Report summary: Changing roles for senior managers

A study for DfEE

As organisations’ business priorities have changed in response to market pressures, technological advances etc, so too have the contributions required of their senior managers. Whilst companies use a variety of approaches for articulating them, there are common themes running through what the ‘new’ skills and competencies look like. These trends have important implications for the ways in which senior roles are resourced and for the development of the next generation of top management.

The role and place of the senior manager

Our research challenges the relevance of thinking of senior managers as an occupational group. It shows that defining senior management is fraught with difficulties. There is an increasingly blurred distinction between jobs in the management hierarchy and managerial roles. Senior management jobs are generally characterised by a high degree of complexity and diversity both between, and within, employer organisations. The key variables that determine differences between senior management jobs include dimensions of time (ie future/present) and focus (external/internal):

Figure 1: Senior management roles differentiated by timeframe and policy

Figure 1: Senior management roles differentiated by timeframe and policy

Source: IES 1997

It is possible to draw a number of commonalties, however, across the objectives and responsibilities of senior managers. They are:

  • determining the organisation’s goals and strategies
  • resource management and business control
  • directing their part of the business
  • (increasingly) managing the environment
  • developing others.

The experiences of the employers participating in our research confirm that in pursuit of competitive advantage they have adopted one or more of the following broad types of change initiatives each of which has had important implications for the role and skill requirements of senior management:

  • changes to the internal structure of the organisation (eg divisionalisation, delayering, process and matrix management)
  • externalisation and greater market/customer focus
  • internationalisation
  • dissemination of information technology
  • organisational learning and employee involvement.

Changing skill requirements

Employers are reviewing their definition of the role and skills of senior managers to bring them in line with changing business needs. Competency based approaches are increasingly popular.

Employers typically expect senior managers to have the skills required to perform across four broad domains: organisational development and technical know-how; conceptual and cognitive skills; personal effectiveness; and people management skills. The latter ‘softer’ aspects of management style and behaviour are increasingly the focus of much attention.

Emerging skills gaps include:

  • an imbalance between generic and technical or functionally specific management skills
  • interpersonal effectiveness and a more empowering management style
  • the ability to see interdependencies when managing change.

General future skills issues can be inferred from organisations’ business priorities. They are likely to include a requirement for senior management capability in the following areas:

  • focusing the organisation on it strategic priorities
  • relationship building to maximise stakeholder value
  • motivating for performance improvements.

Figure 2: Changing requirements of senior management

Role Changes

Current Skill Needs

Emerging Skills Gaps

Future Requirements

Greater local accountability

Business vision/path finding Imbalance of technical vs. generic management skills
Focusing on strategic priorities

Larger spans of command in flatter structures

Influencing Interpersonal empathy
Relationship building to maximise stakeholder value

Project team leadership and multiple reporting lines

Project and programme management Holistic view of organisational interdependencies Motivating for performance improvements

Externally and internationally focused

Market focus    

Managing diverse stakeholders

Multi-cultural awareness    

Empowerment and the demise of ‘command and control’

  Information management + IT literacy    
  Developing self and others    

Source: IES 1997

Resourcing senior posts

The most influential factors employers take into consideration when filling senior posts include:

  • orientation to specialist or generalist
  • the required skills or competencies
  • relevant career history
  • potential to grow with the role
  • mobility
  • personal values: increasingly viewed as an important, but difficult to assess, differentiator.

In recent years many employers have increased the proportion of appointments at senior level from the external labour market in order to help meet a variety of business needs. Balancing the mix of external recruits with home-grown talent is a particular concern. Internal and external appointments to a senior role will have different induction needs on entry.

The recruitment and selection process itself continues to grow in sophistication, partly in response to the perception of greater risk associated with senior appointments in flatter organisational structures.

Developing the next generation

There are a number of broad themes emerging from employers’ strategies for developing their current and future supply of senior managers. Formal business education and training for senior managers is increasingly context specific, delivered in partnership with external ‘experts’, and focused on new business concepts and strategic learning.

The greater challenge employers face is to how best to support the continued personal or self development of senior managers. Many are experimenting with more individually focused approaches to learning including coaching, counselling and personal feedback.

Organisational changes have had significant implications for careers. Many employers appear to have lost confidence in the direct management of senior management careers. Several are finding new ways to address issues of succession planning and the identification of high potential staff. Others are beginning to use broader career development programmes, often as part of a larger change initiative. These have the advantage of serving to integrate business management education with personal skills development and learning from experience.

The study

The Department for Education and Employment (DfEE) commissioned the Institute for Employment Studies to conduct a programme of work exploring the nature of employers’ skill requirements within occupations. This report presents the findings of a study on the changing role of senior managers and the implications for their skills and competencies.

The study included: a review of existing literature; interviews with senior managers and Human Resource professionals in 17 large employers from a range of sectors; analysis of the competency frameworks available from 9 of the employers; and a forum at which the provisional research findings were discussed with participants in the study.


The report

Changing Roles for Senior Managers, Kettley P, Strebler M T. Report 327, Institute for Employment Studies, 1997.

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