Illustration of person staring up at question marks

Your boss, the city manager, just announced that she’s taking a job in a neighboring city. Youve been the finance director for five years and have attended many council meetings, watched councilmembers come and go, and seen staff change. A couple of councilmembers have approached you about serving as the acting city manager when your boss departs. It feels good to be asked. You think the staff would welcome having a “known” quantity at the helm, and you would get a bit more money. Should you say yes?

Key Questions

The chance to serve as acting city manager is an honor and an opportunity for greater service and professional growth. However, it should only be undertaken with forethought and knowledge—and with eyes wide open. Here are a few questions to ask yourself before jumping into the deep end.

• Would you have sought it out if you had not been asked? Has taking on the top job been a career aspiration?

• Does the council respect the council-manager form of government? Do they respect the city managers role as well as the lines between policy and administration?

• Do you expect the council to respect your advice, including tough issues like setting priorities to match staff capacity? Or do you feel they are looking for someone who will say “yes” to them, regardless of the impacts on staff?

• Is the council expecting you to continue to run your department while serving as the acting city manager?

• Will you be free to return to your previous position if you are not selected to become the permanent city manager or if you choose not to compete for the top job?

• Are you clear that you are working for the entire council and not just a few of them, and take direction only from the council as a body?

• Are you familiar with the ICMA Code of Ethics and what behaviors are expected? Can you live with those expectations?

• Do you have a “clear north” about what lines you will not cross, and what lines you will not allow the council to cross?

• Are you ready to give up your peer status with department heads and become their supervisor?

• Are you ready to forego managing what will be your former department?

• Are you comfortable with negotiating and facilitating?

• Are you ready to be held accountable for the performance of all the departments under your purview as city manager?

• Are you ready to give up time with your family? And can you set boundaries with the council as to when you will and will not be available to them?

• Are you comfortable with conflict and making decisions, especially with imperfect information?

• Can you envision life in the fishbowl, where your every move, and even that of your family, may be posted on social media?

• Will the job give you some measure of additional joy?

Local government needs talented city managers. ICMA has long focused on preparing and mentoring professionals for top jobs. It is critical work. The city manager is the lynchpin and the hub in city government. He or she is the one who gets things done by working through a motivated and skilled staff and by giving practical policy advice to council. The city manager is the one person who can provide leadership and direction in a way that brings the disparate parts of the local government together.

The city manager can have great influence on the safety, quality of life, and sustainability of the whole community. He or she can be essential to the effective, efficient, and equitable working of local representative democracy. It’s a big job!

If you move from your department head seat to city manager, you will need to become skilled in facilitation and understanding a variety of interests, negotiating solutions, learning about all city operations, listening to what is said and not said, making decisions that may be unpopular, and being humble enough to recognize when something is going down the wrong path and course correction is needed.

Some Food for Thought

Your department head colleagues are no longer just colleagues, as you will now be the boss. You will need to be comfortable overseeing people who had been your peers. You will also need to rapidly learn much about all of the city operations, even though you do have subject matter experts as your department heads. It will be important to know enough so that you can ask the right questions.

You will need to be clear that you work for the entire council, and not do the work of individual councilmembers. It is not uncommon for an acting city manager (or a new city manager) to be approached by an individual councilmember with a pet project in the hopes that you will get it done for him or her, even if it is not something the entire council has adopted as part of their priorities.

You will need to have a clear set of principles that guide your decisions. There are some things that you should know you will do and will not do. The ICMA Code of Ethics will provide excellent guidance, as well ICMA’s ethics advisor. But fundamentally, you will need to determine what you stand for and how you will navigate political and ethical issues. For instance, will you tolerate councilmembers bullying your staff? Will you allow a department head to go around you to the council? Will you communicate equally with all councilmembers? Will you implement adopted council policy and priorities, and not the will of an individual member?

Be prepared for the learning curve involved in moving from department head to city manager. Many people have done it successfully. It takes a willingness to invest time in reading articles in ICMA’s PM Magazine, attending conferences, and most importantly, learning from colleagues. Having multiple mentors can be helpful. There are many ways to be a successful city manager, so having a variety of people you can go to with your questions and conundrums is a way to test your theories and get some perspective on how to deal with issues. Ask your council to pay for an executive coach for you during your first few months or so. It will pay off for the city in the long run.

Set expectations early with the council as to when you will and will not be available to them. If you really want them to call you at any hour, then fine. But if you cherish your time with family and friends, you should let them know that you’ll respect their time and contact them during business hours and would ask them to do the same (except for true emergencies, of course).

Establish from day one how you wish the council to communicate their requests for information to staff. If you start out by letting councilmembers contact any staff in any department, it will be nearly impossible to get that back. Your staff are not accountable to the council—only you are. You should determine before your first day on the job how you want those communications to land. If councilmembers should direct requests to you only, then fine. If it is to you and your assistant city manager or another one or two senior-level people, then that will be your practice. Whatever it is, make clear to everyone involved—the council and your staff—what your expectations are, including what you expect of your staff if they have contact with councilmembers. If you don’t know about those conversations, you could be blindsided, even if the conversation is benign.

Be sure that you have a thick enough skin. In the city manager role, you will be criticized by people who do not know you or fully understand your role. Do not pay attention to social media if you don’t have to. Focus on doing the job with the community’s interest first.

Be wary of an acting city manager role where the council is expecting you to serve dually in your old job. If that happens, you will not be able to do either job well. The one that is likely to suffer is the acting city manager role.

Don’t want the acting job so badly that you compromise yourself. If you don’t honestly feel that you can make the hard decisions or stand up to councilmembers that may be pushing boundaries, or if you’ll be so worried about criticism that it colors your advice, then best to stay in your department head role. Cities need and rely on skilled department heads.

Serving our communities as city manager can be a fulfilling career. It can bring great joy and satisfaction. It is a wonderful way to make contributions to good government. It is an honorable profession. But it’s not for everyone.

Enhancing Your Success and Minimizing the Risk

If you decide to embark upon the acting city manager adventure, then there are a few things you can do to aid in your success and reduce risk.

Establish a few goals for the period of your acting city manager service. What do you intend to focus on during that time? Meet with the council to enlist their concurrence and support.

Get agreement with your department heads about how you will be communicating with them and your expectations of them. This can include some simple protocols, meeting schedules, when to email versus when to pick up the phone, and how to alert you to when you might be going down the wrong path. Invite them to be partners in your leadership, but always be mindful that you are alone in the top job.

Be willing to admit what you don’t know and enlist mentors and coaches to assist you as you experience and learn the new role. Reach out to them and seek advice.

Develop protocols for council in communicating with department heads and staff. The council may view your acting status as a way to go around the city manager and directly to staff. Creating clear protocols before day one will help you, your staff, and the council work most effectively together. If the council is communicating with your staff and not you, you will not really understand the nuances of their thinking, and it will confuse your staff.

Don’t change who you are or how you treat people because of this new position. Trust that what got you to this point will serve you well if you are open to learning about a much wider range of issues, operations, and community needs and services.

Establish a clear understanding with council that you work for all of them, not only a few. If some councilmembers think that now they have an acting (or new) city manager who can get the things done that the prior one didn’t, even if it means going against council direction, then that will be a set-up for problems for you. Let them know you will be equally communicating with them and carrying out established council policy direction.

Discern whether the council expects you to be an administrative overseer or a “fix-it” person. Go into it with your eyes wide open and be clear with the council what you will and will not do.

Establish that you can return to your previous position in house if you decide the city manager role is not for you. Put this in writing. Have a written employment agreement specifying not only compensation but other key matters that are important to your success.

Having Considered All This, You’re Ready to Say Yes!

You enjoy your current department head position. You have mastered the job, are well-compensated for your efforts, and are respected by staff and outside stakeholders. And now you feel the need to further challenge yourself and make an even bigger contribution. In the end, take the job if you think you’ll enjoy it! Talented city managers are needed who understand the council-manager form of government and can foster transparent, professional government for the benefit of our communities.

You will find various resources available to help you, among which are:

• ICMA Senior Advisors.

• ICMA conferences, other regional and subject matter conferences.

• City managers in neighboring cities.

• The ICMA Coaching Program coaches – select from the Coach Connect online registry.

• Institute for Local Government.

Headshot of Rod Gould


ROD GOULD, ICMA-CM is chairman of the board of HdL Companies, a former ICMA Executive Board member, retired city manager, consultant, and supporter of all those who toil in local government service. (



Headshot of Jan Perkins


JAN PERKINS, ICMA-CM is vice president of Raftelis, a local government management consultant and facilitator, retired city manager, and a believer in good government and in the city management profession. (


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