Excited Young Planning Director

Dear Management Doctor:

I work for a County Commission in a quickly growing southeastern state. My county has been traditionally rural and has a population of 30,000 and a growth rate from 1990 to 2000 of 48%. The County has had a Planner since 1989. I came on board in 2000 as a fresh-out-of-college graduate. At that point there were five employees (a planning director, two planners and two clerical staff), myself included. During the last year, our Director went on medical leave for a period of six months. I was appointed as Acting Director. The Director came back after his leave and then retired about six months after that due to continued health issues. The County then went through an organizational restructuring and I now find myself as the Director of a reconstituted Planning and Economic Development department, which is basically a development-related department processing development-related requests (rezones, plats and construction plans). Effective January 1, I now have a staff of ten (a Director, two Assistant Directors/Senior Planners, three planners, three clerical staff and an intern). We are moving to a new location as part of this expansion and starting anew. We'll also be adding on responsibility to manage the County's new Economic Development plan, due out in March.

Before me, the same Director had been in position for 15 years and he had some ways of doing things that didn't often make sense to me as a staff member, but "it had always been done that way." He was often seen by the development community as a bureaucrat and difficult to work with. Often, when a situation arose that I felt I could find a solution for, he'd tell me not to worry about it as it was someone else's problem, not ours. I didn't enjoy working this way.

It is now my job to direct this organization into the 21st century. I have some ideas, but I don't want to make too many changes too quickly. I have read your book, ABZs of Planning Management, and have found many helpful ideas. I'd like to make customer service a cornerstone of my administration. I'd like to implement a Project Manager form of Planning. I'd like to help my employees better themselves in an effort to better the organization. My staff is mostly young too (I'm actually the youngest, though that hasn't been an issue). They seem very receptive to the possibility of change. We'll also be bringing on some new staff to fill some of the new positions.

Here's my main question: I'm excited about my new position, but as a young director with planning experience, but not a lot of management experience, what are the most important issues I need to look for as I start my directorship? I'm taking a general local government management course offered by the government outreach arm of the State University, but I'm looking for Planning-related specifics. Coming into a position like this, what are the first and foremost items I need to review to ensure that this department is working to its highest potential?

Excited Young Planning Director

Dear Excited Young Planning Director:

I like your story and your attitude. It sounds like a great opportunity. In responding to you, I am tempted to say what the executives from Starbucks said when business magazine editor asked them what was most important? They responded "everything." But, obviously that won't be much help to you. Here are a few suggestions:

  1. Get clear on your mission. This may be the hardest task of all. However, you are on your way when you said you plan to make customer service a cornerstone of your administration. Now the task is to define in more specific terms what that means.
  2. In defining the mission for your particular organization I would stress to staff that they are to be problem solvers rather than regulators. Even better, the goal always needs to be to build a better County.
  3. Make it clear that your role is not an us vs. them stance. Rather, the County is built through a three way partnership, the developers, County and citizens.
  4. Everywhere I go the development customers want the same two things. They want fast response, including answering their phone calls. They want clear and consistent answers. They don't want a new list of issues each time they come in.
  5. Making your planners Project Managers is a good idea. However, most young planners don't know how to do that. So you need training, training, training and more training.
  6. Taking on economic development can also be a challenge. If the County can get clear on what this means, it can then set the direction for at least part of your program.
  7. Read the book from "Good To Great." Also read my latest book, "What Your Planning Professors Forgot To Tell You."
  8. Your taking classes is also a good idea. I am teaching the only management course specifically designed for Planning Directors. There are still 5 cities left in my current series of classes. You can find them on our website here: www.zuckersystems.com/complete.html. Also, APA will be having a special management course at the San Francisco conference.

Call me if things get tight at 1-800-870-6306.

The Management Doctor

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