The wrong education & a job title no one understands: A young woman straightening out her crooked path to CAO
My path into local government administration is best described as a happy accident but also completely strange. I met my boss at a Rotary luncheon one day and he asked me if I wanted a new job. At the time I was an administrative assistant to the C-Suite of a local beer distributer—a job I was grateful to have during the recession, but not at all a career path by any means. He observed my public speaking and knew I was active in my own home town government, and thought I was ready to move into a new career.
So I walked into a new job with no formal training in local government management, serving a community of over 100,000 people. Within a year I was promoted to “Deputy Supervisor,” an appointment that comes with an Oath of Office and real, actual authority. When I try to explain my position to others (my elevator pitch) I describe my job as being an assistant city manager and chief-of-staff. This is a fairly accurate representation, because all of our department heads report to the Office of the Supervisor.
My professional circumstances are also complicated by the fact that I thought I was going to be a teacher, so I have two degrees in Modern European History. I wrote my master’s thesis on typography in the Third Reich—specifically the juxtaposition of modern sans serf fonts and the traditional German Fraktur and how they were used on political posters. So… not exactly relevant to enforcing our new security camera ordinance or adjusting water and sewer rates.
So here I am. Three and a half years later… I am a young(ish) woman in an at-will appointed government administrative role that very few people understand and my title sounds like I was issued a badge and a firearm.
Sounds a little scary, right?
Well it is, but I decided that it doesn’t need to be.
When the time comes (and it will come—sooner rather than later) for me to apply for a CAO position, I must differentiate myself. As us #13Percenters know, the odds are not exactly in our favor—even in the best of circumstances.
I also know I am not the only woman out there who has had trouble defining her role within the local government hierarchy—whether you are an assistant, administrative aide, department manager, deputy, or whatever funky title you inherited from the set of Working Girl.
So here are some ways I’ve been helping myself prepare for my future, and hopefully the step up to CAO.
Take on as many leadership roles as you can & join as many professional organizations as you can.
You can be a great assistant city manager or deputy while also carving out your niche as a leader. I have planned many community programs and events, creating committees comprised of department heads, elected officials, and members of the public.
I specifically ASK to be in meetings and to lead projects. (Most of your department heads won’t mind, btw.) Join local community organizations and get involved in professional organizations. ELGL is fantastic (thank you Bridget Kozlowski!) so are ICMA, ASPA, ULI and others. And don’t just pay your annual dues–get involved.
Never stop learning.
If your municipality offers tuition reimbursement – take it! Take all of it!
I have taken full advantage tuition reimbursement every single year since I began my job in April of 2014. I have 5 classes left and I will have an MBA in Leadership. Classes in human resources and management have helped tremendously. So if you are like me and you ascended into local government management with liberal arts degree in British Literature, Astronomy, or minored in Ceramics (guilty!) … don’t give up.
Retrofit your education to your new career path.
Speaking of continuing education… this is very, very specific advice but I highly recommend that you—and particularly the women who are reading this—become a certified Emergency Manager. Are you an assistant in the planning department? Good! Office Manager for the Building Department? Excellent. You could be your community’s next EM. Do not let the fire or police departments lead you to believe that only law enforcement or first responders should have that role (or that emergency management is the realm of men).
Most facets of emergency management involve risk mitigation and planning—all administrative functions of government (this includes zoning requirements and building codes). If you plan to move from assistant to top-dog, this will be a huge differentiator on your resume.
Did you know FEMA has FREE independent study courses online—and you get a certificate for each course you complete? Yes!
Do you want to know what roof type is better suited to hold up to straight-line tornadic winds? Guess what? It’s a hip roof, baby! Day dreaming of becoming the City Manager of Key West? Make your dream a reality and take a 10-hour course on residential coastal construction. You’ll be able to pack your bags and head to the Sunshine State in no time. FEMA issues a student number in seconds. Earn your first certificate today while you sit at your desk eating Jimmy John’s #4 extra tomato, no mayo.
Get to work an hour early every single day for 6 months.
I dare you. I double dog dare you. I TRIPLE DOG DARE YOU.
When I began my role as Assistant to the Supervisor, I was treated like a glorified secretary. It was a bit frustrating, but it was my own darn fault. I was lulled into complacency when I saw some of the other staff rolling into work five or ten minutes late… oh… and the excuses: I needed to get gas! The roads were bad! I shared my frustration with my dad and he told me to get to work an hour early every day for 6 months; it was the best professional advice I ever received.
Do your front-line employees get to show up late when the parking lot needs to be plowed after a blizzard? No way. They arrive at o-dark-thirty. Your street cred must be earned, and it is entirely in your hands to earn it. This is especially important if you were appointed by an elected official—many of the other staff will already think you are treated with favoritism. If you want to move from assistant to CAO you must lead by example.
Know this: that first quiet hour of the day before the office opens is the best time for you to clear your mind, get organized, and plan your future.