Managing Non-Planners

Dear Management Doctor:

I attended your 2-day seminar for Planning Directors a couple of years ago and found it to be quite informative. Since that time, I have also taken on additional responsibilities within a reorganized Community Development Department. Some of the staff I now directly or indirectly supervise are not planners but are trained building inspectors or maintenance staff.

In light of reduced staffing in municipalities, I imagine that many Community Development Directors find themselves now having supervisory responsibilities over staff with varying areas of expertise (i.e., engineers, inspectors, operations/maintenance, information technologies or administrative support to name a few). Their respective skill-sets can be widely varying and can pose interesting supervisory challenges, particularly if the Director is not an expert in "their field."

I believe there would be a significant amount of interest in future sessions on specifically supervising or directing non-planner municipal staffs,


William J. Heniff, AICP
Village of Lombard, IL

Dear Non-Planner Challenged,

Thanks for your excellent email. The key to managing people is starting with the recognition that we are all different and can be motivated by different things. There are many different types of planners just as there are many different types of non-planners. Some management techniques are generic and useful across almost everyone. Others are specific to individuals. Increasingly, I see former Planning Directors becoming Community Development Directors and, as you indicate, need to manage more than planners. Here are a few thoughts to help you get started.

  1. Personality
    Different types of personality often need to be managed in different ways. Thus, I would start by trying to figure out the personality of each person being managed. I use a very simple four-type system, but there are many variations on the market. This is easy to illustrate with two types that I use. One is called the "thinker" the other "socialize." The words are virtually self-descriptive. When I work with the "thinker" I want to have my facts together and transact communication at that level. For the "socialize" I start by talking about the latest movies over a cup of coffee.
  2. Engineers
    A friend of mine did his college thesis on the differences between planners and engineers. You can read about this in my book, What Your Planning Professors Forgot To Tell You, in Chapter 91 called, "Engineers and Planners - Oil and Water?" Planners tend to be people oriented and Engineers object oriented. However, the thesis concluded that, "As a general conclusion, it may be stated that stereotypes between engineers and planners have not been demonstrated to be a problem which affects the interaction of interdisciplinary groups." They likely do need to be managed differently but a good manager can figure that out. We planners need the engineer's hard skills. The engineers need the planner's soft skills.
  3. Building Staff
    I think managing building staff is particularly important since most Community Development Departments include the building permit function. Most of these departments are managed by the planner, rather than a Certified Building Official. I think the management issues stem from:
    1. The planner often treats the building staff as second class citizens and fail to see how to integrate the planning and building function. Start by doing some ride-alongs with building inspectors and sit and observe a plan checker for an hour or two.
    2. Recognize that you are not a Certified Building Official and thus need to respect and follow the technical decisions.
    3. Get very clear on the mission. Get the inspectors to see themselves as problem solvers and trainers of the private sector builders, not regulators or policemen.
    4. By the way, in my studies I have found that a high percentage of building people are "socializer" personality types.
  4. Generic Desires
    While everyone is different, current studies suggest a number of likely common ingredients such as:
    1. Empowerment
      The information age brings with it empowerment. All employees want more control over their jobs so get off their back. Learn how to empower employees. They will be more productive and also happier, a win-win situation.
    2. Training
      The world is rapidly changing. We all need, and most want, more training and to acquire new skills.
    3. Team
      We all want to be part of a team. We want to know what is going on. How do we fit into the big picture?
    4. Excellence
      What kind of organization do you want to work for? How about the best? Working to a standard of excellence is essential.
  5. Mission
    Finally, but more likely first, everyone needs and wants to understand the mission. They want to come to work with a sense of purpose. This is not easy to develop. But without this, the rest may not matter.
So the manager's job is producing outstanding results with common ordinary people, just like you and me, and going to the Super Bowl. And yes, they may not be planners.

The Management Doctor

Reader Response

Interesting question. In my experience, the best way to manage any group of people, especially those of different specialties, is to admit that you aren't an expert in every field. Acknowledge that they will often know more about the technical aspects of issues and that you need them to advise you in order that the department be successful. Each staff member has something to contribute. A planner that becomes a manager isn't in that position due to their planning expertise as much as their ability to manage projects and people.

Sarah S. More, FAICP

I empathize with your situation as for several years I managed a one-stop shop and found the same problems you are encountering.

We engaged Paul Zucker and implemented a vast majority of his recommendations. My most difficult aspect was empowerment. Please make sure staff are properly prepared for empowerment otherwise it could/will backfire.

Good luck and Happy New Year.

Kenneth Ebanks

Just in case you haven't heard this joke/description before, the following describes the difference between engineers and planners.

We planners, in our careers, begin by learning a little bit about a lot of things. As we go along in our careers, we learn less and less about more and more. Pretty soon we know nothing about everything. Engineers, on the other hand, begin by learning a lot about a few things. As they go along in their careers, they learn more and more about less and less, and pretty soon they know everything about nothing.
If I'm really lucky, when I tell this joke to an engineer, the light dawns and (s)he realizes that together we can conquer the world! True!

Polly Carolin, FAICP

Just a comment from one of your former clients, the accidental city management professional. Your City of Troy study is very helpful as we embark on a very serious fiscal crisis. Literally, the City of Troy may collapse and I've been asked to help restructure the City. In the short time I've been a multi-discipline manager, I've found the following to be true. I felt compelled to write this because of the challenging times. Not really sure if these comments are pertinent. Use them if you want. If you are interested we have a lot of information regarding the restrictions on the City's website. Really look at the special election link and presentation on 6-year organizational restructuring plan.

Mark. F. Miller
City of Troy

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