According to the international standard ISO 9000:2015, which is responsible for concepts and terminology, top management is a

"Person or group of persons who leads and controls an organization at the highest level".

ISO 9000: 2015-11 - Quality management systems - Basic concepts and terminology

What does the standard require?

So, according to this definition of the standard, this is a person or group of people at the highest level of decision-making authority. At this level, decisions are made about resources and responsibilities may be delegated. In most companies, these characteristics go hand in hand with a business management function and the corresponding authority to act.

At the same time, however, it is a typical normative term that is practically never used in everyday corporate life. In practice, people tend to speak of a managing director, top management or corporate management.

However, from the point of view of the standard, this designation does not apply in every case: because "the organization" is not always identical with "the company" as far as its management system is concerned. It always depends on the scope of the management system! Thus, from the point of view of the standard, "the organization" may well comprise only a part of a complex company. In this case, the top management of the organization may well be subordinate to the management of the entire company.

What are the responsibilities of top management in the management system?

The requirements for top management can be found in all modern management system standards of the ISO (International Organization for Standardization) in Chapter 5 "Leadership".

The responsibility of top management for the management system has increased significantly with the introduction of the common basic structure of the management system standards (High Level Structure, HLS) with common chapters, text modules and terms. For example, if we compare the quality management standard ISO 9001:2015 with its predecessor version from 2008, the first thing that stands out is the changed title: Formerly "Management Responsibility" has simply become "Leadership." And this is quite something: The scope of the chapter has grown by about 50%. The high level of detail in the requirements is striking: For example, in the first subchapter alone - 5.1 Leadership and commitment - ten individual action topics are described.

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So - in terms of the management system - top management must show leadership and commitment, for example:

  • Ensure that the management system achieves its intended results.
  • Assume accountability for the effectiveness of the management system
  • Establish policy and objectives
  • Establish roles, authorities and responsibilities
  • Integrate the requirements of the standard
  • Apply the risk-based and process-oriented approach
  • Provide necessary resources
  • etc.

What does "accountability" mean?

So top management has accountability for the management system, what does that mean? Independently of an accountability that it legally has for the whole company anyway, it now has to assume it for the management system as well.

Indirectly, however, accountability can also have legal consequences, namely when it comes to liability issues, for example with regard to the German Product Liability Act or other legal requirements. In case of doubt, top management can argue with the fulfilled accountability and the proven effectiveness of the management system implemented in its company, which in turn may involve the legal term "duty of care".

A key success factor for the functioning and success of the management system is the role model function that top management should have overall and for the management system in particular. This is because success depends above all on whether it can inspire employees to support the management system and to participate.

Top management in the certification audit

As a certification organization, what does DQS expect from top management when it conducts an audit? Leadership in the ISO 9001:2015 standard requires personal, active involvement of top management in the management system. Evidence can be found in the form of meaningful, fact-based management assessments, in minutes, personal messages, decisions and, last but not least, in consistently high quality products and services. Those who tangibly perceive their commitment to quality in such a way are well prepared for certification.

Review: The top management representative

A look back at ISO 9001:2008, the predecessor version of ISO 9001:2015, shows to what extent Chapter 5.1 has brought about a significant change. At that time, accountability was the responsibility of the so-called "top management representative", even though the standard did not call it that. This person, however, had to be a member of the top management and only report to the remaining members. With the standard requirements in force since 2015, this has changed decisively.


Top management is a term that refers to the management system of a company or organization. It does not necessarily have to be the top management of the entire company, for example if the scope of the management system only covers part of the company.

With the common basic structure (HLS), which all modern ISO management system standards have today, the accountability for the management system was transferred to the entire top management in chapter 5.1, which was previously held in a similar form by a so-called "top management representative".

The tasks of the top management have been specified and expanded in the current version of the standard from 2015. Rather, it must "take the lead" for the management system, provide it with the necessary resources, assign roles and responsibilities and, last but not least, act as a role model for those who have to put the standard requirements into practice in day-to-day business.


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Ute Droege

DQS expert for quality management systems, long-time auditor and experienced trainer for ISO 9001.