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  1. Blog
  2. Advancement

What Upper Management Is & How to Get There

Plus, which programs and policies aspiring women leaders should look for at future employers

Businesswoman holding her bag on her arm
Photo courtesy of BBH Singapore

Those working within the lower ranks of the corporate world may think that landing in upper management is as untouchable as becoming a celebrity. But this kind of thinking may hold you back from getting your dream job of running a company or department.

While the paycheck for these roles is of course enviable, most higher positions do require experience and dedication that you may need to build for many years in your industry. Let’s walk through what upper management really means, how things are looking for women these days, and skills and tips to work your way up to a top-level role.

What is upper management?

There are many terms out there for upper management, like senior management, top management, executives, C-suite, or just management. Upper management may refer to either a team or an individual who makes a business’s most important decisions. These are high-level thinkers who have to consider the big picture of a company: where it’s been, where it is now, and where it’s headed.

There are a few different levels of management, and these will vary by organization and industry. In general, there are top-, middle-, and low-level managers. There also may be upper managers who focus on administrative aspects of the business and those who are concerned with operations. Of course, there are department and team managers, but they may or may not be involved with the upper-level management of the entire business.

A good example is how the C-suite is set up: the CEO is the top executive, the CFO focuses on everything finance, and the COO is the operational leader. Enterprises may also have a CIO that oversees the information technology infrastructure.

Read more: How to Become a CEO: Ladder-Climbing from University to C-Suite

Women in upper management

As diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) initiatives are at the forefront of enterprise accountability these days, all this begs the question of where we currently stand with upper management representation for women.

In 2020, the Wall Street Journal reported that women lead just 167 of the top 3,000 companies within the U.S. While this number has doubled over the last 10 years, it’s still less than 6 percent. 

A McKinsey study found that between 2015 and 2020, women in senior vice president roles increased from 23 to 28 percent, and C-suite representation went from 17 to 21 percent. While this progress is encouraging, we still have a long way to go. Companies still need to to reevaluate how they give promotions and the qualities they look for when hiring, as C-suites have been far too homogenous for far too long. 

Another consideration is how a company gives credit to company wins. Women are continually undervalued for their contributions on projects, and men in higher-up positions take the credit. By shifting the focus to the women who are actually getting things done, companies make their accomplishments more visible. (This is an act of sponsorship, which we discuss further here.)

One trend that companies are taking to heart is providing better parental benefits, like paid leave and flexible work schedules. This helps mothers and fathers, ideally, take the time off they need and also foster more equitable partnerships, which in turn helps women sustain their careers.

Finally, offering mentorships to women can provide them support and guidance in leadership ranks dominated by men and help them leverage the networking connections traditionally relegated to boys’ clubs. A mentorship or sponsorship can help women build relationships that boost their chances for promotions and raises.

Women who are looking to work in upper management should keep their eyes out for companies that prioritize these considerations.

Read more: 15 New Women in Leadership to Celebrate in 2021

Skills needed for an upper management job

You may think that you simply need to be an expert in your field to snag an upper management job. The truth is, you also need an array of skills that go beyond your industry. These include:

  • Empathy

  • Integrity

  • Honesty

  • Communication

  • Prioritization

  • Strategic thinking

  • Decision-making

  • People skills

In other words, you need to be pretty well-rounded to be a good manager. You need a track record of coordinating projects and working well with other people. These are all on top of your lived experience working within the field, or a similar industry. 

Read more: How to Harness Your Interpersonal Skills in Your Job Hunt & Career

Tips for landing an upper management job

Now let’s walk through a few ways you can work to get a job in these upper-level ranks in your industry or company:

1. Network your heart out

Even with remote work soaring and the pandemic still a reality, networking is key to moving up. Whether you start with a mentorship, go to networking events, attend every possible social outing you can, engage people on social media, or ask executives for advice, there are lots of ways to grow your circle and get your name out there.

Read more: 7 Ways to Schmooze Your Network (the Right Way)

2. Exhibit initiative

Show your commitment by going above and beyond in your role. Don’t wait for projects to land on your desk. Always be thinking of new ideas and suggestions that you can bring to the table. Ask managers if you can take on a task before they have to ask you. This kind of initiative shows that you’re preparing to become a leader.

Read more: How to Make the Business Case for the Work You Do

3. Know your industry

Working in upper-level management will require lots of industry knowledge. Stay in the know about new trends, exciting research, and developments that impact your company. You can even create a channel online where you can share your expertise to build credibility and authority.

4. Don’t be afraid to ask

When you see an opportunity, show your interest right away. Don’t be afraid to let managers know that you’re going to apply for a role. Ask higher-ups what they’re looking for and how you can get there. Be involved instead of being an observer, hoping the right opportunity comes along or that someone will come to you with a proposal.

It’s not impossible to land a job in upper management, but it does take strategizing. The first step is knowing limitations that exist outside your control and what you can do now to start moving up.

Read more: Your Essential Guide to Driving Your Own Career Growth

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