Image of person considering which way to go

We like to write articles encouraging people to seek their dream job in local government management. We need excellent leaders as our city, town, and county managers. But, if one were to set out to design a senior management role that would generate lots of pressures and conflict, it might look a lot like the chief administrative officer (CAO) position in local government.

In this article, we address some of the realities that a CAO can find themselves facing. It is not to discourage anyone, but rather to examine how one should react to various pressures when things get tough. The position can be a recipe for a stress souffle:

• Start with five, seven, or nine elected bosses who may know little about public administration, may not like each other much or see eye to eye on major policy issues, and can fire the city/county manager at any time with or without cause.

• Add a maze of laws, rules, regulations, and rulings from federal, state, and regional agencies and courts and the legacy work of numerous previous councils and administrations.

• Mix in wide-ranging responsibilities for a host of critical safety, quality-of-life, land-use, and infrastructure services with more than a sprinkling of hot-button social issues that defy solution.

• Thin it with very real resource limitations and a lack of control over revenues.

• Fold in an often suspicious and demanding public with scant understanding of the constraints and system in which the CAO operates and a generally unionized workforce that feels underappreciated and underpaid (often because it is).

• Bake it in the heat of a polarized political environment, constant media and social media scrutiny, and negative commentary and sunshine laws requiring that almost everything the manager thinks, says, or writes is in the public domain.

• Voila!

How Hard Can It Be?

This job is not for the faint of heart. There are countless easier ways to make a living these days, even while providing public service.

The city/county manager plays a crucial role in making local representative democracy work and ensuring that effective, efficient, and equitable services are provided within the means of the city, town, or county. Local government management is noble, demanding, and satisfying in ways that many professionals cannot fully appreciate.

It is often said that there is no one best CAO profile because success in the position is so dependent on the fit between the manager, council, staff, and community served. However, these relationships are in constant flux. No matter how well suited the manager may seem on the day of hiring, the situation can be very different once a person assumes the role, as elections change the composition of the council and events shape the city government.

The first month or even year can be smooth, but inevitably there will be conflict, controversy, and stress — guaranteed! At times, the pressures may be so great that the manager cannot perform satisfactorily and needs to move on for their own well-being and the community’s good. There are other times when the professional manager must dig in and steer the city through the rough seas to safe harbor.

But how do you know when it is best to stick it out no matter how difficult the challenges are or when to seek your next opportunity?

Ethical Guidance

ICMA’s Code of Ethics offers a guideline on the length of service, which is instructive. It suggests a minimum of two years of service in a position as an appointed city/county manager or chief administrative/executive officer. The guideline qualifies this advice by acknowledging that in limited circumstances it may be in the interests of the local government and the manager to separate earlier than two years. The examples that are given include a council’s refusal to honor the terms and conditions of the manager’s employment, a vote of no confidence in the manager, or serious personal issues. It goes on to stress that short tenure should be the exception rather than a recurring experience.

When to Stay

There are many situations when the city/county manager may consider leaving:

• It is not uncommon for one or more elected leaders to take an active dislike to the manager. This can create very unpleasant meetings and public displays of disrespect.

• There will be times that the council refuses the manager’s recommendations, resulting in very negative consequences, such as budget deficits, litigation, union actions, and social unrest.

• Council-appointed commissions and committees and various citizen groups can become highly critical of the manager and make a lot of noise in the media and on social media, as can gadflies and city critics.

• A council can become so divided that the city manager spends virtually all of their time performing shuttle diplomacy between factions and urging council members to do their jobs as legislators and stop spending their time on political infighting.

• A staff service failure or scandal can lead to public calls for the city manager’s resignation.

• Some councilmembers may seek to direct the city manager’s actions in the administrative realm well outside of their policy duties. This can include overt direction to hire or fire employees or contract with or cease contracting with certain businesses.

Even so, stay. As difficult and unpleasant as these scenarios are, the CAO should remain in place to guide the council, staff, and community for civic progress — despite the heat!

Our profession is premised on the fact that a well-trained, experienced, and ethically grounded city manager is best positioned to advise the elected representatives of the people (the city council or board of supervisors), while skillfully managing the staff to carry out the policy directives of that body. That is the value-added proposition of professional city management that plays out daily across the nation and globe. When the going gets rough, the city manager’s leadership is especially needed.

Veteran city manager Mark Scott says, “I think of all the times I have drafted resignation letters only to throw them out at morning’s light. Then I make a list of all the reasons and conditions under which staying makes sense. Putting up with the traumas and dramas of the job is much easier when staying is intentional — not just something imposed by others.”

That said, city managers should take steps to avoid cynicism, burnout, and physical and mental health problems. Such steps include seeking mentors/coaches for support, separating their personal lives from their public positions, staying close to family and friends, exercising and vacationing regularly, eating right and avoiding self-medication, and seeking counseling if needed.

Our colleagues can especially be great sources of solace and support in the face of public and private stresses associated with our jobs. Who more than our peers can understand the pressures we face?

When to Go

While the council, staff, and/or community may need the leadership of the city/county manager amid a lot of adversity and disruption, there are scenarios that suggest it is indeed time to exit the position:

• If the council and/or staff have lost confidence in you, for whatever reason, you can no longer be effective.

• If staying in the position ethically compromises you due to corruption by the city council.

• If you lose all passion for the work and cannot summon the energy and fortitude to lead.

• If you are physically ill or emotionally distressed and cannot meet the demands of the position.

• If you become bored of the work and are simply going through the motions.

• If the council refuses to fully honor your employment agreement.

• If spousal or familial needs require a change.

The threshold question you must answer: Can you fully and honorably discharge the duties of your pivotal role, or would the council, staff, and community be better served in selecting a new manager?

It is perfectly acceptable to leave a CAO position for one that provides greater challenge, responsibility, and remuneration. Just keep in mind the two-year minimum tenure ICMA guideline and that real culture change in an organization often takes five to seven years. Your true legacy as a city manager is the strength of the organization when you leave.

When you make the decision to move on, think through how you’ll communicate your decision. Be sure to draft a brief, clear, and positive statement expressing your gratitude for the opportunity to serve and thanking the many people with whom you worked in the community. Resist the temptation to assign blame if your departure is due to poor elected leader behavior or weak governance. Take the high road.

Prepare for an Exit Even If It Is Not Imminent

Unexpected things happen. Even when things appear to be going well, circumstances can quickly come about that require an exit. You might have to draw the line on an ethical issue, find the discord too disturbing, or be taken by surprise with a firing even if you thought your relationships with councilmembers, staff, and community stakeholder groups were positive. An early mentor said, “Be committed to the job, but always have at least one toe out the door.” Do not think that this job is the only one you will have or must have. Be prepared for your future.

There are some things you can do in advance to prepare yourself and your family for future changes and to create less disruption on the home front.

Ensure that you have a severance clause.

A severance clause providing six to 12 months of salary and benefits upon termination is the most important component of any employment agreement. An adequate severance clause protects managers and their families and provides for a somewhat more orderly transition upon being terminated.

Accrue sufficient savings.

Sometimes it can take a year to find another job. If you have a severance of at least six months’ salary and benefits to cover basic expenses, you will still need another six months of savings to provide a basic financial safety net, plus peace of mind as you search for a new position.

Protect your reputation.

You want to retain your reputation as an ethical professional. It is your key asset. If you are well-regarded in the profession and have a reputation for doing the right thing and serving your community and organization well, you can successfully find another position and continue to contribute.

Maintain positive relationships with colleagues.

Other agencies will ask about you as you apply for positions. They will seek out colleagues inside and outside your former organization for information about you. It is imperative that you focus on positive relationships with colleagues (as well as executive recruiters) while on the job. If you are terminated or decide to leave, it is difficult to repair relationships if they are already damaged within the organization. Moreover, positive relationships help preserve your sanity in tough times.

Have the conversation with family about what would make you leave.

Don’t wait until you are under duress to have the conversation with people who matter to you. Talk with your partner, other family members, or an informal coach about any circumstances that may cause you to consider leaving your position. These conversations will help you think through the issues that we have identified.

In short, don’t wait until you are confronted with the reality of having to quit or be fired before you take steps to prepare for that potential. This is sound advice regardless of one’s profession but is particularly important in the top seats of local government.

At the End of the Day, It’s All About Service

We prepare for and accept these demanding jobs as city and county managers because we can help shape communities for greater safety, health, quality of life, and sustainability. No matter how altruistic our intentions, our hopes and dreams for cities may not be achieved. The pressures on most city/county managers are often enormous and ever-present.

Knowing when to stay and lead in the face of headwinds and when to recognize that it is time for new leadership in the position takes self-knowledge and the ability to think objectively about the needs of your city or county. You are not alone if you find yourself contemplating these questions. You have a lot of company. Use what is best for your community as your north star and be mindful of your own health. You will then decide correctly.


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. (

DR. FRANK BENEST, ICMA-CM (RETIRED) is a retired city manager and currently serves as a local government trainer and ICMA’s liaison for Next Generation Initiatives. He resides in Palo Alto, California. (

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. (



Practices for Effective Local Government Management and Leadership

New, Reduced Membership Dues

A new, reduced dues rate is available for CAOs/ACAOs, along with additional discounts for those in smaller communities, has been implemented. Learn more and be sure to join or renew today!