Maximizing Manager Success

Managers and elected officials can build effective working relationships, in turn creating more effective local governments.

ARTICLE | Mar 21, 2016

Cal-ICMA Tackles the Issues That Managers Find Most Challenging

Have you ever:

  • Found yourself in the middle of a dispute between members of your governing board?
  • Worked with elected officials who didn’t understand or appreciate their role versus yours?
  • Had difficulty getting your boards to understand limited resources and set project or service priorities?

If so, you are not alone. These are only a few of the challenges for city and county managers identified in a 2015 study by Cal-ICMA—the official state affiliate for ICMA members in California.

While local government management can be uniquely interesting, fulfilling, and meaningful, there are also unique challenges that are a natural part of the profession. Some in California believe that the profession in our state can do more to promote effective council-manager relationships, and therefore, the success of city and county managers.

Cal-ICMA, with the support of a grant from Bob Murray and Associates, undertook an effort to identify the most significant challenges faced by managers and to identify strategies to help managers address them. An additional goal was to determine how to make existing resources more readily available while identifying resource gaps and developing recommendations to fill those gaps.

This project, titled the City/County Managers Survival Skills Project, resulted in the report Challenges and Strategies: Maximizing Success for City and County Managers in California.

Cal-ICMA formed a project team of staff and volunteers, and also created a 25-member advisory group of managers working throughout California. The advisory committee convened through conference calls and e-mails to serve as a sounding board on a number of critical aspects of the project.

Two-Part Methodology

The use of both a survey and focus groups was determined to be the best way to obtain the views of more than 500 managers in the state.

With input from the advisory committee and using SurveyMonkey, an online survey was set up to obtain manager input regarding major job challenges and techniques to address them.

The project also collected a variety of demographic information. The survey garnered an approximate 50 percent response rate with slightly more than 250 responses.

Here are noteworthy findings from the survey:


Most significant professional challenges faced. These include:

  • The consequences of state actions and other outside factors.
  • Budget and financial issues.
  • Relationships with individual council and board members.
  • Conflicts regarding planning and development issues.
  • Relationships with unions and employee groups.


Most frequent challenges faced in working with elected officials. These include:

  • Councilmember/councilmember conflict.
  • Financial issues.
  • Personality issues and interpersonal relationship challenges.
  • Defining and respecting roles.
  • Policy issues.


In response to a question of whether technical or relationship issues represented managers’ greatest challenge, the challenge of relationships rated much higher by a 69 percent to 31 percent rate.

In response to a question regarding the techniques used by managers to strengthen their relationship with their governing board, the response was:

  • Goal setting: 87%.
  • Study sessions: 74%.
  • Outside facilitators: 44%.
  • Team building: 44%.
  • Code of conduct: 36%.


Respondents also had the option of providing narrative responses to the question regarding their greatest challenges. Key themes derived from these responses were:

  • Lack of respect for the council-manager form of government; role differentiation; micromanagement.
  • Managing difficult financial conditions and budget reductions.
  • Organizational impact of controversial issues.
  • Conflict between councilmembers and “outlier” councilmember(s).
  • Need for elected boards to set priorities and understand workload impacts and limited resources.
  • Demands of individual council and board members, versus direction from the council or board majority; bullying conduct by elected officials.


Focus Groups

The second phase of the project involved convening eight focus groups around the state with a combined participation of 75 city and county managers. The goal of the focus groups was to review and comment on the survey findings and to gather additional information regarding primary areas of concern.

The goal also was to develop recommendations to address these concerns and to begin to identify resources to help managers deal with these challenges.


Primary areas of concern identified in focus groups. These include:

  • Councils and councilmembers who don’t understand and value the council-manager form of government.
  • Uncertainty regarding how to respond to false or inflammatory social media posts and to what extent to be involved in the social media arena.
  • Councilmembers who attempt to interfere administratively and micro-manage.
  • Impacts of councilmember/councilmember conflict on the manager and staff.
  • New councilmembers not being prepared to govern effectively.
  • Dealing with bullies—councilmembers and public.


The focus groups then brainstormed potential strategies to help address these challenges. Here is a sampling of the ideas and recommendations from the focus groups:

  • Enhance state league training for elected officials, emphasizing best practices and using respected elected officials to communicate the information.
  • Develop a 1:1 peer-coaching program for managers using ICMA/league senior advisors to facilitate matches.
  • Experiment with regional peer support groups (Minneapolis and Chicago area examples).
  • Promote the use of facilitated performance evaluations.
  • Use ICMA’s Life, Well Run resources to help inform elected officials and members of the public regarding the council-manager form of government.
  • Use regional manager group meetings within the state to promote peer support and informal coaching.
  • Encourage the use of “community leadership academies” to help develop a pipeline for future elected officials.
  • Enhance the use of the Senior Advisor program to support managers in transition.
  • Create standard curriculum and materials for council/board retreats.
  • Create resource lists of retreat and performance evaluation facilitators.
  • Develop materials for executive recruiters to provide to councils and boards on how to attract, retain, communicate with, interact with, and evaluate managers.
  • Develop improved training resources regarding dealing with “outlier” council and board members or those with challenging personalities.
  • Develop training on how to address controversial issues that split the council/board.
  • Develop a toolkit of resources to orient first-time managers.
  • Encourage the use of self-assessment tools by managers to help assess areas of further personal/professional growth.
  • Develop resources to help managers enhance their communication skills to more effectively address inaccurate or abusive communications within the community (including in social media).
  • Better train managers to address issues associated with rapidly changing communities, including demographic changes, changing political alliances, and changed expectations and standards of behavior.



Based on the information generated by the survey and focus groups, a series of short and potential long-term recommendations were developed. These recommendations were premised on the need to coordinate efforts with other local government professional organizations within the state and the need to establish priorities based on resource availability.

Short-term recommended actions. These include:

  • Widely disseminate the report and its findings.
  • Review the findings and obtain input from the other local-government-focused professional associations in the state.
  • Develop, in conjunction with these associations, strategies to implement priority recommendations.
  • Reach out to organizations representing local elected officials regarding the findings to identify cooperative follow-up actions.
  • Develop a priority list of new and enhanced resources needed to support managers.
  • Create a depository on the Cal-ICMA website of new and existing resources to assist managers with the challenges identified in the report.
  • Develop a variety of media/forums to communicate the information.
  • Place a higher priority on addressing the identified issues at professional meetings/conferences.
  • Create a dialogue among regional manager groups throughout the state to enhance peer support.
  • Increase the distribution of ICMA’s Recruitment Guidelines for Selecting a Local Government Administrator to councils and boards.


Potential long-term actions and initiatives. Recommendations from the survey and the focus groups also identified a variety of followup and long-term actions. These include:

  • Develop a “Toolkit for First-Time Government Managers.”
  • Develop resources for executive recruiters to share with elected officials.
  • Develop resources around the concept of facilitated performance evaluations.
  • Identify and create additional resources for council and board retreats.
  • Explore “small circle” peer-support conference calls.
  • Develop additional tools to assist managers in “telling their stories” in regard to their work and the work of their organizations (building on Life, Well Run resources).
  • Enhance manager self-assessment tools.
  • Explore developing articles/presentations regarding dealing with the challenges of rapidly changing community demographics.


Taking the First Steps

Cal-ICMA, the League of California Cities, the Institute for Local Government, and the California City Management Foundation have joined forces to begin implementation of the report’s recommendations.

Here are the priority actions to be undertaken first:

1. Development of effective governance attributes and model protocols for effective council-manager relations.

2. Development of an online compendium and repository of council-manager relations resources.

3. Identification of existing resources and development of new resources to assist first-time local government managers.

4. Strengthening of regional peer support and peer coaching programs/alternatives.

5. Development of program content for specific League of California Cities conferences on the topic of council-manager relations and effective governance.

Fueling Success

This comprehensive assessment of the challenges facing California city and county managers has initiated an important dialogue regarding how managers can be more successful in their roles. This effort also has the potential of providing important resources to elected officials to help them partner with their managers to maximize organizational and community success.

All of us are hopeful that the initiatives and the resources resulting from this work will help support effective working relationships between managers and the elected officials for whom they work, in turn creating more effective local governments.


Challenges and Strategies: Maximizing Success for City and County Managers in California can be read at




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