‘Why did no one teach me this at school?’ Leadership Lessons from an Expert

Jennifer Joule

Wednesday April 24, 2019

In any kind of social, networking or leadership environment I’m often struck by how ill-prepared I feel. Whilst the academic skills from school and university might prepare you for the intellectual demands of any profession, the other side of the picture, your ability to get on with and lead people, is often missed out. It is taken for granted that you can succeed in a whole range of social situations without any kind of formal advice or training. If the rate at which our recent soft skills events in the South West have sold out, I am not the only one feeling this way.

I recently had the opportunity to take part in the Chief Planners of Tomorrow Initiative organised by the Royal Town Planning Institute. This initiative has been set up to provide opportunities for young planners to learn from senior local authority planners in leadership positions. I met with Helen Martin, Chief Officer for Regeneration and Enterprise at Dudley Council, for the day. She shared with me her practical leadership tips and it was a great opportunity to learn what’s important when managing such a large number of people across many disciplines, all with their own professional skill sets. I share with you some of her helpful and practical advice.

Managing outside your professional expertise: As you progress through an organisation it’s likely you’ll manage people with experience outside your immediate area. Whilst Helen is trained as a planner, she is now responsible for economic development, building control, Sports and Town Halls, Museums, Corporate Estates and even the delivery of school dinners! She recommends doing some reading up-front to ensure you have some awareness of the service area and the issues they face – this gives the team confidence in you as a leader and also helps you to know if everything is generally as it should be. Ultimately, though, as you progress in a leadership role, you do not need to be nor are you expected to be the expert - it’s important to give your team the trust and space they need to perform at their best.

Detail: If you’re a details-orientated person it can be hard to step back and see the bigger, strategic picture. Planners are often used to examining the minutiae of proposals or policy wording, but also need to accept that more responsibility means you cannot maintain a high level of focus on every matter. Instead you need to learn when and where to step back (and in) and allow your colleagues to take the lead in the project detail. This will often involve you as a manager setting the direction and allowing your colleagues to devise the detailed answers, but it is important to delegate and not abdicate – you still need to keep an oversight.

Time management: Having oversight over so many areas is incredibly time consuming and often involves a series of meetings each day. Taking time to do your own work and even keep on top of emails can be difficult. Helen recommends timetabling in advance a couple of hours or more of ‘free time’ each week, and then making note of any jobs to be completed in that period. That way you don’t lose track and can make an efficient use of all your working time.

Keeping wider goals in mind: When you are working at a senior level you need a solid understanding of your own areas, but you also need to think strategically and corporately, having an awareness of the goals of other departments or sectors and keeping in mind the potential for action in your area to have a ripple effect elsewhere in the organisation or wider. Other departments’ goals might align with yours or they might conflict. It’s important to see this wider picture and ‘join the dots’ to see the synergies with wider organisational priorities.

Progression takes longer, the further up you go: With each career move there’s more to learn and Helen’s experience is that she’s stayed longer in each job as she has gained more responsibility. You will need to learn to manage outside your immediate expertise and rely more on the performance of others beneath you, both of which can take time to establish.

Being involved with Women in Property has helped me to step outside my comfort zone and develop some of the social, networking and leadership skills you are never taught at school. It has allowed me to engage with women from across the career spectrum, make new contacts and have the confidence to network in a room of unknown faces. This has been made much easier by the welcoming and chatty nature of pretty much everyone I’ve met at Women in Property events. Hopefully some of the advice Helen has kindly offered to me will be useful to others looking to progress within the property industry.

Jennifer is a Planner at Lichfields and a member of the South West Committee.

If you are interested in finding out more about the RTPI’s Chief Planners of Tomorrow initiative please contact Sarah Woodford sarah.woodford@rtpi.org.uk.


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