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5 Keys to Being an Effective Planning Director

October is National Community Planning Month and to wrap it up, we are featuring a four-day series on planning and leadership.

Make sure you follow along with this planning and leadership series all week: 

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We all want to be successful in our careers. One skill that distinguishes successful planning directors or leaders in general, is leadership: the ability to get things done through others. Leadership can manifest itself in many different ways, but the ultimate measure of an effective leader is positive and lasting change in community. You are remembered more for the lasting impact on the form, appearance, or vitality of a community versus how quickly you got something done or how well you stayed within budget.1 

Experience suggests that effective planning directors know how to do five key things: exercise political skills, set the vision and mission, manage employees, manage decisions, and manage themselves. By practicing these five things from Local Planning: Contemporary Principles and Practice, you will greatly make a difference in the life of your community.

exercising political skills

Planners are regularly involved with politicians and with political issues. Successful planning directors develop good relationships with elected officials and earn respect within the political framework of the community. 

Practice Exercising Political Skills:

  • Be a self-starter. Make a conscious effort to seek and seize opportunities that can make a difference.
  • Provide timely and proactive guidance about planning issues. You can help decision makers recognize that growth and development issues are at their core, planning issues.

setting the vision and the mission

The vision (what we aspire to be) and the mission (how we should do business) of the planning department will depend on the needs of the community. While you cannot achieve either your vision or mission without the buy-in from your staff, they are tasks that cannot be delegated: the planning director must take the lead.

Practice Setting the Vision and Mission:

  • Review and process private developments and determine if your department plays either the role of regulator or problem solver.
  • Evaluate old plans and ordinances, and propose revisions to those that do not seem to be improving the community.
  • Determine how your team can work in partnership with developers, citizens and other departments to develop better plans and enhance quality of life.
  • Become a source of "big ideas" that can capture the imagination and support of the community.
  • Discuss "real planning" with your team. Do you have all the tools to create the kinds of new communities that citizens want?

managing employees

Like any local government manager - a police chief, or public works director, for example - a planning director needs solid technical skills and the ability to manage people and operations. Successful planning directors make strategic decisions about the allocation of human and financial resources, the hiring and promotion of staff members, and the select of consultants.

Practice Managing Employees (From Good to Great written by Jim Collins):

  • Get the right people back on the bus. Skilled planning directors need to devote time to attracting, recruiting, and retaining talented staff.
  • Get the wrong people off the bus. Underperforming employees need to be moved to situations in which they can be effective - or moved out of the organization.
  • Get the right people into the right seats on the bus. A staff member who us a poor performer in one position may be outstanding in another. A good manager and leader understands how to best deploy available resources.
  • Decide where to drive the bus. Where the department lacks a clear vision and mission, even the most talented staff members may not reach their potential. 


Successful managers and leaders are self-aware: they know their strengths and their limitations, and they make a point of developing the skills and discipline they need to manager their responsibilities.

Practice Self-Management:

  • Manage your calendar so that time is available to address political issues; to develop, discuss, and periodically revisit the department's mission; and to hire, place, and motivate staff.
  • Assess your strengths and weaknesses, and find others whose talents complement your own.
  • Learn to delegate. When directors take on work that could easily be handed over to subordinates, they fall behind on crucial responsibilities that cannot be delegated.

1  Edited by Gary Hack … [et al] (2009) “The Role of the Planning Director.” Local Planning: Contemporary Principles and Practice: pp. 444-445. ICMA: Washington, D.C.

Want to uncover more tips and best practices on leading and managing teams? Download the free ebook: Leading and Managing Others in Local Government. It includes different levels of leading and managing others, including: empowering others, performance and capability, recognition and motivating others, difficult conversations, and what matters most to your staff. 

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