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Career Compass #60 – “I Don’t Like My Mid-Manager Job!”

113339_Frank's 2016 photo (003)
Sponsored by the ICMA Coaching Program, Career Compass is a monthly column from ICMA focused on career issues for local government professional staff. Dr. Frank Benest is ICMA’s liaison for Next Generation Initiatives and resides in Palo Alto, California. If you have a career question you would like addressed in a future Career Compass, e-mail or contact Frank directly at Read past columns at

I’m a mid-manager supervising an engineering/capital projects group. I was promoted into this role two years ago. While I am good at overseeing the work plan, pushing out the work, and holding people accountable, I am not enjoying the position.

Our capital projects take a long time to complete. When we are in the midst of one effort or another, my group gets called upon to take on another “priority” project or respond to some demand or challenge from a higher-up. For my team and me, it’s endless and, therefore, difficult to stay motivated.

In addition, there’s a lot of change happening in our organization with respect to new priorities, systems, and ways of doing things. Top management is always leaning on mid-managers to communicate the change and make it happen.

I always seem to be in the middle, with my public works director making constant demands and our group members demanding support and resources. It’s difficult to be caught in the middle. Moreover, I don’t feel that the role of mid-manager gets much respect from top management. And I don’t sense that those below me fully appreciate the role.

To make matters worse, I feel lonely at work. I have a family that I cherish but I spend most of my waking hours on the job. I used to be one of the team members but now that I’m a manager I have no close social relationships with those in my group. I try to provide support but I don’t get any.

Can you help me figure this out?

wavey line

You feel caught in what has been called the “middle-manager vise.” Top management is making demands on you, and your direct reports are making demands on you. Even though you ensure that your group gets the work done, it doesn’t seem fulfilling and you don’t feel much support.

In some ways, the role of mid-manager has changed. It is true that the IT revolution now allows employees to communicate with anyone throughout the organization or outside the organization. Mid-managers are no longer gate-keepers of critical data or financials or general “intelligence,” all of which are now available to all.

However, in my view, mid-managers are more important than ever. With more and more uncertainty and disruption, good mid-managers play a critical role in engaging employees and making positive change happen. More on this role below.

Here are my suggestions to become more self-fulfilled in your position.


Embrace the role
Each of us must determine what kind of work provides meaning and satisfaction. You might decide that management is not for you since the work may not feel sufficiently engaging or joyful.

I personally find the role of manager and leader to be energizing and full of purpose. Why? Because, amidst all the resource constraints and competing demands, a manager serves the team and helps the team make a difference in organizational or community life. Service to others has enriched my life. (See Career Compass No. 41: The Post-Heroic Leader.)

Certainly, serving as mid-manager is one of the toughest roles in local government and is much more complicated than pushing out the work and responding to all the demands from the top and the bottom. In uncertain and volatile times, the governing board, chief executive, and key stakeholders in the community are all making demands. Successful change occurs (or does not occur) in the middle of the organization.

The governing board and top management might make pronouncements about new internal or external initiatives, but that doesn’t make them happen. Real change for the better requires that active and effective mid-managers;
Understand the change.
Communicate the compelling rationale (the “why”) for the change.
Engage employees in shaping the change and making adjustments.
Ensure that progress is made.

Yes, top management needs to envision a better future. However, it’s all about the effectiveness of mid-managers to rally people around the positive change and make it happen in the trenches. Mid-managers are the key levers of change.

You must also understand your role as a boundary-crosser. Any initiative of significance involving your group requires that you exit your silo and cross boundaries. For instance, a community center improvement project requires that you engage the Parks and Recreation Department personnel, budget, and utility staff, along with key user groups in order to successfully complete the project. When you cross a boundary, you must start conversations, convene internal and external stakeholders, facilitate problem-solving, and mobilize action—all in an environment where anyone might be able to block or veto your efforts forward.

Leading by crossing boundaries is a difficult yet stimulating role for mid-managers. Therefore, I urge you to understand that your role as a mid-manager is critical and embrace it.


Explore the meaning of the work
Yes, it often feels to you and your group that the work never ends. There is always more work.

I suggest that you and your team take the time and discuss the meaning behind the work. What is the meaning behind an upgrade to the corporate maintenance yard? What will a new library mean to the community? What will the replacement of sewer lines mean for public safety and health?

Are you sharing stories from those benefitting from your capital projects? Are you occasionally inviting internal or external users or customers to your group meetings to discuss the difference that your team is making. Stories are the most powerful way to communicate meaning (see Career Compass No. 50: Storytelling—A Powerful Way to Lead and Communicate).

Meaning is the great motivator and makes the work worthwhile.


Focus on progress
It is easy for you and your group to get overwhelmed with a large project or effort that continues over several years. Consequently, you must help yourself and your team members focus on progress. In their book The Progress Principle, Teresa Amabile and Steven Kramer suggest that people will stay motivated if they see distinct progress along the way.


As you and your group successfully meet milestones or complete projects, you must help the team celebrate. We in local government are terrible at celebrating success. Upon completing one project, we immediately move to the next effort. Take a time-out, bring some coffee and bagels to a staff meeting, congratulate everyone, help everyone savor success, and celebrate the team. I call this “purposeful partying”—party with a purpose.


Advocate up
While top management makes demands on you and your group, it is important and appropriate for you to represent the needs of your team and “advocate up.” Just as you make demands of direct reports in order to be responsive to top management, you must also make demands of senior managers (for example, requesting that top management provide more resources or prioritize issues).

Your role is to respectfully ask of department heads and other top management

  • What is the vision or direction?
  • Where does this issue fall in terms of our other organizational priorities?
  • Given the “messiness” that is inherent in this new initiative, how realistic is the timeline ?
  • This is what I’m willing to do. What are you willing to do?
  • This is what I think. What do you think?

It might be difficult at first to “talk truth to power,” however, assuming you are respectful yet forthright, you will gain respect in turn. Moreover, it is self-fulfilling knowing that you support your group and represent their valid needs and interests. Finally, it is imperative that you provide strategic input to any new initiative since you operate in the real-world trenches.

As levers of change, effective mid-managers influence those above as well as those below in the organizational hierarchy (see Behnan Tabrizi, “New Research—What Sets Effective Middle Managers Apart“,, May 8, 2013).

sixReconceptualize your role
Mid-managers must ask themselves if they are doing the right work. Like you, many mid-managers see their primary responsibility as “pushing out the work” and “overseeing staff” (a nice way of saying “making sure there are no screw-ups”). Certainly, mid-managers do need to ensure that work gets done and people are accountable for their assignments. However, let me suggest that mid-managers have an equally important role as teachers, coaches, and talent developers (see Career Compass No. 46: Leading By Letting Go).

As you engage your direct reports in new projects, are you providing them with opportunities to stretch and grow? Within certain guiderails, are you providing autonomy in how the works is done? As a manager, are you a “multiplier” or “diminisher”? (see Liz Wiseman, Multipliers—How the Best Leaders Make Everyone Smarter). Good leaders ask how every problem can be solved in a way that develops other people’s capacity to handle the problem.

The roles of coach, talent developer, and cheerleader are energizing. You create legacy through new community improvement projects. However, you create a different kind of legacy by developing talent. I believe that the primary role of leaders is to grow more leaders.


Get coaching
Serving as an effective mid-manager is difficult but it can be a very fulfilling job, or better yet, a calling.

To get better in your role, get some formal or informal coaching. If your organization or ICMA state association has a formal 1-to-1 coaching program, secure a coach. Or simply go to and identify a coach. Or, just ask a respected manager (inside or outside your organization) to go for coffee or lunch and informally pick their brain.

Coaches can help us

  • Better engage staff.
  • Influence others.
  • Advocate up.
  • Cross boundaries and collaborate without any authority.
  • Coach and guide others.

eightAddress your loneliness
Sometimes our management jobs are fairly lonely. As Vivek Murthy states in Harvard Business Review paper “Work and the Loneliness Epidemic” (, September 2017), we face an epidemic of loneliness in our jobs. Experiencing loneliness not only makes us less productive, it has negative emotional and physical health consequences (for example, greater risk of cardiovascular disease, dementia, depression, and anxiety, and a reduction in life expectancy).

As the Gallup research suggests, those who feel isolated and do not experience social support are less engaged and energized and do not perform well. (See Career Compass No. 37: Engaging Employees for Success.) To overcome loneliness, I encourage you to seek out other mid-managers in your department or other departments or in other agencies. Over coffee, share your joys and challenges, as well as some of your personal lives, such as family and leisure pursuits. We don’t often share the joys of our management and leadership roles. It also helps to know that you face similar challenges. It’s important to get peer support and advice.

To connect on a personal as well as professional level with your staff, share some vulnerability. Talk about a difficult project or situation and admit that you do not know how to proceed and that you need their assistance. Only strong leaders can share their vulnerability. Staff will become more engaged if they connect with you and vice versa. While some seasoned managers recommend that it is not a good idea to have friends whom you supervise, I don’t agree. This notion that “it is lonely at the top” is true only if you isolate yourself. When I was a department head and then city manager, I went to coffee, shared meals, and went out for drinks after work with colleagues whom I supervised. Some continue to be lifelong friends. I believe that you can have direct reports who are friends and still make the occasional tough decision that affects them. Why be lonely?

In order to enhance social relationships, you might want to try out a few techniques or activities, such as

  • “Take five”—Start each staff meeting with team members sharing something that happened in their non-work lives.
  • “The inside scoop”—At the beginning of a monthly staff meeting, ask team members to share something about themselves with photos.
  • Identify people’s personal or leisure pursuits and inquire about them; share with others who might be interested in your personal hobbies or pursuits.
  • Make a point of walking around and asking people about their day or the past weekend, or how their children are doing; share your day.
  • Demonstrate some small acts of kindness (for example, writing a note or hugging someone when your colleague had to put his dog down).

If you feel uncomfortable sharing yourself with others at work, seek friendships with colleagues in other agencies and/or outside of your professional life. The key is to consciously and proactively reach out and make connections. There is no reason to be lonely.


The Joys of Mid-Management
There are challenges but many potential joys in your role as a mid-manager:

  • Serving the team.
  • Leveraging change for the good of the organization and/or community.
  • Growing more leaders.
  • Forming strong connections in the team.
  • Doing meaningful work together in service to others.

Mid-managers matter greatly. Embrace the role and be the best you can be.



Jeff Schott named ICMA Life Member

Congratulations to Jeff Schott for receiving the Life Member status with ICMA.


Schott is the Director of the Institute of Public Affairs at the University of Iowa. In this capacity, he is responsible for delivery of the Institute of Public Affairs organizational improvement programs to local government elected officials and staff, including: Strategic Planning and Goal Setting, Educational Programs and Information, Professional Development, Public Management Assistance, and Information and Publications.

From 1987–2006, Schott was City Manager for the City of Marion, Iowa, with extensive experience in general administration, budget/finance, human resource management, facilities planning and development, intergovernmental relations, and strJeffSchott_0ategic planning. Schott served as Vice President for Economic development with the Cedar Rapids (Iowa) Area Chamber of Commerce from 1986–87. He was also Community Development Director for the City of Marion, Iowa, from 1977–86, Planning Coordinator/Assistant Community Development Director for the City of Muscatine, Iowa from 1975–77, and Comprehensive Planning Coordinator for the City of Utica, New York from 1974–75.

By joining ICMA you become an integral part of the international network of local government management professionals who are committed to:

  • The mission of creating excellence in local governance
  • The highest standards of honesty and integrity in local governance as expressed in the ICMA Code of Ethics
  • Professional and personal development
  • Supporting advocacy for professional local government management.

Click here for more information about ICMA.

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The University of Iowa’s Iowa Initiative for Sustainable Communities (IISC) is pleased to announce the release of its Request for Proposals for community partners. The RFP seeks responses from municipal, county or regional governments, non-profit groups, or a collection of communities with similar characteristics, such as watersheds, economic or cultural districts, or a transportation corridor to partner with IISC during the 2018 – 2019 academic year to complete projects that promote and enhance the quality of life in Iowa communities.

IISC is a campus-wide engaged learning program at the University of Iowa that partners with communities and groups across Iowa to develop projects that university students and faculty can complete through their academic and research activities. Since IISC’s development in 2009, there have been 16 community partnerships across the state, and more than 140 projects that have contributed significantly to the advancement of partnering communities’ economic, social, and environmental sustainability. More information about the IISC and the benefits of partnering with IISC can be found at,

IISC encourages anyone interested in learning more to reach out to learn more about applying to be an IISC community partner for the 2018 – 2019 academic year. The RFP contains detailed information about the application process. Responses are due by February 1, 2018.

Travis Kraus 
Assistant Director, Iowa Initiative for Sustainable Communities
OFFICE OF THE PROVOST | Office of Outreach & Engagement
The University of Iowa | 787 Van Allen Hall, Iowa City, Iowa 52242
319.335.2798 | |

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Chelsea Huisman receives ICMA’s credential manager candidate recognition

Chelsea Huisman, City Administrator for the City of Center Point, recently received the Credentialed Manager candidate designation from ICMA, the International City/County Management Association. Ms. Huisman is one of over 1,400 local government management professionals currently credentialed through the ICMA Voluntary Credentialing Program.

As the City Administrator for the City of Center Point for four years after serving in the City of Griswold for two years, Chelsea has completed both a Bachelor’s and Master’s in Public Administration and is actively involved in the Iowa City / County Manager’s Association.

Highlights of Chelsea’s almost seven years of local government executive experience and ICMA membership include: IaCMA’s 2014 emerging leader of the year recipient and her continued service to the profession on the IaCMA awards committee (since March 2017), and the Institute of Public Affairs advisory board (since January 2016).

Chelsea is passionate about getting more young people involved in local government, and says there just aren’t enough professionals coming through the pipeline. “I feel that we are obligated to teach people, both new and seasoned about the credentialing program, as I believe the program can make us all better local government managers”, added Huisman.

ICMA’s mission is to create excellence in local governance by promoting professional management worldwide and increasing the proficiency of appointed chief administrative officers, assistant administrators, and other employees who serve local governments and regional entities around the world. The organization’s nearly 10,000 members in 27 countries also include educators, students, and other local government employees.

To receive the prestigious ICMA credential, a member must have significant experience as a senior management executive in local government; have earned a degree, preferably in public administration or a related field; and demonstrated a commitment to high standards of integrity and to lifelong learning and professional development.

For more information regarding the ICMA Voluntary Credentialing Program, contact Jenese Jackson at ICMA, 777 North Capitol Street, N.E., #500, Washington, D.C. 20002-4201;; 202-962-3556.

Please congratulate Chelsea Husiman on her work and recognition as an ICMA Credentialed Manager Candidate


News for newly elected officials

Following this month’s elections many new people will join the ranks of city officials. A few quick notes to help get ready for these new city officials:

  • Register for the Municipal Leadership Academy. This important training for both new and experienced city officials covers city budgets, effective city councils and meetings and an overview of city operations and legal issues. MLA Part One will be presented at the following locations: Fairfield (November 16), Emmetsburg (November 18), Carroll (November 29), Corning (November 30), Cedar Rapids (December 2), Waverly (December 7) and Altoona (December 9). Use the link above to register. Late fees for the first two locations have been waived.
  • An elected official who does not want to be covered by the Iowa Public Employees’ Retirement System (IPERS) must complete an Election for Termination of IPERS Coverage form and submit it to IPERS within 60 days of taking office. If IPERS does not receive a properly completed form within 60 days, the elected official must be IPERS-covered. For IPERS’ purposes, “elected officials” are people elected by the public and those who are appointed for an interim period to fill vacant positions that normally are elected.
  • Iowa Code 21.10 requires information about open meetings and open records to be provided to governmental bodies. The League has numerous resources at our Web site’s Publication Section that can help inform elected officials about these laws including a straightforward Open Meetings Desk Reference (requires League Login).
  • Other items on the League Web sites of particular interest to new city officials:

Oath of Office and Public Official Bonding (requires League Login)

Advice for Newly Elected Officials (requires League Login)

As always, feel free to contact the League should you have any questions.

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IaCMA Newsletter Information October 2017

Aaron Burnett receives IaCMA’s Manager of the Year Award

Excepted from award nomination

This year’s recipient is Aaron Burnett of Keokuk and he was nominated for this honor by a city council member; she stated on the nomination form that “his can-do attitude and enthusiasm are contagious…with a positive effect on our council and the city of Keokuk in general.”

Aaron hit the ground running when he accepted his position in the fall of 2015. He spearheaded a large effort to demolish vacant and dilapidated buildings while securing new infill development projects; he has also assisted in securing more than $2 million in grants and Aaron Burnettrefinanced existing debt saving more than $1 million.

With his help, the city is starting to turn the tide of out-migration and disinvestment in the community. Young people, business and families are moving back or coming to the city for the first time and finding it to be a good fit for them. His attitude has inspired greater community-wide efforts to promote growth and investment.

Congratulations to Aaron Burnett for his work as a City Administrator and for receiving the Iowa City/County Management Association’s Manager of the Year Award!

Please congratulate Aaron on his work and recognition as the 2017 IaCMA Manager of the Year.

The Iowa City/County Management Association’s Annual Manager of the Year Award honors chief administrators whose accomplishments and superior work performance represent the best possible application of management principles and whose creative contributions to professional local government management increases public awareness of the value of professional management to the quality of life in our communities.
 To be considered for the Manager of the Year Award, the chief administrator must be a full (voting) IaCMA member.  Candidates must be employed as the chief appointed administrative officer in a municipality.  Candidates must have overall management responsibility and be appointed or confirmed by the legislative body, the elected chief executive and/or the chief appointed administrative officer.

The Association’s past award recipients include:
2007       Mike Van Milligen- Dubuque
2008       Jim Prosser- Cedar Rapids
2009       Carol Ann Diekema- Monroe
2010       Jeff Mark- Altoona
2011       Bill Daily- Belle Plaine
2012       Tom Brownlow- Charles City
2013       Jim Ferneau- Burlington
2014       Elizabeth Hansen – Nevada
2015       Jessica Kinser – Clinton
2016       Jeff Pomeranz – Cedar Rapids

A message from Jeff Schott and the Institute of Public Affairs

IMMI to be held in 2018

At the Iowa League of Cities conference last week, a number of city managers/administrators (aware of my impending retirement) expressed their concern to me whether the Iowa Municipal Management Institute (IMMI) would be held next year.

Rest assured – IMMI will be held March 14 – 16, 2018, in Iowa City. In fact, the program for the conference is already almost completely set.  Conference registration and hotel information will be sent out  shortly after the first of the year.

In a related matter, I had originally planned to retire in January 2018 but I have decided to delay my retirement until May after IMMI and after the third round of the Municipal Leadership Academy sessions.  This means that the Institute of Public Affairs (and I) are still available through April to provide services and programs for cities and local governments:  council goal setting, strategic planning, organizational effectiveness, board and commission training, citizen surveys, local government management training and other related programs.  Please contact me or our Program Coordinator Julie Collins If you are interested in scheduling a session or if you have any questions.

I look forward to seeing you all at IMMI next March.


Jeff Schott
Director, Institute of Public Affairs
The University of Iowa
124 Grand Avenue Court
Iowa City, IA 52240
Office:  319-335-7586
Cell:  319-329-6207

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City managers in the news.

The North Iowa regional group held a lunch in Clear Lake on Friday, August 25. There were several managers in attendance, one even rode his motorcycle (Curt). Senior Advisor Dick Hierstein provided a brief update on news from around the region and each member in attendance noted something going on in their city.

There was good conversation about supporting one another and sharing uplifting bits from our collective experiences. Brent Trout noted he was leaving Mason City for Topeka, KS by the end of October. Congratulations and best wishes Brent.

Update on IaCMA memberships:

  • Year-to-date 2017 membership is 174
  • 205 Members in 2016
  • 23 members have joined in 2017 that were not members in 2016
Memberships keep our association strong
           There are several direct benefits that your membership helps provide; Two annual meetings which help educate those in attendance on timely topics such as economic development, ethics and diversity in the workplace. Another benefit is the personal aid and development assistance provided to members in transition and those dealing with personal problems and crisis. Membership also includes access to the IaCMA Grapevine. A listserve that enables members to contact peers about issues of mutual interest and concern.
           A less tangible benefit, yet equally important, is the opportunity to meet and associate with your peers throughout the state. A regional support network has been established to guarantee membership provided assistance starts in your own backyard and continues from border to border. Chances are that your problems have already been experienced elsewhere and, therefore, solutions are just a phone call away. As a member, you will get to know your colleagues on both a personal and professional basis.

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Iowa League of Cities annual conference and exhibit – September 27-29, Davenport

Please consider joining us for the Iowa League of Cities Annual Conference & Exhibit. This year’s conference will take place September 27-29 in Davenport. The wide variety of educational workshops and networking events geared toward elected and appointed city officials draw hundreds each year. There is still time for you and your elected officials to register for this exciting training event. More than 40 workshops are scheduled for the conference. Here’s just a few that will be of particular interest to city managers and city administrators, many of which will be presented by IaCMA members:

Economic Development is a Team Effort
Intentional Transformation of Your City
Using Urban Renewal Tools to Promote Growth
What City Officials Need to Know About the ADA
Intergovernmental Collaboration Success Stories
Working Together and Using Legal Strategies to Address Difficult Citizens, Employees and Properties
Additional Information and Registration

Also during the League Conference, IaCMA will have a reception to announce the Manager of the Year Award winner (nomination forms are due August 15). This reception will occur at 4:30 p.m. on Thursday, September 28, 2017; the event will be held at Me & Billy- Kitchen and Bar (200 West 3rd Street, Davenport).

See you in Davenport!

Mark Tomb
Director of Membership Services
Iowa League of Cities