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How To Become A City Manager (2023): A Guide

Nikki Dale
Nikki Dale June 06, 2023
how to become a city manager

What is a City Manager?

A City Manager is an executive that is responsible for the daily administration of a city. They work with politicians, and although the city manager is in a political position, they are not elected - instead they are hired by the city council based on their skills, education, experience, and abilities.

A city manager is responsible for the administration of a city, is in charge of hiring department heads, and is the 'face' of the city council, representing them in meetings and in discussions with the public.

Why do people work in City Management?

The city manager is accountable to the city council for the proper administration of all city business, and it is a powerful and influential role - which means that it is most suitable for those who are skillful in communication and diplomacy, with a good leadership style.

Being a City Manager is something that attracts those who are political in nature, and it has one of the highest levels of responsibility in local government.

Key Roles and Responsibilities of a city manager

The city manager has overall supervision and responsibility of city budgets, ensuring that all city development projects are completed efficiently and effectively and that all city utilities and services are implemented for residents.

The city manager hires department heads and city employee staffing at a senior level. They have coordinating control of all the major departments, including Fire and Police services, as well as public works and administration.

The city manager will attend all city council meetings and also meet with representatives from other groups in the city, including unions and charities. They will also speak to the media about projects and initiatives. City managers should take the time to listen and respond to the ideas and concerns of the residents and ensure that communication continues and all issues are addressed accordingly.

The City Manager Landscape

Being a City Manager is quite a niche role; not every city or municipality will have one - but they are often the face of the council and represent the different departments in conversations with each other and with the public.

The City Manager role is political in nature, even though the incumbent is not voted in. This makes it different from a mayor, who relies on local popularity for their title.

Being a City Manager is not an easy role to aspire to; the career path is not straightforward and there are often many roadblocks to reaching that career peak.

In terms of the industry itself, the first City Manager was hired to manage the affairs of Dayton, Ohio in 1913 - and this has become the blueprint for city management that is still in use today. Roles as City Managers are about as prevalent as the equivalent (elected) position of a mayor, but City Managers have a more hands-on administrative role and they tend to need more qualifications and experience.

Essential Skills and Qualifications for City Managers.

To become a successful City Manager, you need to have a number of skills and abilities, and most of them are so-called soft skills - the transferable abilities that make interpersonal interactions easier.

City Managers need to have skills in:

  • Communication - at all levels, both in writing and verbally.
  • Diplomacy
  • Budgeting
  • Project Management
  • Time Management
  • Leadership

Most City Managers will hold at least a relevant bachelor's degree, usually in something like public administration, business, political science or business. City Managers are more likely to be educated higher than that, with an MBA or an MPA (Masters in Public Administration).

There are other qualifications that can help, including Certified Public Manager credentials that can be gained - these are often state-specific, and they cover the fundamentals of things like finance, administrative management and personnel management.

Pathways to Becoming a City Manager

The usual starting point for a City Manager is to start with entry-level political work for the city. This might mean becoming a political aide or analyst, or working as a campaign staffer after leaving education.

Most City Managers are hired through the ranks, gaining valuable experience with every internal promotion.

In most cases, the City Manager will need at least five years of experience with progressively more responsibilities.

It is important to remember that although the position of City Manager is not an elected position, it is still political - which means that one of the best ways to secure a position at the head of the city is through successful networking.

What does the career ladder for a City Manager look like?

The City Manager is the most responsible position in the city, with general supervision and coordination roles among all the departments working for the city. City Managers are more autonomous than the elected City Council, which means they are able to make many decisions without needing a vote.

Reaching a position as a City Manager means starting in an entry-level position in the city, whether that is working as an aide, an analyst, or a staffer. Securing internal promotions can lead to a position as a department head, eventually, and then you will be looking to gain specific experience in a role like a city administrator or as an assistant city manager before you take the helm.

As such, the career ladder once you have become a City Manager just means getting higher in government, perhaps looking for a political position or working in the State or even Federal government.

What are the average City Manager's working hours?

The City Manager role is usually full-time, and while the majority of the work might be completed during normal office hours (Monday-Friday 9-5), city council meetings and discussions with members of the public might need to be attended outside of these hours.

What is the average salary for a City Manager?

According to Glassdoor, the national average salary for a City Manager is $64,077, but as a government position, it does come with some added benefits, like expenses and a company vehicle as well as a decent retirement fund contribution and bonuses.

Where can you apply for a City Manager role?

The best way to get started on your journey to becoming a City Manager is to look for open entry-level roles within the local city council.

Alternatively, you can reach out to political candidates that you support to offer your help as an aide or a staffer.

Applying for a role in local government will often be a structured process with several stages, and you may need to complete some psychometric assessments as part of that process.

Some of the tests you might be expected to take include:

Nikki Dale June 06, 2023

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