Apple CEO Tim Cook now has 17 direct reports -- and that's probably too many

Tim CookGetty Images/Stephen LamApple CEO Tim Cook.

Tim Cook assumed leadership of Apple in 2011, and since then his team of direct reports has grown significantly.

At the beginning of his career as CEO, Cook managed nine people. Today, at least 17 people report directly to Cook, according to their bios on Apple’s executive profile page. (Apple declined to confirm the number.)

Managing 17 people seems like a lot. Is Cook overextending himself? And what is the maximum number of people an executive can reasonably supervise?

We reached out to management experts and looked into the research to find out.

Hal Gregersen, Ph.D., the executive director of the MIT Leadership Center, told Business Insider the optimal number of direct reports is somewhere between six and 12, whether you’re the CEO or a lower-level manager.

It’s a question of how many people a leader can have a constructive conversation with when everyone’s in the same room, Gregersen said.

For example, if you’re leading a two-hour meeting with 17 people, each person has only about seven minutes to engage in the discussion. With a team of six, on the other hand, there’s room to carry on a deeper conversation.

Moreover, he said, leaders need to have the bandwidth to develop the people on their team by asking: “What is this individual person good at? What are they not good at? How can I support them?”

It’s hard to do that when your team exceeds 12 people.

Gregersen cautioned that he hasn’t done specific research on Cook or Apple, saying Cook may indeed have figured out a way to manage his time and resources effectively with so many direct reports. But he guessed that “the odds are against any team of 17 versus a team of six.”

Meanwhile, management guru Jack Welch, the former CEO of General Electric, has advocated for a slightly larger team and said 10 to 15 people is the optimal number. In a 1989 interview with the Harvard Business Review, Welch talked about removing layers of management so that leaders wind up with more people to supervise.

“Remember the theory that a manager should have no more than six or seven direct reports? I say the right number is closer to 10 or 15,” he said. “This way you have no choice but to let people flex their muscles, let them grow and mature. With 10 or 15 reports, a leader can focus only on the big important issues, not on minutiae.”

Tim cook eddy cueBloomberg/GettyTim Cook and Eddy Cue, senior vice president of internet software and services at Apple, during the sales launch for the iPhone 6 and iPhone 6 Plus at the Apple Inc. store in Palo Alto, California, U.S., in 2014.

Indeed, CEOs are managing significantly more people today than they did 30 years ago. Research onCEOs of Fortune 500 companiesfound thatthe number of direct reports a CEO manages increased from about five in the mid-1980s to about 10 in the mid-2000s. That’s partly because many new CEOs are opting not to appoint a chief operating officer, who would likely supervise some of those direct reports.

That trend helps explain why Cook’s team has grown in the last few years. When he was promoted from Apple COO to CEO in 2011, the company chose not to hire anyone to replace him.

Of course, some see Cook’s large team as an indication of the company’s strength. Jeffrey Pfeffer, Ph.D., a professor of organizational behaviour at Stanford University’s Graduate School of Business, said he didn’t see a problem with having 17 direct reports. You’d only need few reports, he said, if you want to be a micromanager or your team members have no idea what they’re doing.

“If you have smart people, a strong organizational culture, and a well-defined and articulated strategy that everyone understands, you can [have] numerous direct reports because your job isn’t to tell people what to do,” he wrote in an email to Business Insider.

Pfeffer pointed out that Jim Goodnight, founder and CEO of software company SAS, at one point had 25 direct reports.

Bottom line: Cook’s ever-expanding team is slightly larger than the average CEO’s. That could indicate that he’s spreading himself too thin, unable to dedicate enough attention to people development. Or it could be a sign that Apple execs are able to function pretty independently, without much meddling from above.

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