Moving Into Planning Management

The natural progression of a planning career brings management opportunities, through a job change, internal promotion, or in building a new department.

Management positions offer leverage in setting the agenda and an opportunity to create and mentor a team.

This post reflects on what I’ve learned in my career and heard from young planners as they begin their journey as managers. It is the other side of the coin of a previous post, "5 Scenarios for ‘Reading’ Your Supervisor."

Better title, more money, and policy leverage are the rewards for climbing the learning curve of management. Ironically, the curve may be steep for those who were at the top of their class in planning school. They could do most planning tasks alone, perhaps better than their peers. Yet managers frequently do not directly produce work products.

Planning students who were compelled to collaborate, rely on others’ strengths, and form and support teams often make very effective managers.

Being a manager means being reliant on others. Although formal supervisory roles provide a form of power, relying on those powers too much can undermine morale. The manager’s job is to motivate staff to do the highest quality work, on time, and with a sense of accomplishment.

New managers may be surprised to find relevance in Bob Dylan’s verse “everything is broken.” Moving from the narrower awareness of a junior planner to management means learning about difficult personnel issues, departmental conflicts, legal issues, subtle political dynamics, and so on.

Here are some tips for entering management roles:

Don’t let a new awareness of organization problems overwhelm you

Every organization has issues and challenges, and not all of them can be addressed on your watch. Use a triage metaphor — prioritize pressing problems. Make progress rather than seeking to fix everything.

Understand who you are managing: there are many valid work styles

Decide how much room you can provide for different work styles and still retain a cohesive department. Help new employees learn the norms of practice and organizational culture so that they can be effective. Become aware of your implicit biases, so you can watch out for them.

Assess your level of authority in the organization

For example, taking on a contentious personnel action depends on upper management support. Calibrate your approach to the support you have. Cultivate management mentors to help you with judgment calls.

Use the expertise of the Human Resources department for personnel issues. Timely performance reviews and documentation of performance issues are the building blocks for taking personnel actions.

Reflect on your management style

Where does it fit in the continuum between “all business” or “manager as friend”?

The choice depends on your temperament, the organization in which you work, and the nature of the work. Management style may vary across particular aspects of work: work hours and timeliness, office decorum, attention to detail, and reaction to mistakes.

Other dimensions include the level of conflict welcomed in meetings and protocols for independent staff interactions with elected officials, clients, or stakeholders. Make your approach transparent, and relatively stable, so your staff can calibrate their approach.

Nothing stresses out staff like an unpredictable management style.

Prioritize your time

If you take on every immediate problem you won’t have time to develop vision, celebrate excellence, and innovate. Sometimes it is wise to tolerate ongoing problems for the greater good. Schedule a few hours a week away from day-to-day tasks to review your goals and progress.

Hone your facilitation and negotiation skills

Hone these skills with elected officials, stakeholders, clients, and staff. For example, you may negotiate with your superior about taking on a new assignment, asking if your unit can be relieved of another assignment when taking on a new project.

You don’t want your staff to burn out.

Ask your employees what the work means to them

Ask them what they think should happen in the unit. Young planners are more likely to stay and come to work inspired if the work is meaningful.

Managers play an important role in inspiring staff and providing professional development opportunities. Organizations that have high staff turnover are in a constant cycle of recruiting, training, and then repeating.

Occasionally, show that you mean what you say by using formal authority. Infrequent but sure use of power means less time spent in upholding standards.

Regardless of your management goal — planning manager, city manager, or consulting or nonprofit president — your management journey starts early in your career. Observe the best managers you’ve had, and try using their techniques. Obtain professional education in management as your career develops.

And go ahead and change the world.

Read previous installments of this blog series, "A Guide for the Idealist," here. 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: Photo by Getty Images.


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 10, 2018

By Richard Willson, FAICP