Careers Advice: Management Careers in Planning

Written by: James Doe
Published on: 23 Sep 2019

Management (Getty)

More than ever, the planning profession needs strong and influential leaders. With accelerated development, place-shaping, the provision of new infrastructure, meeting the challenges of climate change and the promotion of health and wellbeing rising rapidly up the national agenda, it’s crucial that planners need to be in the right decision-making circles. 

So, that’s the challenge – but as a planner not currently in a management role, you may be asking how do I get there, and what’s involved? And is it for me? Isn’t management just about dealing with personnel problems and being stuck in front of spreadsheets trying to keep the Director of Finance happy? 

Whereas these transactional aspects of most management roles will always need your attention, the big prize within your grasp (apart from that higher salary) is the opportunity to be influential with others, both inside and outside of your organisation, in the pursuit of those quality developments, providing great and sustainable places we wish to see happen in the planning profession. 

Is it for me? 

Management is not for everyone, because despite the HR issues and those spreadsheets, you will be taking on more accountability for what happens in your area, provide leadership to your staff and be that metaphorical captain on the bridge of their ship scanning the horizon for the next things about to happen. If you are a detail person who loves to perfect local plan policy, or ensure every aspect of a planning application is covered, then management will take you away from this coal-face activity. Know yourself and what you want from your career, to make you feel fulfilled at the end of every week. But think ahead and see what value you can offer as a planner by moving to a higher role. You may surprise yourself in what you can achieve. 

Take the initiative

Leading your own team or department – be it in the public or private sector – gives you the opportunity to shape the outcomes within your remit. In the public sector, organisational structures are usually hierarchical and it is often a case of working your way up, often step by step, but forward-thinking authorities will recognise talent when they see it and can offer accelerated pathways into management. 

Wherever you sit within your organisation, it pays to be looking at the roles and responsibilities of the next layer or two above you. Your superiors love their staff taking the initiative, so think upwards and volunteer to take on work at that next level. Put yourself forward for the next project coming up, and offer to attend meetings you might otherwise be left out of. Bring forward solutions to the work at hand, rather than focusing on the problems. Make yourself the obvious choice for vacancies as they arise.

Get trained

Training by itself will not make you a good manager or leader. To realise the spatial vision you want to achieve on the ground, you can only do this through leading and motivating your team; as the old saying goes, you are only as good as the people under you. But the right training will undoubtedly help, and today a formal management qualification is often an essential requirement for new appointments. 

To start with, take up short courses or other training offered by your employer. For more formal routes, NVQ courses are a good starting point and will give you the basics, and cover much of the transactional aspects of management. Diploma or degree level courses will take you into more strategic aspects and for senior positions this will be invaluable. Courses can be expensive for your employer, so if you are new to planning, don’t expect to be put onto an MBA course immediately! However, the big benefit is that formal training will broaden your professional horizons into such areas as employee motivation, leadership and commercial acumen and financial analysis. 

See the corporate picture

These aspects will seem a world away from developing or scrutinising site layout plans or assessing employment land needs. However, they will help you to operate effectively and be influential at the corporate level. They will help you understand where the Council’s Head of Commercial Services or a developer’s marketing manager are coming from. They will give you a sense of realism and pragmatism in promoting your plans to shape the environment.

Management – and more importantly leadership – in planning puts you in a great position. Yes, you will have to manage leave requests, deal with recruitment and complete what can be tiresome performance and financial reports. Manage your time right, be inspirational and provide leadership to your staff and these matters will – eventually – seem a very small part of the job. 

James Doe is assistant director – planning, development and regeneration at Dacorum Borough Council