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I have known for a long time that one day I wanted to be a city manager. However, city management is not always a linear path. City/County management as a profession can be complex. Roles and titles can vary by organization, by region, and by state. The specific skills required to be successful in one community may not translate to another, and there are a variety of avenues and career paths that will give you the experiences needed to be successful.

I have wondered how early career professionals get their foot in the door. I have tried to understand what combination of experiences, knowledge, skills, and abilities are necessary to do the job. I have asked myself, “Am I stuck in this role? How can I advance?” I kept trying to decide what path to take to get to my goal. But the truth is, it’s not about picking a path, but about figuring out how to keep moving forward. We have all heard of analysis paralysis—the anxiety of trying to predict the next move and proactively set yourself up for success can often result in an inability to take advantage of opportunities when presented. When I was completing my MPA, a graduate of the program was speaking to current students at an event. She told us that her success was because she always said “yes” to opportunity, even if she was not sure she was ready. That advice has resonated with me throughout my career and has guided many of the decisions I’ve made about job opportunities, experiences, and skills that I wanted to obtain.

Prior to becoming an ACAO, I served in the finance department in a large organization. It was a good position that gave me the opportunity to hone my technical skills. However, I felt that I needed more diverse experiences, so I took a position in another municipality as a management analyst. It was a newly created position that reported directly to the city manager. While at the time I was unsure how the position would allow me to grow, I knew that it possessed an opportunity to learn as much about the city’s operations as possible. The management analyst position required that I serve as central support staff for multiple departments, giving me the ability to understand the nuances, challenges, and opportunities in each area, and provide strategy and direction on behalf of the city manager. The time spent understanding and navigating each department through several initiatives, projects, and process improvement facilitation resulted in a fundamental understanding of how each department functioned, and how they could innovate, progress, and grow with the organization. At one point, I was asked what I would do to fix a problem in one of these departments. The city manager liked my suggestions and put me in charge of the associated project. The more this happened, the more my confidence grew in my ability to lead and provide direction rather than just receiving direction.

As a result, I had the great fortune of getting promoted into the role of assistant city manager, overseeing the departments I once supported. I won’t lie, I was hesitant when the opportunity was presented. I was doubtful that I was ready or fully capable of handling the responsibility, but I said “yes” in spite of my doubts. I knew that it moved me closer to my goal of being a city manager, even if it did not fit within my preconceived notion of my timeline for career progression. If I did not take it, what would be next? To keep moving forward, there is always risk. It was an opportunity to apply the knowledge and skills that I had developed, so I took it.

Unfortunately for me, this also happened at the same time as the COVID-19 pandemic. We were just beginning to navigate the new world of full-time remote work, virtual city council meetings, new state and federal mandates, lockdowns, and quarantines. Our business operations literally changed overnight. It would have been foolish to assume that I was fully prepared to navigate an unprecedented situation, and I certainly did not feel qualified to assume responsibility for several departments and tackle an executive-level leadership role for the first time in the midst of it all. Nevertheless, I made the decision that it was something that I could do, and that I had the ability to decide how to own the opportunity and make myself successful in the position. Nearly two years later, I am still navigating the ACAO role. It is constantly evolving and requires that I learn and grow with it. That would be the case whether I felt completely ready at the time I accepted it or not. It is the nature of the job. We each must decide for ourselves when we feel like we are ready to take the leap and accept change and new responsibilities when the opportunity presents itself.

While I did not expect to be an ACAO at this point in my career, I have come to the conclusion that longevity and years of experience aren’t always what qualify you to do the job. Intentionally seeking opportunities to learn new aspects of this career and proactively seeking different experiences, with or without an associated title, will position you for success. After all, it is not about knowing when you’re ready, it’s about being prepared when the opportunity presents itself.

KRISTEN GORHAM is assistant city manager of Chamblee, Georgia.

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