Some young planners ask: “Am I making an impact?”
Leaving school with goals for equity, efficiency, livability, and sustainability, they find the day-to-day limitations of junior positions constraining. Work assignments are procedural or technical rather than policy-making or strategy. They may not be at the table for important meetings, or if they are, their ideas may not be adopted.
In previous posts, I have counseled a patient attitude about expectations of impact. (see “Early Career Angst” and “Don’t Get Along With Your Manager? Try Tolerance”). The question remains, however, how do young planners gain credibility, influence, and power needed to make an impact?
Let’s examine these ideas, one at a time.
Credibility refers to being convincing, believable, and trusted. Credibility comes from good work habits – understanding what is needed, completing assignments on time, being up-front about difficulties, and being a team player.
Credibility also comes from providing solid evidence to support recommendations. Finally, sincerity enhances credibility — meaning what you say and avoiding workplace gossip. Credibility is a prerequisite for influence and power.
Influence is the ability to have an effect on another person or a planning outcome.
One kind of influence comes from the authority granted in the position. A planner reviewing development applications, for example, influences the interpretation of zoning and subdivision regulations. Plan-writers influence the content, organization, and language of the plans.
Influence, however, is more than the authorities granted to a position. A junior planner can influence their supervisor by offering innovative ideas, backed by evidence and analysis. A team member can achieve influence by providing inspiration and encouragement. Influence can be also gained in a network, such as an internal city team or a collaboration with service providers. Influential planners develop networks as they work.
Power is the ability to change the behavior of others or determine outcomes in plan-making and implementation. It is an unpopular word for some, as it seems at odds with the ideal of egalitarian teams, collaboration, and reciprocity.
If it is not acknowledged, though, power may be still operating beneath the surface. Power is partially defined by position descriptions and organization charts, but that is not the only factor. Power requires credibility and influence. This is shown when two planners with the same position description have different levels of power.
How They Come Together
How do credibility, influence, and power relate?
The base for this trio is credibility — influence and power normally grow from that. Building credibility is like creating a retirement account — make regular deposits, avoid withdrawals, and taking advantage of compounding.
Regular deposits are high quality work and demonstration of good character, withdrawals are occasional mistakes, and compounding is the synergistic development of your reputation over time. Credibility is revealed when you are sought for advice and are able to solve problems with others. There is no shortcut in this process.
Influence is derived from credibility. It does not just mean getting your way, of course, because even modestly changing the course of a planning effort or decision can be an accomplishment. Even if a decision goes against your recommendation, the next planning decision may be based on efforts in the previous case.
Those who have influence are realistic about how interests are aligned and think carefully about how to use that influence. It is something that effective planners nurture, protect, and judiciously use, carefully considering where and when to use it.
Power dazzles and is necessary to fight for the good: to resist corruption, achieve social justice, advance sustainability, or any number of planning goals. But it can also lead a planner astray.
Effective planners use the power they possess with a light touch. It stems from formal position descriptions, an ability to collaborate and form coalitions, and one’s credibility and influence.
As planners move up the management ladder, they must cultivate power but hope to rarely exercise it. Exercise it too often and it evaporates.
Top image: Samina Raja, Heather Wooten, and Gwen Urey (from left) speaking at the 2014 Dale Prize colloquium. Photo by Tom Zasadzinski/Cal Poly Pomona. Raja and Wooten were winners of the annual prize for planners in 2014.
About the Author
Richard Willson, FAICP
Richard Willson, FAICP, is a professor in the Department of Urban and Regional Planning at Cal Poly Pomona. He has also served as department chair, interim dean, and independent planning consultant. Willson's research addresses planning practice and parking policy. His book, A Guide for the Idealist: How to Launch and Navigate Your Planning Career, amplifies the themes in this blog series. Willson is also the author of Parking Reform Made Easy (Island Press, 2013) and Parking Management for Smart Growth (2015). Willson holds a PhD in urban planning from the University of California, Los Angeles, a Master of Planning from the University of Southern California, and a Bachelor of Environmental Studies from the University of Waterloo.