Chapter 1.11

So You Want To Be A Planning Director?
By Richard H. Carson (Planetizen, Oct 29, 2001; North Carolina Planning Newsletter, November-December, 2001; Sacramento Valley Section Planners Tabloid, January 2002; APA 2001 National Planning Conference).

Being a planning director means you have to be a political animal. Richard Carson offers a no-holds barred look at what it takes to be a planning director -- and whether you want to.

If you want to be a planning director, then this article will help you in your quest. Unless of course it persuades you not to be a planning director, which is understandable. To be a good planning director you need four general skill sets. You should have (1) basic experience in planning, (2) good management skills, (3) a customer service orientation, and (4) good political skills.


The best planning experience you can gain is to work in city or county government, and in a variety of jobs. In other words, don't specialize too long or work in a special purpose agency too long. You need most of your experience in current planning, long-range planning and project management.

I suggest you be an opportunist early in your career. The best way to get promoted is to quit and take another job. Try to put in at least two to three years per job, but only in the earlier years of your career, until you become a senior planner. Employers take a dim view of planners who have a long career of short stints. They will believe you can't hold a job.

Management Skills

Becoming a planning manager is not easy, but you can learn. You need to learn how to manage people, processes and budgets. So I would strongly suggest that you get a Masters in Public Administration if you want to be a planning director. This may be in addition to, or a substitute for your Masters of Regional and Urban Planning degree. One of the other things you need to learn is how to achieve organizational goals. There is never enough money to do the work you are charged with -- so you need to do "strategic" planning and be able to setup a 5 to 6-year work program. You will also need to learn how to establish performance goals and then monitor them.

As a planning manager, you will have to do what is euphemistically called "progressive discipline." When it comes to building strong, effective organizations -- I believe the job is 95 percent hiring or promoting good employees and five percent firing those who are not so good. When it comes to hiring, if you have two candidates of equal ability, always hire the internal candidate. It says a lot about you to your team if you promote competent staff. And they may stay longer than two to three years. Also it is better to hire a person whose character you know and trust, than to take a risk on someone you don't. The truth is that professional references are not a reliable way to find out about an unknown applicant's ability.

A good planning manager delegates because they don't have time to micromanage. Conversely, if you do micromanage, then you are not spending your time on the important management issues. Remember that when you must delegate authority, you must demand performance accountability.

I have one caveat about learning to be a manager. Great planning directors are leaders. Leaders are people who you trust and like. They are people who listen well and communicate well -- both in their writing and orally. They have the ability to show their positive emotions and never get mad. They don't yell at people or belittle them. They are terrific problem solvers and not afraid to make a decision. It is important that you be honest with yourself about whether you possess this important and elusive attribute.

Customer Service

If you haven't read Reinventing Government by David Osborne and Ted Gaebler, then do it. Customer service is something you had better embrace as a basic tenant of faith. I am not talking about creating "fast food"-styled organizations where the customer is always right. Public service is a form of customer service that means you:

- Listen to what they are saying;
- Treat them with respect; and,
- Try to help them through the process.

There is never a reason to tell a customer "No." The fact is that there is a course of action they can take  even if your opinion is they don't have a chance of being successful. People can always attempt to rezone their property, get a comprehensive plan amendment, move an urban growth boundary, or even get the zoning code language changed. As an associate of mine says, "Treat everyone as though they might be the next city councilor."

Political Skills

Being a planning director means you have to be a political animal. Politics is the use of strategy and tactics to compel or cajole elected officials, voters and special interest groups toward the goals you have set or have had set for you.

We planners are very good at processes and planning, but we aren't very good at politics. Maybe it's because planning is an open "consensus building" process  and politics is sometimes a closed "behind the scenes" negotiating process.

You also need to develop a broader understanding of how government functions. In local government, you will be competing for resources with such sacred cows as the police and fire departments, the library and the parks and recreation program.

As the head planner you will report to a city manager or a county administrator. That person reports to and is directed by a city council or county commission. So you will have to learn how to deal with these elected officials because they influence your boss and your work. Elected officials are very different from the professional planners, engineers, and lawyers that you are used to dealing with. They have one primary skill -- they got elected. After that they have professional abilities that vary from good to bad. My suggestions for reading on politics are:

- The Art of War, by the 3rd century B.C. Chinese general, Sun Tzu;
- The Prince, by the 15th century Italian statesman, Niccolo Machievelli; and,
- Community and the Politics of Place, by the 20th century Mayor of Missoula, Montana, Daniel Kemmis.

One last thought on leadership. If you want to be a planning director, then you better love being the boss. If you don't like it, then you won't be successful or happy.

Ready, Set, Go...

So you are going to interview for the job. I would suggest that:

You should go after a job as a planning director in a small town in a major metropolitan area, or as an assistant planning director for a larger metropolitan agency. Unfortunately, most people live in metropolitan areas and have an urban bias against professional people who work in rural areas.

If it is your first planning director job, then think twice about taking on a planning group that is known to be dysfunctional. Leave the "turn-around" effort to either a more seasoned planning manager or a more foolish one. You want to your first job to result in a positive reference later.

Do your homework on the jurisdiction and it leaders. You have to come across as knowledgeable about the place in which they live and work.
Richard H. Carson has 30 years of professional planning experience in the Pacific Northwest and has been a planning director for 20 years. He is currently the director of the Clark County Department of Community Development in Vancouver, Washington, where he manages 130 employees and $17 million in annual revenues. He is the past acting city manager/community development director for Oregon City in Oregon. He is also the past director of planning for Metro, the regional government for the Portland, Oregon metropolitan area, which includes 24 cities and 3 counties. Mr. Carson has been an elected official of the American Planning Association, and is webmaster for ABOUT Planning on the Internet.

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Common Sense
by Richard H. Carson