare this with a more modern company today that provides a self-service platform where teams can instantly set up new cloud-based servers with a single click!
Organisational bureaucracy comes in many forms, but a leader must navigate all of these. Other examples might include:
- Planning processes (e.g. quarterly planning, setting up OKRs)
- Line management (e.g. holiday, travel or expense reimbursements)
- Chasing dependencies (e.g. following up with another team to make sure a critical dependency is planned or agreeing on an API or test environment from an external vendor)
- Discovery work (e.g. Finding what you need to do or who you need to get approval for a new tool)
The more time a leader spends on bureaucracy, the less time they have to lead their team. In high bureaucracy organisations, leaders can only effectively lead a smaller group than those working in a lower-bureaucracy one.
It All Depends
Like with most things in software, especially when people are involved, there is no easy answer. While I generally use a rule of thumb of 5-7 people, you can see it all depends. More importantly, you can also see some of the factors on why it depends so that you can answer, for your context, “How many people can someone lead?”
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