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Making the Leap from ACAO to CAO

By Jeff Wechbach, Colerain Township Township Administrator. Originally published in PM Magazine

It’s 2pm on a Friday before a holiday weekend. You are at a local chamber of commerce event when your boss, the chief administrative officer (CAO), pulls you aside for a walk and talk. Your head starts to sift through the various personnel issues and complaints that the community is dealing with, thinking that this talk is going to somehow be related to one of those items. Instead, you are hit with a curve ball as you quickly learn that your boss has taken a job in the private sector and their last day is less than a month away.

I wish I could say that the coming months would be easy. In my case, I was the only assistant chief administrative officer (ACAO) for our community. My contract with our elected board stated that I would be appointed as the interim administrator in the event of a vacancy in the CAO role. Thankfully that meant that I had the clarity to know I would be an interim for some time while our elected board determined a course of action. However, I still had to figure out if I would want to apply for the CAO role, and if so, what would I do differently? How would I manage the work in the interim capacity knowing that there are only so many hours in the day?

As I sit here today, I am fortunate to have been promoted to the CAO role and found excellent individuals to serve as the ACAO for my organization. However, as I reflect on the past several months, I realize that I learned a lot during the transition. While all of these points may not translate to every transition, some of these might be helpful to someone who is just having an unexpected walk and talk.

1. Strengthen Your Relationship with Department Directors

First and foremost, work to earn the respect of department directors now. If you haven’t spent a great deal of time working directly with your department directors or if you have some friction with them, use the time as the ACAO to mend fences and build connections. Elected officials are going to call the other members of the leadership team to get their perspective on your abilities, and their opinion will influence the decision on hiring you as the CAO.