Is internal communications not where you want it? Does solving problems in your organization take too long? Do you feel like your staff is waiting around to be told what to do next? You may have too much management.

The water utility sector has matured in the last 50 years, employing the latest technology to deliver high-quality water and resource recovery services to its customers. In spite of technology advances, for many utilities the organizational structure has not progressed with the times. Too many layers of management or too many supervisors for the number of staff being managed can create problems.

The pace of organizational decision-making slows down, communications suffer (particularly from the top down and the bottom up), delegation occurs less frequently, and management tends to spend a lot of time on non-management activities.

Myth 1: Supervisors can manage only 4 or 5 direct reports
Good supervisors who focus on primarily management duties can keep larger teams on track, in some cases significantly larger teams. The exact number depends on many factors, such as the nature of the work, the skills of the workforce and the supervisor.

The span of control of an organization’s management is the total number of non-management positions divided by the number of “true” supervisors or managers to whom they directly report. True supervision is the people who make the usual, significant managerial decisions — hiring, evaluating and rewarding performance, and issuing corrective actions and dismissals.

On average, if your span of control is lower than at least eight employees to every supervisor and/or manager, you may need to retune your organizational chart.

Myth 2: Managers and supervisors need assistants
The need for assistant managers and supervisors should be based on the needs of the organization. When evaluating assistants, managers and supervisors should carefully consider the reasons that these positions exist.

If the reason for having an assistant is to cover for the leader when he or she is absent, that’s your tip-off. Filling in for the supervisor is a great way to develop lower-level employees and spread that development to your potential future leaders.

If the reason for having an assistant is of a technical nature, it is often better to have a more appropriate title with no management responsibilities. This takes that position out of the chain of command and connects the supervisor directly to the rank and file. You’ll foster better communications and delegation in the process.

Myth 3: Managers and supervisors should have important technical duties
In water utilities, most people in management have advanced because they were good at technical duties related to operations, maintenance, engineering, etc. These are important roles that cannot be ignored; however, most people want to be managed by someone who is competent in leadership, employee interaction and other “soft” skills. Quality leadership skills resulting from time and experience are just as important as technical capabilities and are more difficult to find. The goal should be to place people in positions where they and the team can succeed.

For those well-qualified technicians who do not possess leadership qualities, other important technical leader roles are available (or should be). Managers should position those who have the ability to manage well into leadership roles, and have them spend most of their time assisting in team success, setting expectations and mentoring people.

Maybe you cannot clear away all the technical or administrative duties, but you can significantly reduce that part of the workload in favor of getting the right job assignments in the hands of the right people.

Myth 4: You have to watch over the rank and file every minute
Yes, some employees can be challenging and can take up a lot of a supervisor’s time. This reality can initially affect how far you can go when increasing span of control. Good leaders focus on accountability and measuring the success of their teams with appropriate metrics — not hovering over people’s shoulders.

When a supervisor spends most of his or her time clearing obstacles for the team, assessing performance issues and providing feedback, problem employees usually find a new approach (or find a new place to work). By delegating responsibly, average employees become above average. A manager who is positively focused on the success of the team creates an environment in which folks don’t have to wait to be told want to do, expectations are set and people grow.

So, what do you do if this is your reality?

Changing your organization takes time and careful thought. This is not the place for experimenting with sweeping changes. Have a plan that considers HR rules, what to do about pay when roles change, and communications to those who will be affected, as well as the organization.

It took your organization years to get where it is, and time can help straighten things out without huge disruptions to your workforce. If you have retirements on the horizon for leadership positions, carefully plan the moves that follow in filling these positions. Every time you have a vacancy in management is an opportunity to achieve a better situation.

Assess your supervision and provide coaching, leadership development and honest assessments of the current level of success in the role. It does no good to give a subpar supervisor twice as many people and expect things to get better on their own. You may have to tool up your management for the new structure.

For big changes or for help in assessing your situation, find some outside help that understands the working environment within your utility. If you are seeking help, look for people with “hands-on” operations and maintenance experience to help you navigate this change. There is often substantial organizational inertia to overcome in a management redesign and the right outside assistance to challenge the prevailing thinking can help.

About the experts

Jeff Theerman is Vice President and Senior Utility Consultant for Brown and Caldwell. Before joining BC, Theerman served as Metropolitan St. Louis Sewer District’s Executive Director and led one of the largest wastewater and stormwater management utilities in the country. A member of NACWA’s board of directors since 2004, Theerman served as the organization’s president, vice president, secretary, and treasurer.
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