Despite years of management and leadership experience, Allison Watkins had doubts about her position as village manager of Newberry.
“I had imposter syndrome,” recalls Watkins, who had extensive experience with AmeriCorps NCCC and had served as human resources and community relations director for Newberry, a village of about 1,400 people in the eastern Upper Peninsula, before becoming the village manager in 2019. “There was this feeling that I’m not where I should be.
“I had 17 years of experience managing people, 17 years of leadership experience and 17 years of training,” she adds. “Yet here I was questioning how I am in charge here. How did I end up here? Nobody must be watching.”
Fortunately, shortly after becoming village manager, Watkins participated in the Women’s Municipal Leadership Program offered by the Michigan Municipal League. The training initiative offers aspiring women community leaders the opportunity to advance their skills and leadership abilities on the path to becoming strong local government managers.
“I think the program is fantastic,” says Watkins, who has a master’s degree in public administration from Northern Michigan University and began working for Newberry in 2017. “It really helped me gain some confidence. It was helpful in networking and discussing the challenges many of our communities face. It was nice to have that network to reach out to and ask, ‘Are you experiencing this?’”
The Michigan Municipal League launched the multifaceted program in 2018 to provide leadership development and management training in the areas of municipal budgeting and finance; economic development; and council-manager relations.
So far, the program has served 135 women, with many of them going on to serve in municipal managers or other executive positions in local government.
The free program runs over five months and includes day-long sessions. Participants have the opportunity to learn directly from seasoned local government executives and also receive executive coaching and participate in mock interviews to help prepare them to move on to the next levels in their careers.
Emily Kieliszewski, manager of the Women’s Leadership Program for the Michigan Municipal League, said the program was developed after internal research showed that the number of women serving in local government management in the state was low. The organization found that while women comprise 50 percent of the workforce, they represented only 16 percent of those in municipal executive management roles.
The MML’s leadership effort was dubbed the 16/50 Project.
“We recognized that there were likely some barriers that these women were facing in trying to make it to the top spot,” Kieliszewski says. “Looking at those numbers, we felt that we as a municipal association – with access to elected officials and appointed professionals – were in a unique position to do something about those statistics and increase the number of women serving in those roles.”
Five years later, the program has helped narrow the gender gap in leadership roles in Michigan communities. Just over 21 percent of Michigan’s municipal managers are women, while about 42 percent of assistant managers are women. Thirty-seven percent of Michigan’s local elected officials are women, according to MML member data.
The MML program has been so successful that the municipal organization is creating a similar program for elected women officials – that program is expected to start later this year. The Michigan program also has become a national model emulated in other states, such as Texas and Virginia. Kieliszewski has also spoken to several national conferences about the program’s success.
“Women have been underrepresented in local government leadership positions for far too long, but this program has given many women the extra skills and confidence needed to break through the local government glass ceiling and achieve their full potential,” says Barbara Ziarko, board president of the Michigan Municipal League and a Sterling Heights councilmember.
Twenty-three women – representing communities from Detroit to the Upper Peninsula – completed the program this past spring.
Kim Awrey, who is city manager of Gaylord, a resort community of about 4,300 people in northern Michigan, is a graduate of the inaugural class. She was Gaylord’s assistant city manager at the time.
“I had taken the promotion to be assistant city manager about the same time the opportunity came up,” she recalls. “I was kind of looking to move up into the (city manager) position but I wasn’t really sure about it. I didn’t have confidence in my ability to do that. The program came about at the perfect time for me.”
Awrey, who had spent 23 years working in finance for an oil and gas company, became city manager in early 2021. The program helped her better understand a host of municipal obligations, everything from roads to wastewater treatment.
“There were a lot of confidence-building activities to boost your confidence,” she says. “A lot of the benefit was being able to interact with other women in similar positions. It was great to be able to talk to them and see everybody had the same fears that were holding them back. It was a lack of confidence … It helped seeing women in those management positions.”
Haley Snyder, city manager of Albion, a city of about 7,700 in Calhoun County, attributes her success in municipal government, in part, to the program.
When Snyder participated in 2019, she was the appointed interim city manager of Albion. She had previously served as the city’s deputy clerk/treasurer.
“The former city manager encouraged me to apply for the program,” recalls Snyder, who has a master's degree in public administration from Western Michigan University. “I don’t think I'd be in the position I am now without having stepped out and taken advantage of that program and the networking. It helped build my confidence to see myself as an executive leader and executive.”
For Snyder and others, the program helped build confidence in their current jobs and in higher-level positions. The networking and interaction also encouraged them to take risks and helped them realize they were ready for higher levels of leadership.
“Just go for it and put yourself out there,” Snyder says. “Take that risk. You’ll learn and grow. I don’t think I would have put myself out there without the program.”
Despite their successes, these city managers and others realize there’s more room for women in municipal government leadership roles across the state.
“I’m often the only female in the room,” says Newberry’s Watkins, noting that among 14 municipal managers in the U.P., only two are women. “I don’t feel I’m treated differently because of that but it does feel like I’m on my own in terms of perspective. The women’s leadership program is great and can help women get the confidence they need to move up. Women are more likely to wait to move up than men. This program teaches them not to be afraid and go forward with confidence.”