How to Become a City Manager

How to Become a City Manager

If you’re ambitious, interested in municipal government and hoping to make change in your local community from the top down, the role of city manager may be the perfect career goal for you. It’s an excellent choice for well-organized, diplomacy-minded professionals in public administration.

What does a city manager do?

A city manager plays a key role in the council-manager system of government in which voters elect city council members, who in turn appoint a professional city manager. The city manager’s responsibilities include creating and managing the city’s budgets, hiring new personnel, participating in city meetings and discussions, and administering the city’s general affairs — all under the oversight of and in collaboration with the city council.1

Working as a city manager allows you to be heavily involved in local government and help shape the future of the city in which you live, or another municipality that interests you. You can have a meaningful impact on many people’s lives, while also gaining the satisfaction of overcoming complex problems in a fast-moving environment.

What strengths should a city manager have?2,3

To be a successful city manager, you’ll need to be an outstanding communicator, be able to juggle multiple tasks and be diplomatic even in stressful situations. This is not an easy career path and every day is different, so you’ll need to think on your feet and adapt to changing circumstances while keeping a cool head.

A city manager should be good at:

  • Writing — You will be responsible for communicating different ideas and news to other local officials, the media and the public.
  • Public speaking — You won’t just be behind the scenes; you may be representing your city in public and political situations.
  • Diplomacy — You will facilitate conversations between different groups who are often at odds with one another, and it will be up to you to make sure each party feels heard and involved in the discussion.
  • Dispute resolution — Sometimes diplomacy isn’t enough; you may be called on to reconcile disagreements between different constituent groups or political figures.
  • Delegation — A city manager cannot do everything that needs to be done, so you must be comfortable working with others and assigning tasks to them.
  • Project management — You’ll need to keep on top of the many different projects occurring within your city, whether you complete them yourself or oversee the work of others.
  • Interpersonal skills — City managers bridge the gap between politics and administration, so they work not only with city council members but also with community leaders and citizens. You’ll need to be able to interact effectively with all of these different audiences.

Becoming a city manager

Because the role of city manager carries significant responsibility, it generally requires considerable education as well as many years of experience. Being a city manager is an advanced step along the path of a public administrator, but it’s a good goal to keep in mind even early in your career.

To become a city manager, you should be prepared to:

  1. Earn an undergraduate degree in a related field.2 This may include public administration, public policy or political science. However, city managers often work their way up from other positions in city government or different departments, so you may be able to succeed as a city manager if your undergraduate work was in finance, accounting, criminal justice or a related field.3
    1. Pursue an internship or fellowship in city management.2 The International City/County Management Association (ICMA) is a great resource to find hands-on opportunities in city management offices.
    2. Conduct relevant research.2 In order to develop effective policies as a city manager, you’ll need to research the problems you’re trying to solve. Learning to complete this research as an undergraduate student will help you research more effectively in your career.
  2. Get a master’s degree in a related field, such as public administration or business administration.2 Once you’re sure you want to go into city management, focus your education in that direction. MBA programs are oriented toward what a business needs and may be more broadly applicable beyond the public sector, but MPA programs are specifically designed to prepare you for what you’ll need to know as a public administrator. Look for a part-time or flexible degree program that allows you to continue working while you complete courses.
  3. Earn a Certified Public Manager certification (optional).3 While you don’t need this qualification to become a city manager, it can help you further develop the skills you need to succeed, and it demonstrates you are committed to being the best possible manager.
  4. Gain experience in local government. City managers are typically either hired because they have served as managers elsewhere, or they are promoted from other leadership positions in local government.3 Although many different positions in local government can serve as a path to becoming a city manager, you may have the best results if you aim to become an assistant or deputy city manager first.2

The online Master of Public Administration program at Kent State University was developed to meet the needs of aspiring leaders in the public sector. If your goal is to become a city manager, Kent State’s MPA program will help you gain the skills to succeed in a leadership role and advance in your professional career, all at an affordable price and with a convenient schedule.


  1. Retrieved on December 17, 2019, from
  2. Retrieved on December 17, 2019, from
  3. Retrieved on December 17, 2019, from
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