An Interview With - Donna Carney, Director of Citizen's Planning Institute, City of Philadelphia Planning Commission
Wow, where has the time gone? I can't believe we're over halfway done with 2018! Didn't it just seem like the Eagles were marching down Broad Street? Now preseason is only a few weeks away! Crazy! So, my summer has been very hectic and as such, I've been remiss in getting blog posts out like I've wanted to, but I've finally made the time to get to it, and for this post I've got a fantastic interview for you all. I've had the pleasure of meeting Donna and presenting to the Citizen's Planning Institute, and it's a really great organization that does phenomenal work in the City of Philadelphia. But you don't have to listen to me, please read below and let Donna tell you all about it!
Hi Donna! Thanks for taking the time to speak with me. So, you work for the City of Philadelphia, but in a non-traditional planning capacity. Can you please describe what exactly you do for my readers?
Sure! I'm Director and founder of the Citizen's Planning Institute (CPI), which is the education and outreach entity of the Planning Commission. Its primary mission is to empower residents all across the city to be better advocates and activists in their neighborhoods for issues related to the physical environment.
Sounds like an admirable mission! What made you interested in planning?
My initial graduate degree program was historic preservation and I defined that as managing the best of the built environment. I was less interested in the technical side of conservation of materials and more interested in the “whole” of community, so I suppose I was actually doing planning without realizing it! And in my later architecture work, I realized I was most excited by projects that engaged with the voices in the community.
An architect who ended up in planning? What would George Costanza think!? So what made you want to join CPI?
There was no CPI when I was hired! As mentioned, I didn’t go through any formal academic urban planning program. I was laid off from my architecture job during the 2009 recession and was doing lots of informational interviews. When the RFP for the Citizens Planning Institute position was issued by the Planning Commission, several people forwarded the link to me because they thought it would be a good fit. I was hesitant (to apply) for a while because I wasn’t a “planner”, but my background in preservation, architecture & sustainable design, and especially organizational design, ended up being a perfect fit for creating the Institute.
As an “outsider” to planning, I didn’t come in with any preconceptions and would be learning about planning alongside the participants! I did the research and interviewed city and neighborhood influencers to figure out what the structure of CPI should be. It’s been years of growing and tweaking ever since!
That's impressive! What’s something that you learned along your career path that you wish you knew 5 years ago?
I approach life with no regrets. There may have been things I would have done differently, knowing what I know now, but learning is part of the journey of life! This position has definitely helped me to grow and learn more about myself, which has helped me be a more effective and happier leader.
If you weren’t in planning, what other career path do you think you’d have gone into?
I have degrees in interior design, theater design, architecture, historic preservation and organizational management & development. There is still time to explore other paths!
That is literally a fistful of degrees! With so many professional interests, to you, what’s the most interesting part of your job?
Definitely it’s meeting the inspiring people who are making a difference in neighborhoods all across the city. It’s also been interesting to get a glimpse into how city government works (and doesn’t).
And the least interesting?
When it stops being interesting, I’ll find something else!
Fair enough. With such a diverse professional background, I'm curious as to what you've worked on that left you feeling the most proud?
CPI has been the most inspiring project I’ve been involved with and most proud of. CPI has been the only time I was given the space and the agency to create a program that didn’t exist before-- do the research, talk to stakeholders, and design a program informed by everyone with clear outcome goals. [At CPI] People “testify” how the course has changed their view of how they are able to enact change. For example, a fall 2016 participant wrote “Being a CPI graduate has given me tools, empowered my skills and opened up doors that were always closed to me.” There is really nothing comparable [to that] in my 30 years of work as an architect.
I will say that a project I was really proud of while working in historic preservation in New York was producing the historic structures report for Ellis Island for the National Park Service. I got to do archival research at the National Archives and extensive on-site documentation when the only “tenants” were pigeons and rats!
That has to feel so good when you can get direct feedback on how you're having a positive impact on someone's life. So, you work for the City and we know that there's still a bit of a slower job market here for planners than elsewhere. In your opinion, is the Philadelphia region right now a good place to be a planner?
There are opportunities in all sectors - public, private and non-profit. I would suggest [to a job seeker] that you think about what motivates you - what are your strengths? What gets you excited to get out of bed? Then go talk to someone in each of these sectors doing work you think is interesting. There isn’t any single path. That’s what’s great about planning - you [as a planner] bring a generalist understanding that is often lacking. If you are interested in a particular application of planning, like transportation or policy - then finding the kinds of job environments that allow you to learn about that topic may be somewhat easier. My advice to anyone who comes in to talk to me, is to understand your strengths and interests, talk to lots of people from different organizations, and just dive in. Every job will teach you something!
That's so uplifting! Pivoting on that subject, in your opinion, what’s the biggest challenge facing the planning field right now?
So many urgent issues…but I don’t think there is enough discussion and planning around long-term environmental issues that will affect not just the Philadelphia region, but have global impacts. Part of the challenge is a lack of appetite to invest seriously in ideas that have long-range benefits instead of just short-term wins. As a culture, we suffer from short-term memory and a need for immediate gratification.
Well, hopefully some decision makers out there heed your words and take the steps to mitigate against those forces.
Thank you so much again for taking the time to chat with me, I'll let you out of here with one fun final question – what was the best thing you did in Philadelphia in the last year?
Get another 60 Citizen Planners graduated and out there doing good work!
Like what you read? Know someone who should be next? Leave a note in the comment section below!
A long, long time ago, on a continent far away, I was the president of an American Football organization called Gridiron Victoria (GV). To this day, it remains the largest organization I've ever led. GV had some 500 players, coaches, and officials when I left the organization to pursue other professional goals in 2012. When I took over as president in 2010, the league was not in great shape. We had started the year with one of our six clubs folding, leading to a few weeks of bickering as to whether we should have a 10 game or 12 game schedule (we settled on 12). The season ended as lackluster as it had began - with a boring, meagerly attended 7-0 championship game in a hail storm. Players and club administrators were growing bored. The top three teams were a foregone conclusion by week 1 and no one wanted to play the same team 3 times in a season. Those club admins who were old enough to remember when the league had over a dozen clubs in the 90's would frequently reminding the younger members of the "glory days" (and expressing understandable resentment at the current situation).
I knew what we as a league had to do. GV had to grow - or as a league it would die. Slowly at first, then suddenly - without growth, I knew GV was dead. It would only be a matter of time.
The GV Logo then and now. My how things change...
The idea of growth was generally not something the sport's leaders truly embraced at the time. Certainly, they wanted growth, but it had to be the "right" type of growth. In GV's operating rules there were requirements that a new club needed to meet in order to be allowed to participate. These requirements were extremely onerous, and as a result, a new club hadn't applied to play in about 10 years; and when I say onerous, I speak from the position of having tried to create a club. This was before the days of ubiquitous social media, so organizing people was much more difficult than today. The amount of work needed to get a club off the ground would have been a herculean task - so I gave up and decided to join a club that took me nearly an hour to get to by public transport.
Speaking with the leadership at the time, the logic as to why it was so hard to get in made sense, on the surface. They had seen so many clubs with weak finances and limited player/coach pools start up and fail, often mid to late season. I had seen this very thing happen two years before I became president - a club rep came to a league meeting, said nothing, then folded the club the next day, with 3 weeks to go in the season. It was a strain on the league when clubs couldn't make it to the end of a year, and really disheartening each time a club folded. In my opinion, while GV was protecting new clubs from potential failure, it was also protecting itself and its players from additional disappointment, frustration, and aggravation. This is very understandable. Disappointment hurts, and if you have enough of it, people become jaded, and walk away. I remember getting all geared up to play a game only to have a team forfeit after driving an hour to the field. It's not what anyone signed up for, and it's respectable for any organization to try and keep those occurrences to a minimum.
And yet, the league had crafted itself such a requirement of perfection that it had essentially constrained it's own growth - it's own success. By needing each potential club to be at such a high level of members, money, and organizational structure by the time it took the field, it discouraged people from even trying because the effort needed to succeed was so great that it wasn't worth the time to try. This type of discouragement caused by perfection is everywhere in not only business, but life. It's totally understandable - but also tremendously detrimental to one's goals.
It took time and convincing, but eventually, we were able to relax the rules, right at the time when a tremendous opportunity to market the sport to a new audience came available. The NFL was being broadcast on free TV for the first time in years, and we had HD quality footage to be utilized for a commercial, with enough money in the bank to pay for one. Everything aligned perfectly - but in all honesty, if we as a league hadn't relaxed the barriers to entry, we would have missed this opportunity to grow the league as we did. In one year we added 4 clubs, 5 teams, and doubled our player base. We did this by understanding that the new clubs wouldn't be perfect, and that was OK. Our goal was to get them up and walking first, running second. If we had demanded perfection from the outset, maybe we'd have gotten one more club, maybe one more team, but in all likelihood we'd have just swelled the ranks of the existing clubs with little actual change on the scoreboards or the bank accounts. We developed an entry level competition, to avoid burning people out within their first year, and developed timelines and milestones clubs needed to hit to maintain their status with the league. Six years later, only one of the 9 new clubs that came into being since 2010 has folded (Gippsland), and one other of the original 5 clubs merged with a new one a few miles down the road. The league was set up to grow, and in 6 years saw a tripling in the size of the league.
So where does this leave the conversation of leadership? As GV President, I was very demanding of myself, and still am in my other endeavors. I admit that I am often a perfectionist, and it's hard to fight my own impulses. But I've learned that being perfect, not making mistakes, and worse, not allowing for mistakes, doesn't make for great success as a leader. Striving to be perfect only serves to create anxiety and insecurity. People can see through insecurities, and the business world is only going to amplify anxieties with its total uncertainty. Anxious and insecure leaders don't engender loyal and devoted followers because they don't let people in close enough to build quality relationships.
In my opinion, the role of a leader, be it of a football league or of a small business or a billion dollar corporation, is to have a vision of where the organization should go, have the determination to be willing to overcome obstacles, and the creativity to be able to figure out how to bring as many people along for the ride as possible. The best leaders I've been with know how to give their subordinates the room to fail, support to those who do stumble, and just enough vision and forethought to make people want to see where everything is headed.
In life, so many times there's "analysis paralysis", that is not moving until something is "just right". The problem with this thinking, is that nothing will ever be "just right". There will always be something that can be critiqued, judged, assessed. It's much harder, and takes greater courage to say "ok, it's good enough". But these are abstract concepts, and you dear reader are probably thinking this is just another "bashing perfectionism post" - how does this apply to the real world? Well, think about you and/or your business. Is there something you're trying to do right now, but you haven't yet because it's not "perfect"? Have you ever said to yourself - what would my best friend say about it? Would they say it's good enough?
So often, because something is a labor of love by an individual (or a group), all objectivity gets lost in the pursuit of perfection. Aspects get added on like Christmas ornaments because they all seem like they're needed, when in reality it just ends up toppling over like Charlie Brown's tree. If you're stuck in this perfectionist loop - try to extricate yourself and look at the issue from an outsider perspective. Part of what made my work in GV successful is that I had the outsider perspective before becoming President. I had tried to start a new club and stopped when I saw how hard it was. I knew that I didn't need all those things for the product to be "good enough" to start, but the league couldn't see past its own concerns, understandable as they were.
True leadership then, looks at the product, service, business, organization, whatever and says - "how can we grow a success?" rather than "how do we avoid catastrophe?" That's not to say anyone should ignore risks or avoid creating standards - far from it. There has to be some level of what is and isn't acceptable. However, nothing can be fully insulated from risk and error. Someone once told me, "no matter how much you idiot proof something, the world will build a better idiot." While blunt, it speaks to the immutable truth that everything has flaws. It's knowing how to live with those flaws, and to say to yourself and/or your organization that "we're moving forward with a good enough project/product/process and we'll refine it along the way". That mindset, in time, will lead to real personal and organizational success.
So what do you think? Is perfectionism something you struggle with? How do you challenge yourself and/or your team to overcome the idea of perfect? Have a story to share? Leave one in the comments!
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