Everything You Need to Know About Upper Management (Before You Try to Break In)

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Freelance Writer & Nonprofit Information Officer
May 22, 2024 at 1:27AM UTC
Not all management jobs are created equal. While many of us envision “upper management” as a bunch of cis white men who inherited their positions, this isn’t always the case, and as more and more people of all races and genders join the ranks of upper management, it is useful for all of us to understand what it is and what it takes. 

Who is considered upper management?

Individuals in “upper management” make the primary or the principle decisions in the company. Examples are those decisions that directly affect the direction of the company, so things like the company’s mission, whether or not to go public, the size and location of offices and products or services a company will offer qualify. While upper management will decide on the objectives and the large-scale policies of the company, these decisions will look very different depending on the company’s size, scope and age, so a company’s “upper management” will often also look very different depending on these factors. People who create plans and strategies to increase the performance of a company are often considered upper management unless they have been contracted to assist upper management with these issues. Upper management usually answers to a board of directors, who will be the highest tier of the company’s management. Examples of jobs that would certainly be considered upper management are often referred to as C-Suite because they are the “chief” positions: chief executive officer (CEO), chief information officer (CIO), chief financial officer (CFO) and so on. 

What are the three levels of management?

The three levels of management are appropriately named lower management, middle management and upper management. Lower management manages the day-to-day tasks and engagement with projects and employees. Examples include shift managers, foremen and line managers, and they traditionally track employee progress and report to middle management. Middle management is responsible for department or branch performance and enacts the policies and strategies of upper management, which includes general managers and branch managers. Upper management is the primary planning and decision-making group, traditionally reporting to a board of directors. 

What skills do you need to be a senior manager?

Being in upper management isn’t for everyone — it’s a lot of decision making, a lot of meetings and a lot of pressure. But if you have the following skills or are interested in developing them, upper management might be a good fit for you:
  • Leadership
  • Decision making
  • Long term vision
  • Communication
  • Mediation 
  • Punctuality 
  • Reliability
  • Emotional intelligence
  • Charisma

How to reach upper management.

An upper management cohort is going to look different depending on the company it runs. A startup with 12 employees is not going to have the intensity of the upper management system that Amazon or Walmart has. Since there are so many different types of “upper management,” as well as many different roles within it, there are several routes that can end in upper management. You can go from being in a marketing position to being a chief marketing officer (CMO), an upper-management position. Alternatively, you could be in analytics and impress enough of the right people with your work ethic and loyalty to go from being a business analyst to CIO. Perhaps a more “stereotypical” path would be one from human resources, in which you prove yourself in operations and eventually take on the role of COO. 
The best way to reach upper management is going to look differently case by case. But there are a few things that tend to majorly pay off, regardless of the situation. Being visible is one of them. Upper management positions are often decided through nomination, so you need people to know who you are. Attend company talks, seminars and trainings; go to company events and represent the company at outside events. Consider posting pictures of these things on any company social media as well as having conversations and relationships with people at different levels of the company. Another contributing factor is often taking responsibilities and opportunities as they present themselves. Going for upper management can’t be the first big leap or change you’ve made; instead, show that you are willing to go out on the edge, take risks and work hard. The last pieces that will always make a difference, whether the new position you want is in upper management or anywhere else, are dependability, professionalism and a history of contributing to company and peer projects.

Working with upper management 

Often, upper management will bring people in to work with them. These can be team-building consultants, public relations experts, assistants and strategists. If you find yourself working directly with an upper-management cohort here are a few things that may be helpful for you to keep in mind as well:

• You might be the expert, but the customer is always right. 

At the end of the day, upper management knows what they want long term for their company. Share your knowledge and help brainstorm but let the C-suite make their own futures. 

• Know when to say “no.” 

Chief officers have a lot of power, and sometimes, some of them forget (or never knew) how to execute it appropriately. If you are being asked to do something unreasonable, know when and how to best say no. 

• Remain calm.

There are so many big decisions to make in upper management that frenzy can ensue. A calm demeanor is often looked upon as professional and intelligent, so if you are known to keep your cool in a crisis, it will benefit your reputation among the influential team. 

• Communicate clearly.

Don’t communicate with upper management if you have a half-formed idea or aren’t exactly sure what you’re trying to say. Chief officers are often low on time and need specific information at specific times. Don’t worry too much about proving your intelligence or having small talk — that all comes in due time if you are known to communicate clearly and efficiently.

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