How To Best Use An Assistant Director

Dear Management Doctor:

For the first time in my 18 years as a planning director, I just hired an assistant director. (Many moons ago, I spent the first seven years of my own career as an assistant director.) After panel interviews with several candidates, a coworker of 12+ years was promoted into the position. The individual hired is well-prepared. Coincidentally, he and I both attended your seminar on Management for Planning Directors a few years ago.

Our city of 60,000 people is adjacent to the core city in a rapidly growing metro area in the southeast. Work here is fast and furious. Our municipal organization is highly customer-oriented with a proactive and rather demanding City Council. There is strong management support of planning issues. Our department handles long-range planning, current planning, GIS, community development programs, code enforcement and inner city economic development.

We have some plans in place for his transition, but everything is not yet carved in stone. I am interested in your perspective about making the very best of this opportunity.

Signed,
A New Experience

Dear New Experience,

Assistant Director positions can be tricky.When we get to this high level in an organization, I start by suggesting the situation largely depends on how the director likes to work. Therefore, I tend not to get too hung up on formal organizational or job description approaches. Obviously, the skills, personality and interests of the director and assistant director are also key. The size of the organization will also play a key role. A few thoughts:

  • For large organizations or in very politically active communities, I see the director spending considerable time on external political issues and community outreach while the assistant director works internally and keeps the trains running on time, so to speak.
  • For small organizations, I'd be careful that you are not just adding another layer to the organization. This can be avoided by keeping the following in mind:
    • Have a clear definition of responsibilities and authority for both positions.
    • I've seen some organizations where the assistant director focuses on administrative and personnel issues while the director is more into content and external affairs.

Just because a person has the title of assistant director does not mean that all the staff need to report to him or her. Some staff can report to the director and some to the assistant director. I've even seen situations where the assistant director's only assistant director function is serving as director in the director's absence.

In summary, it depends.

Good luck and keep me informed on the progress.

The Management Doctor

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