Whether you’re an internal or external hire, taking on your first assistant chief administrative officer (ACAO) role has many unique challenges that need to be embraced with a good attitude, flexibility, lots of humility, and perseverance.
The following advice should help you tackle the transition into an ACAO role for the first time.
People respect the person, not the title. The challenge of this phrase is for newly appointed ACAOs to find ways to build relationships to earn the respect of the team. As an outside hire in your first ACAO role, you are likely not going to know many of the stakeholders in your new organization. More importantly, these individuals will not know you, your skills, and how you can help them. There are several stakeholders that you will need to get to know in order to have a successful transition: internal staff, your boss, elected officials, and the general public.
To jumpstart the relationship-building process as an outsider, become an insider. While that may seem tautological, your goal should be to meet with as many individuals as possible as soon as possible. Schedule a ride-along with the public safety department prior to arrival. Walk through parks and speak with residents. Attend board or community group meetings. Don’t be afraid to reach out to your soon-to-be direct reports and schedule a meeting with them over coffee and donuts in a group setting. The more conversations you are able to have, the more people will start to learn who you are and how you will help them.
Conversely, if you are tackling your first ACAO role as an internal hire, you may be fighting already-established opinions and preconceived notions of your knowledge, skills, and ability to do the job. When your coworkers become your employees and must view you as their manager rather than their peer, it can be difficult to establish new boundaries and gain buy-in for what you need them to accomplish. They may not immediately view you as a leader and it may take some time to establish your position and expectations to get the job done. This can be tricky as they may already know your blind spots and you do not have the benefit of being unknown. If a former peer now directly reports to you, you may have to create clear boundaries with them. Your level of professionalism and engagement with your coworkers may need to be examined.
As a new ACAO, it is sometimes hard to shift your mindset from being a doer to a director. It is OK to give up some control over deliverables in order to accomplish large-scale organizational goals and policy objectives. To put it simply, you can’t always be the “boots on the ground” person. While it may feel like a loss of control, you shouldn’t overly involve yourself with things that your staff can handle independently. Your capacity as a manager and a leader will dwindle the more you involve yourself in the minutiae of operational tasks and deliverables. Your staff will feel as though you do not trust them to do their jobs, and you simply cannot provide good direction and oversight when you are too into-the-weeds on any given task.
The City Manager/CAO Relationship
One of the most important relationships you will need to foster is with your chief administrative officer (CAO). As with any relationship, trust and communication are critical. If you and the CAO are on the same page, then you will all be able to carry the same unified message throughout the organization. Be someone they can trust to be honest with them; have tough, candid conversations; and provide thoughtful and well-informed feedback. Make sure they know you are on their side and are working on their behalf. In doing so, you can help push boundaries on current practices and grow your organization to new heights.
Many seasoned assistants will tell you that “your job is to make the CAO look good.” Advice like this can feel like we are being told to subscribe to group think or sing the praises of your CAO. In reality, you represent the CAO and are an extension of them. How you are perceived is how they may be perceived as well. Make sure you represent them appropriately and are not engaging in office gossip or behavior that does not represent the organization or CAO well. Part of our role is to challenge our CAO’s thought process and to be a direct confidant for new ideas or recommendations. Your CAO will be looking at you to play the role of skeptic in order to identify potential pitfalls before they occur. Making the CAO “look good” is less about praise and more about ensuring that the programs, policies, and offerings of your organization advance strategic priorities that benefit the community.
Lastly, it is important to find your own management style. Whether you already have established relationships with employees and other members of leadership or are new to an organization and trying to gain the trust of your team, it may feel strange to make any substantial changes to how things should be done. When you’re a first-time ACAO, it may feel as though you must adopt the management style of the CAO. However, your job is to balance the CAO’s management style with your own in a way that accomplishes the goals of the organization. Don’t be afraid to find what works best for you and your team. If you find a management strategy that is effective, it benefits the CAO, too. Learn to tailor your management style to the needs of your organization and remember that you have time to grow into the role and learn what works best. Approach your role with humility, flexibility, and perseverance, adapting as you go and allowing yourself to grow into the position over time.