Planners work in organizations with institutional hierarchy — and managers. For young planners, the workplace management and power structure is different from egalitarian, self-organizing group projects in planning school.
My pitch here is to suggest tolerance for managers. Tolerance may sound like an odd word because the manager has all the formal and informal power — why would they need tolerance?
By tolerance, I mean understanding and appreciating the pressures managers face. I don’t mean tolerance of abusive managers, but I recommend it for the more typical well-intentioned, flawed manager.
What’s it like being a manager? First, managers no longer do the planning work themselves.
Second, they make difficult decisions, acting as intermediaries between decision makers and staff. Third, managers have a view above and below their position that staff-level planners do not possess. Finally, managers do not have time to do everything properly — they make triage-like decisions about how to use their time.
Managers, then, are different in their roles and as people. Being older, they may have different cultural reference points and technological currency. They may not represent the composition of their staff. Some stumble into management roles by progressing through the organization but not be suited or prepared for management. They may not even like it.
The best managers use an inspirational, team-building approach. They inspire their staff and manage with a light touch. Open to new ideas and interested in mentoring, they are willing to take risks and empower their staff. As a result, working for them is motivating.
As well, effective managers create a meaningful professional relationship and offer criticism in a constructive way that allows the staff member to absorb it, respond, and improve. Other managers are more reliant on positional authority — their place in the organizational chart, territorial rights, protocol, or expected respect.
The best manager for one planner might not be the preference of another.
Some planners like structure and a sense of fairness and consistent rules. They want well-understood, stable roles and clear assignments. Other planners prefer a freewheeling manager who enjoys brainstorming, creates a loose team structure, and entertains a healthy competition of ideas. While planners starting out take the manager that comes with the job, understanding different manager types can guide future job selections.
One area where young planners can enhance their working relationship with managers is communication.
Communication styles vary across individual people and generational groups. Check with your manager about communication protocols for different planning functions. When should the telephone, face-to-face discussion, email, online discussion forums, texts, or other written forms be used? This may vary across tasks — status reports, issues that require dialogue, instances where misunderstanding could occur with computer-mediated communication, or creating a public record.
Planners with a clear change agenda may perceive that their manager is risk averse. Recognize that mid-level managers are in the process of developing their management style and are cognizant of the politics of change. Bold but risky moves might negatively affect their advancement.
Some risk aversion is natural to the role. But they also understand implications and interconnections faster than a new planner can. They know more about how clients, city managers, city council members will react because they have more direct contact with them.
A staff planner may also complain that assignments are not specific enough, or stable enough, to be efficiently completed. Assignments may be vague because the manager doesn’t have time to give detailed, worked-out ones. Or, the manager is unsure of the problem and the way forward, and beginning the analysis is the best way to move forward. Lastly, the manager may be in the process of assessing the political “room” that is available for certain solutions.
It’s worthwhile to reflect the characteristics of a good manager. You can observe how managers do their work, notice when a particular approach works well, and what methods backfire. You can read biographies of leaders and ask mentors for their experiences. Knowing these qualities also helps you cultivate them when you become a manager.
Top image: Thinkstock 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.