First-Time Planning Manager? Let Go, Step Up

I had the pleasure of collaborating with Whit Blanton, FAICP, in a Career Zone event at this year’s APA National Planning Conference in San Francisco. We offered an interactive session called Challenges and Solutions for First-Time Managers.

The positive response by attendees suggests that the transition to management and supervisory roles is a key concern of planners. Given the demographic changes in the profession, such as retiring baby boomer managers, the coming series of posts will address this important issue.

The move from planning staff member to manager involves a learning curve, just as the transition from planning school to entry-level practice required new ways of thinking and acting. This natural career progression shifts your role from doing tasks to organizing and guiding broader efforts. It changes the way you work, your relationship with colleagues, and the depth of judgments that are required. And most of all, it gives you leverage — an ability to pursue larger efforts than you could as an individual staff member.

I believe that managers have a responsibility to mentor future leaders. If you have been fortunate to have a manager who did this, you have good examples to draw upon in your own management practice. If you have found your previous managers wanting in this regard, you can recall what you sought from your manager as you begin to manage others.

This post addresses two contradictory elements: letting go and stepping up.

Letting Go

If you are skilled at data analysis, design, or policy development, it may be difficult to let go of the primary responsibility of doing the work.

Dealing with complex planning problems is fun! And you must be good at it, or you would not have been promoted. But let go you must.

Even though it may be easier to complete a difficult task yourself, find a way that allows your staff to learn how to do those tasks. Your job is coaching, quality control, and judgments that reflect your broader view of opportunities and constraints. If you can’t resist doing the task yourself, your staff will catch on, perhaps slack off, and you will be overworked.

In giving assignments, of course, your job is to distinguish between acceptable learning-curve mistakes that help staff grow and errors that have serious consequences. Rather than have a strict “hands-off” rule, you should assess the degree of your involvement, case-by-case, person-by-person.

Stepping Up

Stepping up refers to proactively developing a management style that suits your personality and abilities. Not all managers work the same way. Some tend to use positional authority and while others seek a collaborative approach. Some are formal and some are informal. Your journey as a developing manager to find an approach that fits your organization, your own tendencies, and responds to the staff team you supervise.

A good way to determine how you can step up as a manager is to understand your personality type using a personality assessment tool.

Many of those tools include interpretations about strengths and weaknesses of different personality types in management. If, for example, an assessment tool suggests that you tend to avoid conflict, you can consciously develop strategies to counteract that tendency when you really do need to take a stand. If on the other hand, you are quite reactive, you may develop strategies to slow down and think before taking action.

A benefit of becoming aware of your own management style is that you better understand that your staff has a variety of work styles, skills, and inclinations. Each of your team members is on their own professional development path. The more you understand them, the better you can nurture your team and develop management approaches that are a good fit.

Our profession needs a new breed of effective, compassionate, and self-aware managers to lead us into the second half of the century. Your role as a new manager is the first step in that process. The challenges are well compensated by the satisfaction of leading an effective team. You will play a role broader than your specific job by participating in the creation of the next iteration of the planning profession.

Read previous installments of this blog series, "A Guide for the Idealist." This blog series is amplified in Richard Willson's book, A Guide for the Idealist: How to Launch and Navigate Your Planning Career. The book includes perspectives, tools, advice, and personal anecdotes. It is available now at Routledge, Amazon, and most retailers.

Top image: Getty Images photo.


About the Author

Richard Willson, FAICP

Richard Willson, FAICP, is a professor in the Department of Urban and Regional Planning at Cal Poly Pomona. He has also served as department chair, interim dean, and independent planning consultant. Willson's research addresses planning practice and parking policy. His book, A Guide for the Idealist: How to Launch and Navigate Your Planning Career, amplifies the themes in this blog series. Willson is also the author of Parking Reform Made Easy (Island Press, 2013) and Parking Management for Smart Growth (2015). Willson holds a PhD in urban planning from the University of California, Los Angeles, a Master of Planning from the University of Southern California, and a Bachelor of Environmental Studies from the University of Waterloo.


July 9, 2019

By Richard Willson, FAICP