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As city, town, and county managers, we work hard to earn positions in communities where we can successively obtain better, more challenging positions as our careers progress. It can be disappointing and frustrating when we start a new position in what we believe is an ideal community only to discover underlying issues that weren’t apparent when we accepted the position.

The length of service guideline under Tenet 3 of the ICMA Code of Ethics establishes that a minimum of two years of service is necessary in order to render professional service to the local government. But after that, when is the right time to consider leaving a position? When is resignation the best course of action? What should we do when elected officials create a hostile work environment? How do we address personal attacks disguised as political arguments?

I considered these questions after reading a Boston Globe article in January of this year with the headline, “Littleton NH Town Manager Resigns over Select Board’s Anti-LGBTQ+ Comments,” and reflected on my own decisions over the course of my career.

Jim Gleason, the town manager in Littleton, New Hampshire, resigned due to a toxic work environment created by one of his elected officials, as well as some local activists, over public art that had pro-LGBTQ+ messages. The article indicated that Gleason’s son, who was gay, died from cancer several years earlier and that months of controversy took a personal and professional toll on him that had become so painful that he made the decision to move on.

Resigning is a significant decision, and there is no one-size-fits-all approach to figuring out when to do so. However, there are some key indicators that may signal that it is time to consider leaving your position and/or community:

1. Lack of Career Growth

If you are either an assistant or a manager and there are limited opportunities for career advancement or skill development, it may be time to consider seeking another position to advance your career. This can also be true for long-term managers in communities where transitional changes have occurred. The manager may feel as though they have accomplished all that they can in that community and that someone else with a new vision should have the opportunity to continue to move the community forward. If you’re an assistant, this can be an ideal opportunity to move up to a manager’s position, or for managers to move to larger, more complex communities with larger organizations and new challenges.

2. Unhealthy Work Environment

A toxic workplace culture where you may have serious conflicts with colleagues or your elected officials, similar to that experienced by the Littleton town manager, can raise stress levels beyond the normal, day-to-day stress that local government managers face. Other times there may be persistent stress points in the community that are outside the manager’s control that negatively impact your career or well-being, creating an unhealthy work environment. In Littleton, hateful comments from people in the community, including one of his elected officials, combined with his own family situation, created a toxic workplace in which the manager was better off leaving that position in a professional manner and seeking opportunities elsewhere.

3. Mismatch of Values

Misalignment with your elected officials’ values, or ethical concerns you may have with actions they take, can lead to both dissatisfaction and discomfort. Tenet 6 of the ICMA Code of Ethics establishes that we need to recognize that our elected officials are accountable to the community for the decisions they make, and our role is to be responsible for implementing those decisions. At times, these decisions may not align with our own values, beliefs, or professional opinions, but we must implement those decisions just the same. However, a sustained period of misaligned values creates additional stress, and potentially ethical issues, for us as managers. It can indicate that it’s time to begin seeking a position in a community with values more closely aligned with our own.

4. Burnout

Many communities have the pedal to the metal when it comes to taking on too many challenges all at once. If you consistently feel overwhelmed, exhausted, and unable to maintain a healthy work-life balance, it might be a sign of burnout. This can ultimately begin affecting your work performance, professionalism, health, and ability to juggle the multiple priorities that need your attention. Unfortunately, this is sometimes an issue recognized by our colleagues or families before we even recognize it ourselves. There is value in a regular check-in with yourself. Take a minute to determine whether you need to make changes at work. Add staff (if possible) to spread the workload, or work with your elected officials to establish more realistic goals that are within the organization’s capacity to attain. If this isn’t possible, it may be appropriate to seek a different position in another community that provides greater support to the staff and/or establishes realistic goals for the organization.

5. Inadequate Compensation

The time to establish your salary is when you are negotiating your initial contract--before the hard work even begins. After that initial contract, you can use established salary surveys conducted by your state association (if they do an annual survey) or undertake your own survey of comparable communities when you are renegotiating your contract. This should be done regularly to ensure you continue to be paid fairly based on the comparable communities in your area.

At some point, you may find that you’re no longer being compensated fairly compared to other similar communities within your area or statewide standards for managers. This can be due to changes in market conditions, rapid turnover in your area, or other factors. You should meet with your elected officials and review the information you’ve developed to discuss your salary. While never an easy discussion to have, in the long run, it’s better for the community and for you. If your elected officials are unwilling to increase your compensation to an equitable, competitive wage based on the size, budget, and complexity of the community (or if the community does not have the capacity to do so), it may be time to seek a position with another community that will consider your professional experience and will compensate you for that value.

6. Lack of Recognition

Sometimes it’s not compensation, stress, unhealthy work environments, community values, or any other reason other than the effort you and your team put forth is simply not appreciated. Our elected officials sometimes fail to recognize the motivational power of acknowledging the efforts that we and our staffs make every day, year after year. Feeling unappreciated or undervalued for your hard work and achievements can be demotivating, and it may be a sign for you to consider a change in position in favor of a community that recognizes, encourages, and values staff for continuously providing high-quality services to the community.

7. No Personal or Professional Development Support

A lack of training, mentorship, or support for your personal and professional development can limit your career growth. This is particularly true for assistants in our field, but is also true for managers. We work in a dynamic profession where we constantly need to evolve our skills and knowledge of best practices. If the community that you are working for has high expectations, but does not support continued professional development, then it may be time to consider a career change to a community that will provide the level of support for professional development opportunities to ensure that you can continue to develop your skills in all areas of municipal management.

8. Dissatisfaction with Job Responsibilities or Authority

If your day-to-day tasks don’t align with your interests and skills, it can lead to boredom or frustration. This can be an issue related to the legal authority under which each of us works. That authority may be granted by a state law, local charter, or special act. In some cases, the only legal authority may be granted through a job description, which may be changed at any time by the elected officials in the community. Often, the manager is given tasks to undertake and staff to supervise, but the manager may not be granted the authority to effectively manage tasks, have decision-making authority, or the ability to reorganize the organization to provide services more effectively.

In other cases, the manager may not be the appointing authority or have supervisory authority over staff, which can create a situation where there are expectations that cannot be fulfilled because the manager is burdened with staff that may have been hired on a political basis rather than for the skills necessary for the position. This can be frustrating professionally, and if the community is not willing or interested in addressing this type of issue through establishing adequate legal authority for the manager, then it’s likely a good time to begin seeking a new position.

9. Financial Instability

If the community is facing financial difficulties, it can create a multitude of issues, but also opportunities. This is not necessarily a reason to seek a new position. However, it can create a stressful situation, particularly if it requires service cuts, staff layoffs, operational changes, or a need to realign budgets. Depending on how a community reacts, this can be good because it gives you the opportunity to re-establish realistic operational levels and reimagine services.

Alternatively, it can turn out bad, as the manager may be blamed for taking the necessary steps and recommending solutions that the elected officials do not support. There are also situations where the manager may be making recommendations to correct the financial situation, and the elected officials do not follow through to approve the changes, so the manager is left with a budgetary situation that may not be balanced and could eventually result in negative long-term financial consequences, such as bond rating downgrades, audit issues, and potentially even legal issues. Depending on how the elected officials, staff, and community react, this may be a time when a manager needs to consider leaving a position to protect their mental health, reputation, and career.

10. Health Issues

Let’s face it, being a local government manager can be a demanding lifestyle. You will have long days, multiple deadlines to meet, multiple elected officials that you need to satisfy, multiple changing priorities, staff issues, legal issues, labor issues, community demands, and financial management challenges. All of this in addition to unplanned crises that can occur and can derail your well-planned, well-organized schedule. This can lead to massive amounts of stress, and if you don’t have a healthy way to offset that stress, it can lead to physical or mental health conditions. Other times, a manager may have a health condition that prevents them from fulfilling their obligations. If your position is negatively impacting your physical or mental health, or if you have a health condition that requires more of your time than is allowed, this may be a time to consider a change.

My Own Experiences

Looking back at my own career, some of these same factors led to my career-changing decisions. My first position was as a county manager, and I was already considering making the move into municipal government. When one of the county commissioners I worked for became difficult, I decided to let the board know that my current contract would be my last, and this encouraged me to get serious about making the change.

My second position was as a village manager in a community where the majority of the elected officials were removed from office for corruption. This included the mayor, who was then subsequently re-elected in a special election. His first day back in office, he dropped by to let me know as soon as he had three votes I would be fired for not supporting him during his trial. Supporting him would have equated to me perjuring myself. Instead, I upheld ICMA’s ethical standards for managers, and as a result I was terminated.

I was in my third position for the next 15 years, and toward the end I simply felt that I had accomplished all I could in a community of that size. I decided to move on and took the opportunity to serve a larger community as their first-ever town manager. Nearly a decade later, I left that position because again I had a single board member that became too difficult to work with, and an opportunity opened in the community where I currently work. In this community, I am planning to stay until the ultimate career change — retirement.

It’s essential to carefully evaluate these factors and consider whether they are temporary challenges or persistent issues. Sometimes addressing concerns with your elected officials can be difficult conversations to have, but can lead to long-term improvements in job satisfaction, which in turn can lead to positive improvements for the community. But, if changes cannot be made to address concerns and specific situations, then ultimately, the decision to leave a job should align with your long-term career goals and personal well-being.

Headshot of Jim Malloy
JAMES MALLOY, ICMA-CM, is town manager of Lexington, Massachusetts and served as the 2020–2021 ICMA president.

 

 

 

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