What is a manager?

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When you enter the workplace, you’ll have a manager. You might have heard your parents, friends or siblings talk about their manager. But have you ever wondered who they are and what they actually do?

In this guide, we set out to answer the question “what is a manager?” We also explore what they do, how you will interact with them and what to do if you experience problems with your manager.

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What is a manager?

The answer to the question “what is a manager?” is not quite as straightforward as you might think. In general terms, a manager is someone who leads a team or organisation. But let’s look at the different kinds of managers.

Senior management team

Three people in a business meeting inside an office, one at a board with post-its
The senior management team oversee the whole organisation,
its strategy and operations

Most organisations have a senior management team (“SMT”), the people in charge at the very top. This is usually made up of:

  • Chief executive officer (CEO)
  • Chief finance officer (CFO)
  • Chief operating officer (COO)
  • Chief strategy officer (CSO)

Sometimes these roles have different names, e.g. the CFO might be known as the head of finance or something similar. If you work for a smaller company or start-up, you might find that the same individual fills a number of these roles – or that some of them don’t exist. Different kinds of organisations have different roles on their senior management team. For example, a charity may have a chief fundraising officer or head of fundraising.

The purpose of these roles is to manage the organisation itself – its direction, strategy and where resources such as money and people are allocated. Although they are the most senior figures within the organisation, they may not be what you have in mind when you think of a manager.

Department heads

Most organisations are made up of different departments, such as the finance departments, customer service department and all the specific departments relevant to the organisation’s field of work or industry. For example, an engineering firm will have a civil engineering department.

Departments are sometimes broken down into smaller teams – for example, the civil engineering department may have a computer aided design team.

These departments and teams each have a manager. These managers usually report to the manager of the team directly above their own. For example, imagine a charity has a major donor team which sits in the fundraising department. The major donor manager will report to the fundraising manager. This means that the fundraising manager is the major donor manager’s boss. The fundraising manager may then report to the head of finance or the CEO.

Line managers

A line manager is someone with direct responsibility for an employee or employees. Your line manager is the person who manages your day-to-day work and who you report to. The more senior managers may be higher up than you but because they are not your line manager, they are not directly responsible for your work. This means that they shouldn’t set you work – all this should come through your line manager who ensures your workload is well-balanced, appropriate and manageable. When people talk about their “boss“, they're usually talking about their line manager.

What is it like to have a manager?

Most of us report to a line manager throughout our working lives, unless we end up at the very top of the organisation (even then, CEOs often “report” or are held accountable to the board or trustees).

Your line manager will have a number of responsibilities:

  • Plan the objectives and priorities of their team.
  • Manage the team’s budget and request finance where necessary.
  • Oversee and manage the workload and performance of the team.

It’s this last responsibility which will have the most direct impact on you as a member of the team.

A woman at a desk looking right and off camera
Your manager will carry out regular one-to-one meetings to
manage your workload and make sure you're getting on OK

Your line manager will:

  • Be ultimately responsible for prioritising your workload.
  • Work with you to decide your objectives – including your work objectives and any objectives you have for continual professional development (CPD).
  • Be a listening ear if you have any concerns about your work, colleagues or any other professional matter.
  • Help you with any areas of your work where you’re struggling.
  • Identify training needs and arrange training for you.
  • Review your performance.

Your line manager should hold regular meetings with you, sometimes called “one to ones”. These could be weekly, fortnightly or monthly. In these meetings, they will review some of the points above and relate them to your week’s work. For example:

  • How you are progressing on your project this week and whether you are on schedule. If not, looking at why this is and reorganising the timetable based on your feedback, or supporting you to catch up if you are struggling.
  • Making sure you are happy in the working environment and checking whether there are any problems, including with colleagues, distractions, equipment and so on.
  • Asking if there is any support you need to do your job better – for example, particular areas where you would like any training.
  • Giving you the option to raise any other matters, such as personal issues you want to talk about, time of you’d like to ask about – and maybe time for a friendly catch up.

If you’re looking for answers to more questions like “what is a manager?” take a look at our advice and guidance on working life.


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