The role of the assistant or deputy manager (ACAO) is a vital part of any local government’s success in achieving community goals and initiatives. ICMA has long recognized this role as being the lifeblood of any local government organization and has developed a key resource to help you flourish in this position. Whether your ultimate goal is to become a CAO, or ACAO is right where you want to stay, ICMA’s new Guidebook for Assistant and Deputy Managers is a critical tool to keep in your arsenal.

The Many Hats of an ACAO

Whether ACAO is already your title, or it is the next step on your career path, being familiar with what is expected of an ACAO is critical to mastering this role. Be prepared to wear multiple hats and see your responsibilities change from day to day. Some of the hats you can expect to wear are that of a role model for those both inside and outside of your organization, a bridge to and from the CAO, the “bad person” to the CAO when needed, and a confidant to the CAO.

In addition to the hats you are expected to wear, there are soft skills, responsibilities, and strong workplace relationships needed to succeed in this multifaceted role.  As an ACAO, you are expected to display loyalty to both the CAO and organization, execute forward thinking behavior towards all projects and initiatives, give balanced support of the CAO and other staff (especially in identified areas of weakness), and foster healthy relationships with staff and elected officials. To remain successful, you need a strong professional network to help advance your own professional development.

Hone Your Skills

While many skills will benefit you in the ACAO role, there are three skills that supersede all others. Big picture thinking, effective communication, and resilience are the skills that set great ACAOs apart from the masses.

Big picture thinking means you see your organization as more than just a single department or function, allowing you to act more proactively than reactively. The full and frequent use of your interpersonal skills is a vital part of your success in the ACAO role. You are expected to interpret the objectives of elected officials and the CAO, speak the language of department staff to communicate those goals, and relay critical feedback to the CAO and staff. Finally, resilience is one of the most important, yet often neglected, skills that is recognized as a defining characteristic in the modern workplace, especially in a role as demanding and ever-changing as an ACAO. This role can be more challenging and stressful than most, so a candidate with thicker skin will often be a better fit.

The Learning Never Stops

Complacency is a career killer. Even with immeasurable experience and a successful track record, there is always something new to learn. Seeking the guidance of a mentor or coach will help you hone your skills, equip you with new ideas and perspectives, and provide you with critical feedback on how you can improve.

When you decide that finding a mentor or coach is right for you, first make note of the attributes that make you a good mentee, as well as the ones that make for a good mentor. When seeking a mentor, choose one that serves as an example through their expertise as a leader, acts as a trusted advisor for professional and personal issues, and helps identify problems and viable solutions. A successful coach gives an alternate perspective, encourages the exploration of ideas, and suggests professional development opportunities. Most importantly, they provide information, honesty, and encouragement to others.

As a successful mentee, you need to be committed to escalating your skills, focused on achieving results, and clear about your career goals and gaps. Willing to explore different paths and viewpoints will provide you with the ability to seek and accept a diverse range of feedback. Once you meet with a mentor, you must be willing to act on feedback given and be accountable for your growth.

The More the Merrier?

You may not always be the only one in your organization who holds the ACAO title. With more hands comes more opportunities to accomplish goals, but also greater potential for conflict. Knowing how to effectively collaborate with other ACAOs is vital to the success of your organization and your career.

Many local government organizations are small enough to be effectively managed by a single CAO and an ACAO, but larger jurisdictions with more resources are sometimes structured to have multiple ACAOs. The roles of each ACAO often depends on organizational needs and experience, but always boils down to being a cohesive support system to the CAO. By far, the most important aspect of a multiple-ACAO situation is being an open and effective communicator. Conflict is inevitable with multiple people holding the same title, but it can easily be avoided or resolved with frequent communication of goals, boundaries, and expectations.

Read the full sections on these topics and more to help propel your ACAO career forward, by viewing the full Guidebook for Assistant and Deputy Managers. This guide will help you identify where you are in your current role, develop keen questions to ask yourself, and better position yourself to serve your team and community. Find this and more career guides here.


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