New Planning Director

Dear Management Doctor:

What do you do if you're replacing a beloved (well respected) Planning Director who is retiring after a long tenure. How do you make the staff 'your own.' What should the tenor of that first staff meeting be like?

Just Wondering

Dear Wondering,

That's a great question, but one that is not easy to answer. Each situation will be a bit different. However, here are a few tips:

  1. Don't keep telling staff what you did on a particular situation in another community or in your last job. No one wants to hear it and it gets tiring.
  2. Listen, observe, and get your feet on the ground before moving out too fast.
  3. On the other hand, don't wait too long. If you are still analyzing after 30 days, you are likely waiting too long. I am continually amazed in my consulting practice to hear planners and Planning Directors say they are relatively new when they have been on the job for two or three years. The world is moving faster than that. They call the honeymoon a honeymoon for a reason.
  4. Don't try to emulate the beloved and well respected prior director; be yourself.
  5. You were likely selected for a reason and philosophy; so it's OK to share it.
  6. In the first 30 days don't change dress codes, move furniture, or modify flex time. You need to be careful and sensitive on how you approach these.
  7. Meet with each staff member one-on-one if you can. Get acquainted, ask what they would like to see changed.
  8. At that first staff meeting:
    • A bit about yourself, background, family etc. is OK but don't over-do it.
    • Sharing some of your philosophy, but not specific to the organization, is OK.
    • Occasionally there are exceptions to the normal approach. Once in my career I took over from a director who had a bad program for five years and was then fired. In the interview, it was clear what the county wanted and I had done my homework. So I presented not only my philosophy but a rough outline of the important direction I thought we should go. I heard staff talking in the hallway - "At last some direction for the department."
You can't make the staff your own. But, through good leadership, management, respect, trust, and all your good traits, they will become your own.

Come on emailers. Share your stories of success and where you fell on your face.

The Management Doctor

Reader Response

Last year I had the opportunity to manage a different division of our department for a period of 9 months (while still managing the division for which I was responsible) as our department searched for a replacement manager. Because I knew the other division's staff (and had participated in hiring most of them) and had, for a number of years, managed that part of the department, I has some pretty strong ideas about how to make things work better. I'm glad I didn't act on my initial impulse; if I had, I would have likely been seen not as the white knight riding to save the day, but the black night riding in to pillage and other awful things. So, at the first staff meeting I asked the staff what expectations they had of me. That first meeting was very revealing as it showed me what they admired about their previous manager, and what they wished that previous manager had been willing to do differently. At the next staff meeting we discussed what I could do to meet their expectations and what I had in mind for them to meet some of mine. Those two meetings resulted in some positive changes and a much more balanced management of both divisions on my part. Mostly though, it led in my opinion, to a bridge of time that allowed the permanent replacement manager to successfully assume her management of the division.

Michael A. Harper, FAICP
Washoe County Community Development Department

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