So you have a new job with a highly respectable new title, perhaps your own office and your own team of employees. You're in the midst of an exciting point in your career and you're looking forward to how this position advances your career.
But that's the thing — your new position won't only propel your career, but now you're also in charge of propelling others' careers, too. You have employees directly reporting to you, and your job is to manage them and help them achieve success by managing them and perhaps also mentoring and coaching them along the way. They're called your direct reports.
You've never had a direct report before, though, and you're not sure what that relationship should look like and what the responsibilities involved with having a direct report are. You may be wondering about the qualities of a great boss since you've never had to be one. So let's take a deeper dive into everything you should know about direct reports.
According to the Cambridge Dictionary, a direct report, sometimes also known as a supervisee or a subordinate (who reports directly to you, as opposed to any subordinate), is "an employee whose position at work is directly below that of another person, and who is managed by that person."
The difference between a direct report and an indirect report is simple: A direct report formally reports to you, which means that you, on top of your other obligations, you are usually responsible for assigning them work, managing their performance of those tasks and supporting them —you're their boss. An indirect report, however, is an employee who reports to your direct reports (the person or people who assign you responsibilities and manage your performance of them) and their subordinates.
Tons of companies use direct reports, especially if they're bigger companies that have various departments operating together but separately. That said, companies big and small use direct reports if they fit into the organizational structure.
Companies that use direct reports usually have some sort of hierarchy like a traditional organization. There is usually a boss overseeing each department, and they have direct reports who may also have direct reports responsible for different areas and tasks within that department. In other words, many companies assign lines of authority and responsibilities that are each arranged by rank.
Take, for example, a small retail business. Typically, the hierarchy may look like this:
The sales associates would be the direct reports to the general manager, who directly reports to the owner. In a larger retail business, however, there may also be department managers, to whom the sales associates of those departments report and to whom the general manager assigns responsibilities. Larger companies like conglomerates and multinational corporations have even more tiers within their organizational structures, so there are several more department heads that manage groups of direct reports.
Companies that don't have direct reports are few and far between, but they do exist. Take, for example, a flat organization (also known as a horizontal organization). According to Forbes, flat organizations are very different than traditional organizations.
"Unlike any other corporate structure that exists, flat companies are exactly that...flat," writes Forbes contributor Jacob Morgan. "There are usually no job titles, seniority, managers or executives. Everyone is seen as equal. Flat organizations are also oftentimes called or referred to as self-managed organizations (there can be some differences but for our case we will put them together). The most famous example of this comes from Valve, the gaming company responsible for classics such as Half-Life, Counter-Strike, Portal and many others. At Valve, there are no job titles and nobody tells you what to work on. Instead all the employees at Valve can see what projects are being worked on and can join whichever project they want. If an employee wants to start their own project then they are responsible for securing funding and building their team."
Likewise, holacratic organizations don't really use direct reports in the traditional sense either. Rather, they may have to deal with multiple managers or none at all, as the structure is much more fluid. Morgan explains it well in his piece on Forbes.
"Holacracy started gaining lots of traction after Zappos announced that they would be shifting to this new model of working," he wrote. "The media has picked up on this as a 'boss-less' organization which hardly describes what holacracy is about, again check out the podcast link above. There are actually quite a few organizations that have been experimenting with this model but the most known are of course Zappos and Medium. The basic goal with this structure is to allow for distributed decision making while giving everyone the opportunity to work on what they do best. There is still some form of structure and hierarchy but it's not based on people as much as it based on circles or what most people would think of as departments. Information is openly accessible and issues are processed within the organization during special and ongoing meetings."
If you have direct reports, you should be getting to know them well. And, to do that, you should be an effective communicator. That's because your direct reports are a direct reflection of you as a manager. Their output and their success is tied to your success. Here's how you can establish rapport with them so that you can get to know their strengths and weaknesses and work with them to achieve mutual success.
You should be meeting with your direct reports regularly, not just when yearly reviews come around. Schedule one-on-one meetings with them, whether they're formal in the office or informal at lunch. Talking with your direct reports will help you learn about any concerns they may have and address them, and it will also give them an opportunity to share any ideas they may have. Since they're working on projects directly, they may have insight that you don't, and their ideas may be worth hearing out.
In short, one-on-one meetings are great for the exchange of concerns, ideas and questions from both parties. And once you get to know each other better, you know what "success" looks like to one another and can better achieve it as a team.
If you have more than one direct report, it may be helpful to start group discussions among direct reports. You should be involved in these discussions, as well. They may come in the form of weekly team meetings, for example, to discuss progress or any setbacks with a project. When the whole team is aware of a project's status, they can better work together to get things done. It's a good idea to have ice breakers to kick off meetings if your direct reports don't know each other well just yet.
It's your job to jump into these discussions and guide the team in the right direction. If you need to, it's also your job to make any strategic decisions or changes, based on your knowledge of what works and what doesn't from your experience.
Your direct report is your subordinate, but that doesn't mean that you can't ask them questions, too, and listen when they talk. The line of communication should go both ways, and you should keep it open. Typically, your direct report will be more hands-on with a project or task than you are, and they may have valuable insight of which you're unaware. It'd be wise to keep your door open or keep yourself available for pop-up meetings if there's something that needs to be discussed on either end.
Having a direct report doesn't mean that you just get to delegate all of your work to subordinates and kick your feet up until they're finished. Having a direct report actually comes with even more responsibilities, such as the following.
When you have a direct report, you'll be in charge of doing their reviews and evaluations — whether those come annually, quarterly or on another timeline. For help on how to write a review or handle an employee evaluation, check out Fairygodboss' Performance Reviews: How To Give And Receive Specific Feedback.
You and your direct report are now partly dependent on each other to achieve success. When they succeed, you succeed. And they'll succeed with your mentoring. You're now responsible for helping your direct report improve by giving them guidance and advice. For advice on mentoring, check out some of Fariygodboss' resources:
Your job is no longer just about the work that you produce but, rather, it's about the work that both of you produce; your direct report's success or lack thereof is a direct reflection of you. Having a direct report means that you can’t just go through your to-do list for the day. Instead, you will have to be available for your direct reports' questions on their to-do lists that you've assigned to them. That said, a good supervisor should have a motivated team that still works well in their absence.
AnnaMarie Houlis is a multimedia journalist and an adventure aficionado with a keen cultural curiosity and an affinity for solo travel. She's an editor by day and a travel blogger at HerReport.org by night.