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I Have to Ask: Assistant City Manager to City Manager

Posted on November 11, 2019


Ann Marie

ELGL co-founder Kent Wyatt poses a question and a guest columnist answers it. This week, Ann Marie Townshend, City Manager, Lewes, DE, makes the case for becoming city manager.


Often we think that local government professionals strive for the ultimate position of city manager. Throughout the nation, however, many professionals would rather be assistant city managers than city managers. Why? And what words of wisdom can I offer someone who is reluctant to that next step and apply for the manager position?

Career decisions and the decision of whether or not to step onto the next rung of the ladder are very personal decisions, and there may be reasons that moving to the city manager position just would not be compatible with a person’s interest, lifestyle, family situation, or skill set. The decision to remain in an assistant position is not indicative of a character flaw or lack of drive. But, for some people, the hesitancy to take the leap may result from fear of failure or some other insecurity.

Let’s face it, we have always heard it is lonely at the top, and sometimes this is true. As a manager, you will be privy to information you can’t share with anyone else. The role of balancing the small “p” politics with the professional management of your organization falls heavily on the manager, while the assistant may be more insulated. Managers are frequently contract employees and don’t have the same level of protections as others in the organization, including the assistant. With one election, everything can change, and you could be riding on a rocky road or even be shown the door. So why would you want to risk it all and go for the top slot? 

As manager, you are driving the bus. As an assistant, you are probably the right-hand person for the city manager, but there are probably also times where you would take things in a different direction. As a manager, you can take all of that experience you have gathered working with and for another manager, and you can use that experience to improve your community. As the manager, you own the decisions. Win or lose, you own it. While this can be a bit scary, your education, training, and experience have prepared you for this. As manager, you will set the tone for the organization. While your elected body will set the policy, you will drive how this policy is carried out within the organization and throughout the community. You are the sculptor and you will shape the city organization and the community. There is a sense of satisfaction when you can step back and look at the way that you have had a hand in improving the lives of people in your community. While there is a sense of satisfaction for all who serve the public, when you are in the driver’s seat this satisfaction is increased. 

Solving the unsolvable problem is gratifying. As a manager, the buck stops with you. The problems that can’t be solved by others in the organization get dropped on your desk. While this can be daunting, when you lead your team to solving the unsolvable problem, you feel a sense of achievement and improve the community. Of course multiple team members lend their talents to solving such a problem, but as manager, you harness the talent of all of your team members to develop the out-of-the-box solutions. 

You can establish the culture to deliver exceptional service.  As a manager, you set the tone and nurture the culture in your organization. We have all worked in organizations where the culture is toxic or where employees feel underappreciated. Sometimes as managers, we inherit such organizational challenges. As the manager, you are in control. That is not to say that changing your organizational culture will happen quickly or be easy, but the ball is in your court. With leadership, a strong team of managers, an open mind, and a lot of effort, you can lead your city to greatness. You can develop and retain an engaged and positive workforce who takes pride in the service they provide to the community. When your organization achieves excellence, you can make sure it is the team that gets recognized. If you establish a culture of excellence, engagement, and caring, your community will benefit. 

If you are reading this and you are a member of ELGL, you have enthusiasm for local government service.  If you are already an assistant city manager, you have the skills and experience to be a manager. While making this leap may not be for everyone, don’t let fear hold you back. Have faith in yourself. You can do it. And when you get stuck, you have a network of managers (and maybe your trusted assistant) who can lend support. The sense of satisfaction you will feel when you tackle the daily challenges, big and small, will make you glad you took the leap.

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