I Have to Ask: It’s Lonely at the Top

Posted on December 10, 2018

Arlington Heights
Village of Glencoe, IL

In this series, guest columnists respond to one of three topics selected by ELGL co-founder Kent Wyatt. This week, Randy Recklaus, Village Manager, Village of  Arlington Heights, IL and ELGL Traeger Award winner, compares and contrasts the roles of assistant city manager and village  manager. 

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When I was the Assistant CAO in a suburban town, I truly believed I was ready to move up to be a CAO. I had been in my role for 10 years. I had a lot of responsibilities, the respect of my boss, the Board, the community, and the organization. But as it turns out, being an Assistant CAO and a CAO are two very different jobs. Since then, I’ve made the transition to CAO. But I had to learn some hard lessons along the way. If you are looking to make a transition to be a CAO soon, there’s a couple of things you should know:

  1. Be prepared to feel Isolated. Like the saying goes, its lonely at the top. When you are an Assistant CAO, no matter how difficult a decision or project is, you always have someone (your boss) to tell you “you are on the right track”, “keep it up”, or “you are doing the right thing”. When you are the CAO, there will be many times when all the different players want you to do something other than what you are doing. There will be other times when you have to choose between two options, each of which will alienate someone you respect. The worst part is, you may never know if you made the right decision. No one will tell you that you did it right, other than people who are self-interested in that decision. But you still have to live with it. Every choice has negative consequences and critics will always blame you for the negative aspects of what you have done. Could it have been done better? You may never know. You cannot dwell on those situations, you have to move on- and that is HARD.  Many leaders take refuge in surrounding themselves with yes people, for that very reason. There will always be people around you willing to tell you did the right thing, in order to get what they want. You shouldn’t listen to them anymore than you listen to your worse critics. Your Board will also not give you comfort. When majority supports you on a decision, members often vote for it for different reasons. You often can’t take comfort in their support as that support can be arbitrary or situational. So the bottom line is, you have to be comfortable with being uncomfortable.
  2. You can’t do everything the way that you want. People usually get promoted because they are good at certain things. But when you get promoted you are in a new role and you have to let other people do what you used to do. Many of them will not do it as well or the same way as you did. That can be very hard to watch. Imagine this, you are in a new job, you are finding that you sometimes aren’t sure of yourself and what you are doing, but you see one of your employees muddling through a project that you would’ve sailed through. You crave the certainty of being excellent again. You are the boss, you can tell that employee how to do their job right? Make them do it your way? Right? Wrong? You have a job to do and they have a job to do. And just because they don’t fill out a TPS report the same awesome way you did, doesn’t mean you should drop everything you are doing to redo their work. The net result is, your work doesn’t get done. While incompetence and mediocrity needs to be addressed, you can’t do other people’s jobs for them. This is a slippery slope and one that I have found myself slipping down many times.  Being the boss doesn’t mean everything gets done the way you want- it means you set the priorities, the tone, and allocate resources and live with the rest.
  3. Working with the Board is harder than it looks. If you are an Assistant CAO and you are always waiting on the CAO to get back to you, you often wonder: what the heck is he or she doing all day? The answer: he or she is probably working the Board. The amount of time you spend talking to, writing to, and worrying about your Board is one of those things they don’t teach you in grad school and that you really can’t appreciate until you sit in the big chair. It is hard to have 7 to 9 bosses that often don’t agree, or even like each other, with varying levels of enthusiasm, trust, and communication skills. Board members have a way of calling you when you least expect it with questions or concerns you’ve never considered. Your schedule can and will be hijacked by Board requests regularly. You will struggle with how much information to give to your Board. It will make your days very uneven. It can be emotionally draining as you will not always be able to please them. At times Board members will not like being in the minority on an issue and will take it out on you. But you still have to do what is needed to maintain a relationship with them. This takes energy and time away from your passion projects, long term planning, and the management of your team. This will also make you second guess yourself. When you have an upsetting conversation with a Board member you need to be able to recover and move to the next project or meeting without missing a beat.

If that all sounds hard, it is. But I do have to say, for me it has been worth it. Despite the challenges, being a municipal CAO is still the best job I’ve ever had, but its not always what I thought it was going to be. When you think you are ready to make the change, just remember, be prepared to be a little unprepared and its lonely at the top!

Supplemental Reading

Shout Out: Randy Recklaus, Arlington Heights village manager

With Police Station Work Mostly Done, Village Shifts Focus To Sewers, Streets

Arlington Heights storm response, by the numbers

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