I received a piece of advice early in my career about when one ought to become a chief administrative officer: make sure the time is right because arriving too early can be damaging both to your reputation and resume. So it begs the longstanding question, when do we really know we’re ready for the job?
First, I would be amiss and foolish if I did not recognize this reality: city/county managers have perhaps the most sprawling, complex set of management challenges in the business world—public or private. This goes to the root cause of one’s career planning dilemma. At the end of the day, becoming a city manager is often an arduous process and a road filled with constant learning and refining of both technical and soft skills. No one truly masters the art of “knowing it all” (thinking otherwise is to your own detriment), but it’s the one that never stops learning that gets close!
Personally, after 15 years of local government experience and working in four departments, holding seven different titles, obtaining an MPA, attending countless training, capitalizing on expanded peer networks, and holding numerous professional memberships, I still hear an internal voice saying that it’s too early to apply. Longevity isn’t what is most important; it’s a matter of learning one’s trade while taking advantage of all the counseling and advice available to you.
So when will I be ready to be city manager? When will I have arrived, so to speak? These questions remind me of a story I heard years ago about an ant and a centipede. One day the ant asked the centipede, “How do you know which leg to move next?” The centipede pondered the question for a while and said, “Honestly, I’ve never really thought about it before.” But the more the centipede thought about the question, the more confounded he became until finally he so was confused that he could not walk at all.
What a great illustration of how we, too, can get so wrapped up in pondering the perplexities of our next career move that we fall victim to paralysis by analysis. As we become blinded by future decisions we miss out on present opportunities.
However, if and when the epiphany finally hits, it will undoubtedly come from one source—ourselves. Please don’t get me wrong, because I do believe there is wisdom in a multitude of counsel; it’s just that our mentors, colleagues, and friends cannot make this decision for us.
But on that day when our time finally comes, Lord willing, let us not go it alone, but continually lean on those who helped us get there. And when we decide to hang it all up for retirement, hopefully, we’ve made a real difference and improved lives through our passion, ample aptitude, and the right attitude.
I don’t want to be the centipede, so one of these days soon I’m going to take the next step in this exciting profession—with all of my feet!