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Thread: Younger planners & respect from politicians

  1. #1
    Cyburbian MacheteJames's avatar
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    Younger planners & respect from politicians

    We had a public hearing this past Monday as part of the environmental review process for our comprehensive plan currently in the works. We've got a team of consultants that have played a key role since Day 1 and they were given the role of explaining the scope of potential environmental impacts from the new plan to our Board of Trustees. For this meeting, the consultants' project manager brought a new planner with her to help explain the scope of impacts, and she was given a portion of their speaking time.

    There was a bit of a mishap when their laptop failed to work, dooming their PowerPoint presentation (I'm sick to death of PowerPoint so I welcomed this). This may have thrown them off balance a bit. I thought they did okay and were able to compensate adequately, though the lack of a visual element in their presentation was unfortunate.

    Afterward, two of the Trustees took our Planning Director aside and told her to never have this new planner come again, that she came across "like a Girl Scout" and a "Ditz" and that they were unhappy with her performance. I got a little lecture from our Director the day after and she made it clear that we all must meet a very high standard when presenting before the municipal boards and the public and to always be on guard.

    Now, in retrospect, those comments made to our Director about a fellow planning professional seem pretty inappropriate, though after 9 months in the planning trenches, nothing surprises me anymore. The consultants' planner looked around my age and the Trustees are all Boomers and older. I have personally found that it can be tough to maintain bearing when explaining complex topics to a room full of people my parents' and grandparents' age (we all know Gen Ys never come to public hearings). I'm wondering how all this factored in to their comments and what, if anything, those of us who aren't that far out of school can do when it comes to our mannerisms, bearing, and sense of gravitas to ensure that we're taken seriously by the elected officials.

  2. #2
    Cyburbian zman's avatar
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    I think that, as a planner in his 20s, there is a certain "older generation decorum" I will uphold when dealing with the public. This includes presenting myself in a more traditional manner and being prepared. While it sounds like your colleague had a bit of computer trouble and that your elected officials may have jumped on that (and been a little harsh on the girl afterwards) there may have been something about her appearance or how she presented the information itself that may have been lacking.
    As a Gen Y-er, we sometimes feel that "winging it" and just "getting things done" is enough to get by. The past 20 years it seems that mediocraty has been rewarded and people my age are running with that assurance into the workplace.

    We had the State help us recently with a downtown development plan and design criteria as part of a "help small towns initiative." The state office used a handful of landscape architecture students from the local university. At each presentation for this, the student in charge of the project repeatedly showed up to town hall in jeans, t-shirt and flip-flops and gave a much-to-be-desired presentation (read: half-assed) that literally made us wonder about the effectiveness of the plan itself. It came down to, this student (3 years younger than I) did not sell his own project and his very presence gave us the impression that he did not want to be here (but guess what will be at the top of his resume....).

    This upset me as a persobn of the same generation and a town official and left a bad taste in my mouth about the school and program from the State that put the whole thing on.
    You get all squeezed up inside/Like the days were carved in stone/You get all wired up inside/And it's bad to be alone

    You can go out, you can take a ride/And when you get out on your own/You get all smoothed out inside/And it's good to be alone
    -Peart

  3. #3
    Cyburbian
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    I can't really judge for myself since I wasn't in the meeting, but I echo what zman said.

    I did speech and debate all through high school and college, focusing in limited preparation speech (extemp and impromptu). I was amazed at the disparity between my teammates: everyone who competed in my events wore nothing less than a suit (women included) and took the events very seriously. People on my team who did prose, verse, and acting often came in beat up jeans and t-shirts (but the competitors in their events wore suits which probably made a big difference in who would win events). As a consultant, my rule of thumb is to always dress at least one notch higher than the client, unless told otherwise. Body language, eye contact, and speaking style also contribute to the effectiveness of the speaker.

    I love powerpoint presentations, but I hate when people just read the presentation out loud. I wonder if the young planner was going to rely on the powerpoint and had to think on her feet when presenting.

    I am in my twenties, and I think the plan commissioners had every right to criticize the speaker (especially if they are used to better presentations). I'm also glad that they didn't lambast the young planner in the meeting, but brought the Plan Director aside after the meeting.

    I would recommend the APA book: Successful Public Meetings by Elaine Cogan.

  4. #4
    Cyburbian beach_bum's avatar
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    young planners

    I think that younger planners seem to have a disadvantage when it comes to anything dealing with the public or politicians. When I was at my last job, I took alot of the 'front' counter type questions and exclusively dealt with impact fees, signs and other topics. It was not uncommon that after 30 minutes of explaining something I would have to go get my Planning Director (gentleman in his mid-40's) to explain the exact same things to the incoming public. I am in my mid-20's and a female, and often times they would say they understood after my boss explained the regulation or requirement to them! Also the older commissioners and board members always seem to take my boss's direction better than the other younger planner in our office (he was the boss afterall!) Maybe younger planners need to do a better job getting to know their politicians and public. I found that I got the most respect from people and politicians who I knew the best and worked with on a more consistent basis.
    "Never invest in any idea you can't illustrate with a crayon." ~Peter Lynch

  5. #5
    moderator in moderation Suburb Repairman's avatar
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    As another one in my 20s, I can vouch for what Zman described. There is a certain higher standard for a young planner to prove him/herself, especially when making public presentations. You should always be capable of improv, but it is imperative to be polished and professional. You already have cards stacked against you in a room full of your parents, so you have to compensate. Sometimes, though, it doesn't matter what you do. I left a job two years ago with this being a primary reason. My age was making me ineffective no matter what I did, so I went to a more progressive city full of young people.

    I also suggest facial hair. Seriously. It's a good way to add 10 years to your appearance.

    Young women, especially, seem prone to the age card being played. Planning and local government, like it or not, is still a big testosterone-laden sausage-fest. It seems like the slightest hint at a smile or bubbly personality immediately causes folks to question their expertise. Or, god forbid, they actually be attractive. I think one of the hottest things I've seen my wife in is a very professional skirt-suit--so appropriate dress won't always get you there. We all know attractive women cannot be smart! I think it is grossly unfair, but I've seen it happen--especially in more rural areas (not saying this is the case everywhere). One of our female posters might be able to better elaborate on how they have worked to be taken seriously.

    Some of the issue with young planners is confidence. A young planner has to be especially confident and assertive, but still be up-front when you don't know something; the slightest hint of unconfidence often leads more seasoned folks to assume incompetence and fall-back on their own experiences/beliefs rather than listening to what you have to say. If you are honest about what you do/don't know and are confident, politicians are more likely to follow you. However, you have have have to respect their experiences. Empathy is key to winning over folks that are older--they want to know that you respect their perspective on things even if you don't agree.

    Be confident, be polished, be professional, but be yourself.

    Note: Zman, I'd be ripping the department head up & down from the university for not teaching students how to look/act professional. They are not doing their students any favors.

    "Oh, that is all well and good, but, voice or no voice, the people can always be brought to the bidding of the leaders. That is easy. All you have to do is tell them they are being attacked and denounce the pacifists for lack of patriotism and exposing the country to danger. It works the same way in any country."

    - Herman Göring at the Nuremburg trials (thoughts on democracy)

  6. #6
    Unfrozen Caveman Planner mendelman's avatar
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    The best way for a "young" planner to garner respect from "older" people is to know your stuff inside and out and anticipate all possible questions. That way you can improvise, if necessary and answer questions with authority and succinctness.

    Dressing appropriately is just a given. It shouldn't even have to be mentioned if someone is actually willing to be in a professional career.

    I'm 30 and been working, professionally, for 5-1/2 years.
    I'm sorry. Is my bias showing?

    The ends can justify the means.

  7. #7
    Cyburbian boiker's avatar
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    If I learned anything from a past director it's be prepared for any question and confidently answer it without being condescending.

    Many politicians- no, make that all politicians have egos and need to constantly feed the monster. It takes tact, wit, and intelligence (I also use candidness) to be able to make the monster feel fed while establishing your intelligence and professionalism.

    I’ve seen 10 year seasoned planners let themselves get rattled by the pressure of the political arena. Those presentations are a chance to sell yourself to the board/council as well as the community.

    Edit: Damn you Mendelman. Stop stealing my thoughts!!!
    Dude, I'm cheesing so hard right now.

  8. #8
    Cyburbian TexanOkie's avatar
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    In Texas a lot of local politics, both inside and outside the larger metros, is still run by the "good ol' boy" system, and if that's at all present in the area where you live, or something similar, I'd wonder if that's how they treated women, period. My supervisor is woman in her 50's who got her start as one of only 2 planners for Travis County (the county Austin's part of) right before Austin started it's astronomical growth spurt and worked there for 15+ years. The experience made her into a very hard, blunt, and assertive person because she constantly had to prove her worth and assert her control/power to people who looked down on her because she was young and female. While one hopes that times have changed at least a little for the better, I've observed in my limited (1 year) experience that a lot of that sentiment is still out there. It's pretty sad, and I hope this is not the case with your official body.

    Off-topic:
    P.S. I bet a lot of you never expected a sentiment like this from me

  9. #9
    Cyburbian Raf's avatar
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    Quote Originally posted by MacheteJames View post
    two of the Trustees took our Planning Director aside and told her to never have this new planner come again, that she came across "like a Girl Scout" and a "Ditz" and that they were unhappy with her performance. I got a little lecture from our Director the day after and she made it clear that we all must meet a very high standard when presenting before the municipal boards and the public and to always be on guard.
    The board of directors were quite unprofessional in my opinion and simply should have said that the presentation could have been better.

    Side note: My boss has always told me come with a back up. This means that if the powerpoint doesn't work on the laptop, have it read on a disc or flash drive, or if that doesn't work make sure to bring boards and handouts for commission/council, thus i always have handouts and boards to go alongside a powerpoint. You just got to follow the rule of thumb for the boy scouts and "always be prepared." With the "girl scout" what was she wearing? What were some of her mannerisms? I just hope this young planner gal is not kicking herself in the pants for such a non-constructive remark.


    As Zman said, we Generation Yers are slackers. CONSTANTLY. I admit it. And since i have an even younger face (i can't grow a beard for the life of me) i feel i need to bring my "A plus" game to public presentations and workshops. That means dressing up really nice (tie to most workshops depending on the locale and full on suit for planning commission/city council meetings) and knowing what i am talking about from page 1 until the end. Even when i meeting with my public clients i am always in a tie just because i don't want to give our public clients the aurora that i am too young to know what i am talking about. Appearance goes a long way to giving joe public the appearance that you know what your talking about. I usually always take my assistant planner to meetings to get experience and tell her to chime in when she needs to our turn to her an ask for an opinion in front of clients. You gotta break in somehow right? It is just tougher to break yourself in planning in your 20's than say your 30's. As one woman told me at a meeting. "Son, you don't know, your too young to know." We always have to overcome that.
    follow me on the twitter @rcplans

  10. #10
    Cyburbian beach_bum's avatar
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    female planners

    Quote Originally posted by Suburb Repairman View post
    Young women, especially, seem prone to the age card being played. Planning and local government, like it or not, is still a big testosterone-laden sausage-fest. It seems like the slightest hint at a smile or bubbly personality immediately causes folks to question their expertise. Or, god forbid, they actually be attractive. I think one of the hottest things I've seen my wife in is a very professional skirt-suit--so appropriate dress won't always get you there. We all know attractive women cannot be smart! I think it is grossly unfair, but I've seen it happen--especially in more rural areas (not saying this is the case everywhere). One of our female posters might be able to better elaborate on how they have worked to be taken seriously.

    Absolutely correct, I talked a little bit about this in my post, but females are not taken as seriously in this profession. I once had someone come in the office, put his feet up on our chairs and ask me to fetch him some water For the young planners, especially female planners, I think always appearing professional and building a personal relationship with those you serve is the most effective way to be taken seriously. Unfortunently and thankfully, females cannot grow facial hair....but dressing smart is easy, nothing too short or low-cut, the usual professional attire works. Females generally have an easier time bringing a more personal touch to anything, whether its a conversation or an email, and I dont see anything wrong with using that skill to further your career.
    "Never invest in any idea you can't illustrate with a crayon." ~Peter Lynch

  11. #11
    Cyburbian MacheteJames's avatar
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    Thanks, everyone.

    Quote Originally posted by mendelman View post
    The best way for a "young" planner to garner respect from "older" people is to know your stuff inside and out and anticipate all possible questions. That way you can improvise, if necessary and answer questions with authority and succinctness.

    Dressing appropriately is just a given. It shouldn't even have to be mentioned if someone is actually willing to be in a professional career.

    I'm 30 and been working, professionally, for 5-1/2 years.
    What I was getting at is the concept of gravitas when speaking to a group that is relying on you as the "expert" on the subject matter at hand. It's something that has to be cultivated and graduate school does a poor job of this. In this particular case on Monday, the presenter was dressed professionally; the issue was one of speaking style. This wasn't part of a Q&A session, rather it was a presentation of potential environmental impacts that got pretty in-depth with the kind of jargon we use regularly. There must have been something about her presentation in combination with her obvious youth that yielded the "Girl Scout" remarks. You wouldn't call a 50 year old woman this, but for a young one, it's apparently fair game.

  12. #12
    Cyburbian amyk's avatar
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    As a female in my 20's, I can totally relate to this post. I've been working as a planner for almost 5 years now and let me tell you, the perceptions are interesting.

    I agree with much of what's been said here, especially regaring professional image, etc. For most of my career, I've tended to migrate to more rural jurisdictions that are very casual. Generally, I've found in those areas, if you dress too professionally, it brings an air of intimidation to the room, and the public and officials find it harder to relate to you. So while yes, I still try to maintain my professional image, I also respect my audience and tone it down so that I am not looked down on for that reason. I don't want to be so distracting appearance-wise, that no one can digest what I'm saying or relate to me.

    I've also found that in instances when I share an office with someone (usually male), I am often mistaken as their secretary. I've literally had men (from the public, who have never met me) walk in looking for a colleague, looked right at me, and asked me to perform a secretarial duty or expect me to know my colleague's whereabouts and schedule, assuming that I am in an administrative role. Out of politeness I'll usually assist them if I can, but they're often shocked to discover that I am on the planning staff because a) there is some gender discrimination and a female couldn't possibly be in this role, and b) they think I am fresh out of high school.

    In my last position, there were three planners in our department who were under 30 (two of us were female). We were also the three planners spearheading an effort for a major code overhaul and a new permitting system (in an area that has never had borough-wide zoning OR building permits). We were very much supported by our administration and management, but, obvuously, much of the public was opposed to all the new regulations being implemented. When presenting our zoning proposals at an Assembly meeting (our equivalent to a Board of Supervisors), an Assembly member questioned our expertise, experience, and qualifications and during the public meeting he referred to us as "Junior Planners". Fortunately, our manager was quick to defend us and our qualifications and the proposal has moved forward.

    Now that I have moved to "the dark side", in an urban area, my appearance is much more scruitinized, so I do need to keep that in mind. However, many of the employees in my firm are young, in their 20's and 30's, and we have a lot of respect within our company. It's a very different shift for me mentally, and I'm still trying to grasp my mind around the learning curve that I have. Luckily, I don't have the pressure of feeling like my age/gender/appearance are hindering factors to my work, so I can focus on other things.
    Last edited by amyk; 08 May 2008 at 2:49 PM.
    "That's the difference between me and the rest of the world! Happiness isn't good enough for me! I demand euphoria!" ~Calvin and Hobbes

  13. #13
    Cyburbian CDT's avatar
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    I have certainly been there in terms of age discrimination. I still get a little of it from time to time even though I've been in the field for 10 years and am in my mid thirties.

    I think a few things about the general issue. New planers, regardless of age need to work hard to get up to speed, that's obvious. If they are in a position that requires public speaking then they need to watch as many presentations as possible to prepare, another no-brainer.

    Are any of us immune to failure? No, in fact leaving yourself open to failure means you're willing to take risks. I am sure the young planner learned a lot during her presentation. I believe the Planning Director needs to educate their PC/City Council/County Board about the empowerment and training process of new planners. That director needs to communicate a need to foster a department that trains new planners to replace the retiring planners which means allowing them to take risks and fail. If the PD is present and has the ability to interject as necessary, that's about as much quality control as there can be. I think the intolerance needs to be beat off with a stick. Cities cannot afford to hire all mid level stellar planners. There needs to be a gradient where new can learn from old and vice versa. The PD should communicate that mentality to the board. That's just my opinion.

  14. #14
    Cyburbian Otis's avatar
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    Most of my staff is considerably younger or more female than I am, and I used to be bombarded with people wanting me to come to the counter because they wanted the "real answer" from the director. I started just not coming out and telling the younger/ femaler staff members to tell the people at the counter that I said they were right. That's cut down on the issue to some extent. But there is an unfortunate truth that people tend to trust older people to have the right answer, based on experience. The way to overcome that, at least some, for a younger planner is act and dress professionally. I've got one very young planner on staff who is having a hard time getting out of his graduate school counter-culture groove when dealing with the public, and it is causing him problems (including with the city council and the city manager, who have asked about him: "Is he just weird, or what?")

  15. #15
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    As a 20's planner I've noticed a natural "disrespect" from Boomers as if I don't know what I'm talking about at the first point I open my mouth. But when it comes to ANYTHING related to technology they fall head over heels to hear what I have to say. I have purposely grown facial hair and dress more professionally than my Boomer colleagues and it has worked to a certain extent. My office is Public Administration heavy so Planners rarely have to speak to elected officials or executive supervisors. I'd say naturally us Gen-Yers get a bad rap but it is partially due. You gotta earn it and first impressions are everything.

  16. #16
    Cyburbian Plan-it's avatar
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    Quote Originally posted by Xenobion View post
    You gotta earn it and first impressions are everything.
    Ding Ding, you've got it. You have to earn respect. It is not something that is given to you because you showed up. I am an X-er planner in my mid-30s that has worked up the chain of command in various offices. When you prove that you are intelligent, trustworthy, and show them that you know how to play the game (they are politicians after all) you will start to gain some traction. If you come across as a know-it-all and do not understand the role that planning plays in the community and political process (adviser, mediator, and facilitator) you will have a hard time getting the ear of the elected officials.
    Satellite City Enabler

  17. #17
    Cyburbian Richmond Jake's avatar
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    Plan-it, you stole my thunder. Especially the part about coming "across as a know-it-all."
    Good take.
    Annoyingly insensitive

  18. #18
    Cyburbian Tide's avatar
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    When people approach my office and ask for the director I usually will come up front and see if they notice me first or not, more times it's not. I'm a 30 year old director and I have 26 and 33 year old planners. The other day a woman wasn't getting too far with my 33 year old planner so she asked to see me. When I approached the counter I introduced myself and shook her hand and I got the typical, "Oh, I thought you'd be older" to which I replied that she was speaking with our oldest planner.

    A few things young planners and directors can do. Dress appropriately, speak in formal dialogue, and get ride of some of those things that make you "look" young; maybe the haircut or pierced nose. But often times in public sector age = respect and age = knowledge even if we all know that isn't the truth.
    @GigCityPlanner

  19. #19
    Cyburbian mike gurnee's avatar
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    I have probably told this one before, so excuse this old fart.

    Fellow came in with zoning issues. Jane's desk was situated as if she was a secretary. Fellow did like the answers Jane provided. Becoming a bit irate,he demanded to talk with the "man" in charge. Jane brought him into my office. I repeated what Jane had told him, and added that he could appeal the determination. I said the zoning administrator could help him with the forms. I then introduced him to Jane.

    Priceless. We laughed about that one for weeks.

  20. #20
    Cyburbian cch's avatar
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    I think your trustees sound like a bunch of sexist jerks, and age wasn't the main factor here. Gender was.

    I symphathize with that planner. For my first presentation to our county board my powerpoint didn't work (It would open fine on other computers, but not on the laptop they had there, for some reason). Luckily, I ended up getting kudos for not letting it frazzle me, and still giving an effective presentation. I think I must work for nicer people than you do.

    But I've experienced first hand how my male counterparts, even if they are my age, are automatically taken more seriously by the older politicians (male and female) than I am. Even now that I am 31 years old, and I've been working professionally for 8 years, they seem to sometimes think I am just an assistant or a clerical girl. But, I don't mind. I like to leave them gobsmacked when they see that I know my shit and I can handle myself.

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