Developing Questions for Your Next Informational Interview

One essential method to grow your skills, knowledge, and experience as an urban planner is to speak and learn from other leaders in your field or specialty. This is why I have dedicated to interview urban planning leaders and share it with you on this site.

I often struggled in reaching out to leaders because of my limiting belief that I wouldn’t be able to effectively engage in a conversation worth their time. To help me overcome this barrier, I developed strong, engaging questions that I felt confident would create a deep, engaging conversation. To become an urban planning leader, asking deep, engaging questions is a key skill to learn.

“The wise man doesn’t give the right answers, he poses the right questions.”

-Claude Levi-Strauss

In the interviews I have held myself, I developed my own questions that were unique to what I wanted to learn. Here’s how I did it:

Ask: What do I want to learn from this urban planning leader? I start by asking myself this question to determine my goal for the informational interview and how the person can help me grow. The answer is a guide to what questions you must ask for you to learn. For example, my answer may be, “I want to some advice on how to shift my career”, or “I want to learn more about Transit-Oriented Development”. Knowing this, helps me determine the focus of my questions such as, “in your experience, what is the biggest hurdle in changing your career path?” or “What case study should I research that you believe is a great example of TOD?”

Use example questions online and make them authentic to you. There are plenty of blogs that provide good example questions for informational interviews. Pick the ones that interest you the most, and put your own twist on them that align with what you want to learn.

Do your homework. Look up the person and the organization they work for to better understand what they do on a daily basis. This leads to more informative questions and better answers. Also, these leaders will respect your preparation and be more open to engaging with you. This will also avoid answers such as, “check my website, there’s information there.”

Start with simple questions. I like to ask very simple questions first to get the juices going in the conversation. Such as, “what are you working on currently?”, rather than leading with, “what’s the biggest mistake you made and wish you could go back and change it”. As the dialogue and energy picks up, ask more in depth questions to receive a better result. 

Provide context. If I ask someone, “why has transit mode share declined?” One, they may ask, has it? or why do you think so? Instead, use context as to where you derived the information and then ask the question: “After reviewing your Quality of Life study I noticed the percentage of transit mode share has decreased the last two years, why do you think that is occurring?” This gives the leader a better idea what you are asking and can provide a more informed answer.

Ask follow-up questions during the conversation. When the leader answers your question, ask follow up questions for three reasons. First, it shows you are listening and increases engagement. Second, it gives the opportunity to dive deeper into what the leader is saying. Third, it lets the conversation flow naturally. A prepared list of questions is your starting point and you may not get through all your questions within the time you have with the leader. That’s okay, the goal is not to get all your questions answered, the goal is to learn and grow.

 

Jim Chappell: An Urban Planning Leader Continuing to Stretch the Boundaries of Knowledge through Listening and Humility

I had the honor to connect with Jim Chappell and learn about his leadership qualities and how he has been successful. Jim is an urban development expert, strategic thinker, community opinion leader, and the previous President and Executive Director of SPUR.

Jim built SPUR to become one of the nation’s leading community development organizations and led the opening of the Urban Center in May 2009. During his time at SPUR he provided community leadership and government relations on projects such as reorganizing Muni management structure; development of the Presidio Trust; development of a comprehensive strategic city parks plan; design and financing of Doyle Drive; conception of the Transbay redevelopment area; the community strategy for the de Young Museum and the California Academy of Sciences.

He continues his work today by providing strategic assistance to the development community, public agencies, and community organizations, including the Fort Mason Center.

What do you believe are the characteristics and actions that you used to get to where you are today?

1. Diligence. Do my best. If you don’t do your best all the time there is no point in doing it at all because someone else will be doing their best and they will succeed and you won’t.

2. Rigorous honesty. Tell everyone the same thing.

3. Never attribute blame to anyone; do not characterize or name people by their beliefs (e.g., NIMBY, greedy developer, etc.)

4. Do not attribute motives to others’ actions. You can never know another person’s motivations, nor is it helpful.

Ask, probe, guide, lead by example, but don’t dictate.

What are you doing to ensure you grow and develop as a leader?

I try to stretch the boundaries of my knowledge… especially talking with youth …who bring a whole experience and knowledge base that I don’t have. I am having a ball talking with young people in India…they are anxious to talk with Americans and it is absolutely fascinating how they see the world…Indian politics, American politics, marriage and the all-important family, education and careers, etc. How do I know that it isn’t better to have your more experienced family pick your life partner? How can I possibly tell people in the chain of a 7000 year culture that I am right and they are wrong?

Sometimes leadership is listening. Ask, probe, guide, lead by example, but don’t dictate. At any rate, this is how I am trying to continue to develop.

What drives you to be successful?

I subscribe to the campground rule: leave the world a better place than you found it.

What questions do you often ask yourself?

What am I missing?

Why don’t I see it the way x person does?

How do you ensure Fort Mason’s and its activities are aligned with your “core values”?

Provide gentle guidance. At the beginning of every year, talk to the staff and board about our values, what we are going to accomplish, how we are going to get there, what are the rules of the road. Big picture overview; enunciate higher principles; assure everyone explicitly thinks at least once a year about them.

Banish excuses. And then stand back. 

What is the biggest challenge leaders in urban planning face today?

Distrust of government. Few people trust government like we once did. “Everything thing is a conspiracy. Every politician and bureaucrat is a crook.”

Lack of common knowledge base and source of information. We have limitless sources of information online but no one is editing it. Anyone can say anything and who with knowledge and authority is to contradict? We often empower the least informed among us. And these two factors reinforce each other in negative ways.

What are the most important traits of successful leaders in urban planning today?

Ability to listen and HEAR – take in all viewpoints. 

Understand that your role is to make a considered recommendation to the elected decision maker. You must be able to enunciate all sides of the issue to that decision maker, let go and let the decision maker do as she sees fit, and resist any thought of ever embarrassing him/her. If you can’t do this, go sell shoes, or get yourself elected to public office.

What sacrifices do you make as a leader?

You have to meet the public when and where they are. This means night meetings on their turf. It also means putting yourself out in public for whatever comes down. 

Home life suffers.

This is the first of a series of interviews I am committed to conduct of today’s leaders in urban planning and gain insight in their leadership qualities and how they have been successful.

For more information about Jim, check out his LinkedIn page.