Careers Advice: Putting the commercial into planning

Written by: Brett Leahy
Published on: 7 May 2018


We all want to do business quickly, easily and efficiently so why are planning departments still renowned for providing a service that is exactly the opposite?

In today’s market, this is not sustainable and planners wanting to accelerate their careers and departments need to ditch the grey cardigans and embrace innovative and commercial thinking.

What is a Commercial Mindset?

In a sentence: Always being open to new ideas.

Pushing boundaries, embracing diversity and challenging the status quo because if you don’t, you will never grow.

What Skills Do I Need?

I build and recruit my team based on the ability to develop a commercial mindset. I don’t look for experience but I do look for a mindset and values that will push the boundaries and these include:

  • Open mindedness

Being open to new ideas, new ways of working and new ways of thinking.

  • Emotional intelligence

Understanding the importance of personal interaction and using it to develop

  • Relationship skills

Wanting to build and develop relationships with all kinds of people – not just peers

  • Personality

Planning is service and people want services to have a face, to answer the phone, to respond to emails and to be human

  • Inquisitiveness

Asking questions and seeking to understand. Some of our best initiatives have developed from us being inquisitive of other people, departments and companies. Always be on the lookout for ideas and if it’s good – use it.

The value most important of them all? Proactivity, the only mindset that adds value. If someone is constantly looking for solutions to problems, they are already half way there to a commercial mindset.

How Can I Develop These Skills?

Developing and enhancing these skills is the next step and I encourage my team to:

  • Draw on past experiences – your own and other people’s. Diversity of backgrounds and knowledge helps to build a rounded team – embrace it.

  • Engage. Reach out, work with and listen to different people.

  • Network. Attend events, run events and empower teams to do the same. I am not just talking planning events either – anything. My team attended the Homes Olympia event and the other week I was at an IT event. Our Planning Hub and commercial products were all based on feedback from networking events.

  • Training. Always try to learn. Customer-focused training and political awareness training are great in developing emotional intelligence.

  • Seek feedback and work on weaknesses.

  • Secondments. These are a great way to appreciate how different departments and processes are interlinked. If the opportunity arises, grab it.

  • Mentoring and coaching. Learn and seek guidance from those who are already exhibiting the behaviours you want to develop.

How To Develop A Commercial Mindset?

You’ve developed the skills and now you need to apply them to develop a commercial mindset. Key to this is understanding.

Understanding your role, your service, your customers, your processes and your outcomes. When you understand these, you realise your role is broader than just ‘professional judgement’. You are a gatekeeper, an enabler, a critical part of the council’s place-maker and home delivery agenda. You need to be sustainable; you need to generate income; you need to be…commercial.

Once you understand this, start challenging practices, cultures, structures and assumptions that prevent you acting commercially. For example, I was told that an outstanding member of staff could not be promoted to a senior role because they hadn’t been with the council for two years. Why? Challenge, disrupt and innovate – don’t get trapped in culture.

Embedding a Commercial Mindset

Always sharpen the saw. Embedding commercial thinking requires acting commercially and commercial businesses are always growing and learning.

Culture is incredibly important: get it right and you embody commercial thinking – get it wrong and culture eats your strategy. As a professional and as a department, be clear on your expectations, purpose and vision – and then reinforce it at every opportunity: inductions, team meetings, 1:1s, the water cooler. Celebrate the right values and challenge the wrong.

Planning Performance Agreements (PPAs) & Commercial Cultural Change

Key to embedding a commercial culture at Milton Keynes Council was implementing PPAs – a higher level of service that people are willing to pay for.

By their very nature, they required us to be open-minded, engaged, collaborative and to think beyond planning. We are all willing to pay for good service; planning is no different.

We implemented our PPA using a roadmap – a visual tool that allows officers to see the process, key milestones and pressure points. We invested money in the tools that would help us to achieve a commercial mindset.

Final Words of Advice

Following the above will lead to a challenging, exciting and rewarding planning career. It won’t all be easy and it won’t all make sense (I’ve been to very random, questionable events) but when it does pay, it truly pays off.

Brett Leahy is chief planner at Milton Keynes Council