Top-Level Management: Definition, Functions & Responsibilities

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Jennifer Wiley-Cordone

What kind of managerial skills are necessary for meeting the challenges of running an organization or large department? Learn more about how top-level managers need conceptual skills, human relations skills, and technical skills to be successful.

We also recommend watching Planning as a Function of Management and Organizing as a Function of Management


'Congratulations,' you hear, as you step into the board room. 'We've confirmed your promotion to the senior management team!' You straighten your blazer and arrange your face to conceal your ecstatic expression. You're remembering all the hard work that brought you here. Then reality hits. You have some studying to do to get this right. Let's see what management theorist Daniel Katz has to say about the skills relevant not only to top-level managers, but to all levels. But, first, let's discuss what each level of management does and how information flow through the organization allows them to do their jobs.

Levels of Management

Have you ever heard the expression, 'Too many generals, not enough privates'? That's because the traditional organizational model has a pyramid structure of management - a few top-level managers, more middle-level managers, and the most supervisors (also called low-level managers). Workers aren't on the management pyramid, but you can think of them as the foundation of the structure. Generally, when there are too many top-level managers (generals) and not enough workers (privates), it's difficult to carry out big-picture plans. It's an expression that demonstrates that each level of management serves a unique purpose.

  • Top-level management is focused on market positioning through long-range strategic planning.
  • Middle-level managers deal with decision-making within their area of responsibility and implementing projects that will meet the strategic objectives of the organization.
  • Low-level managers directly manage the workers and take responsibility for the day-to-day operations of the business. They prioritize the tasks necessary to implement the projects determined by middle managers, which are in turn part of a long-range strategic plan.

Information Flow Through Management Levels

All members of the organization need the right information in order to do their work. Let's look for a moment at the movement of information through the three levels of management.

Managerial Levels, Skills, and Information Flow
Levels of Management Skills

The blue arrows in this image show information flow through the organization. Top-level managers draw in facts, details, and data from the managers below and from outside the organization then push that information down through the organization. They also report out of the organization, such as to shareholders or boards. Middle-level managers report information up to the top, share information with colleagues in other departments, and push information down to lower-level management. Supervisors get daily reports on the current conditions from the employees and report upward while communicating relevant information to workers.

Why does information flow matter to you as a top-level manager? Imagine you are setting strategy for the organization, but the workers aren't accurately or regularly communicating daily details to their supervisors. So, you have only a partial picture of customer needs based on those people who fill out online surveys days after they've been shopping. How can you plan an effective strategy? You might call together the senior management and set improved communication as your first strategic objective. The middle-level managers would figure out different ways to communicate better in their departments. Maybe accounting decides to create a company-wide wiki-spreadsheet or the head of manufacturing decides to redesign the daily reports, making them easier to use. Supervisors might start taking more detailed notes. When your strategic objective has been met, you'll have enough detail to set organization-wide goals.

Managerial Skills for Top-Level Managers

Modern management theorist Daniel Katz posits that all managers, not just those at in the top levels, need to have three types of managerial skills: conceptual, human relations, and technical. As you can see in the image, the mix of skills varies across levels. It also changes from organization to organization.

  • Conceptual skills require the ability to visualize the organization as a whole and deal with ideas and abstract relationships.
  • Human relations skills are those centered on communication and relationships with others.
  • Technical skills are those processes, practices, tools, and techniques necessary to carry out the functions of the area the supervisor manages.

Top Level Managers
Note that top managers still need to enough technical skills to set a reasonable strategy, but they use more human relations skills and rely most heavily on conceptual skills.

Middle Level Managers
Middle managers need more human relations skills than the other two layers. They also need conceptual skills more than technical skills in order to meet 'big picture' goals; however, they are expected to have more technical skill and less conceptual skill than the managers above them because they are 'closer to the ground'.

Low Level Managers
Direct supervisors need significant technical expertise in order to manage the day-to-day operations of the organization. They need some human relations skill in order to manage the workers, but they need less conceptual skill than those further up the hierarchy.

Think about where you are now - and where you'd like to be - in the management pyramid. How would you describe your mix of these three skills? You might find it useful to look at ways of increasing your skills in the areas most useful for the level of management you want to work in. Are there ways to expand your responsibilities to more closely approximate the next management level?

Lesson Summary

There are three levels of management identified in the classical theories of management: top, middle, and low (supervisor). Each level of management has a specific function: Top-level managers determine strategy, middle-level managers prioritize and implement organizational goals, and supervisors manage the day-to-day tasks of the workers. Information flows through the management layers of the organization based on the data people need to do their work. Managers, regardless of level, use conceptual, human relations, and technical skills, although the mix of skills required varies by level and organization.

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