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Career development: Building a strong team


Teamwork is an essential ingredient for success in planning. At 2017's RTPI Awards for Planning Excellence three organisations were recognised for their exemplary team building. Matt Moody asked them how they did it

Indigo Planning

Founded 30 years ago with a team of just three people, Indigo has grown into one of the UK’s largest independent planning consultancies. It was crowned Planning Consultancy of the Year at the 2017 RTPI Awards.

“We aim to keep staff motivated by talking to them – I think by being open with people it’s a lot easier for them to buy into our ethos,” says Phil Villars, Indigo’s managing director. “We’re very open about our financial performance, almost on a weekly basis. Everyone here owns shares in the business and that’s important for making sure we all feel part of one single entity.”

This focus on communication is useful when it comes to clients, too. “To achieve the kind of successful development our clients are looking for, we work with a wide range of people, including local communities, planning authorities, interest groups, and more. Good connections are important, so our training has a real focus on communication skills – face-to-face, as well as online.”

As a large-sized consultancy that now operates from four offices across the UK, maintaining cohesiveness has presented a challenge for Indigo.
“It’s really important to keep a singular ethos across the business even as it has grown,” says Villars. “We get our staff together as a single business between offices as often as we can, whether it’s for social events or large projects. As the managing director, I try and make sure people at each of the offices know me.”

Maintaining that culture requires an organic approach to recruitment, says Villars. “We’ve brought in people almost on a one-by-one basis, rather than the ‘bolt-on’ style of recruitment you see sometimes when businesses are trying to meet new demands. We’ve always been ambitious, but we do it in a very purposeful way”.



• Make sure staff feel responsible for their work
• Be open and inclusive
• Make coming to work as enjoyable as possible

What the judges said

“Indigo’s enthusiasm and commitment to planning, people and places shines out, especially their innovation in communication and use of social media for community engagement,” said Nick Raynsford, chair of the RTPI Awards judging panel. “Their work builds on and goes beyond the positive contribution that planning makes to communities. We were impressed by their innovative practice and engagement with clients, stakeholders and the community.”

Optimis Consulting

Optimis is a small planning consultancy based in Bedford. Its “highly professional and dynamic” team helped it to victory in the Small Consultancy of the Year category at this year’s RTPI Awards.

Cultivating the right company-wide ethos has been the key to success at Optimis, says managing director Justin Wickersham. “We aim for working practices that are flexible, promote professional development and allow staff to celebrate success both individually and as a team. This is a powerful approach, because the team want to come to work and they want to succeed, and I think our clients respect us for that.”

Building a close-knit team has benefited both staff and clients, says Wickersham. 

“We’ve found that if individual experiences are shared and we incorporate a range of unique approaches and skills from across the team, we can provide an improved service to our clients. Moreover, our minimal hierarchy empowers each of us to develop, and this benefits the business as a whole.

Working as a compact team is not without its challenges, however. 

“As a small team based in Bedford, attracting the right people was difficult at first. We approached this by innovating and offering services that other consultancies do not, and investing time and resources into our staff to help them become better planners. This has helped instil a sense of camaraderie where our staff see the business as an extension of their friendship group, which has really helped the business to thrive.”

Finding the funding to expand has been challenging for Optimis, but the consultancy is now in a strong financial position. “We’ve not been afraid to take risks in order to grow and achieve financial stability,” says Wickersham. 



• Focus on the health, happiness and well-being of your team
• Incentivise the team and celebrate success
• Provide time, funding and support for CPD
What the judges said
“The team at Optimis are dynamic and highly professional, and offer a strong service to clients,” said Raynsford. “Their unpaid work with community groups on planning-related matters reflects their willingness to give back. We were impressed by their continuing professional development sessions for staff to develop their expertise and provide additional value to clients.”  

What the judges said

“The team at Optimis are dynamic and highly professional, and offer a strong service to clients,” said Raynsford. “Their unpaid work with community groups on planning-related matters reflects their willingness to give back. We were impressed by their continuing professional development sessions for staff to develop their expertise and provide additional value to clients.”  

North East Lincolnshire Council and ENGIE

In 2010, North East Lincolnshire Council entered into a 10-year regeneration partnership with energy and services provider Engie. Seven years later, the partnership team was recognised for its efforts as the RTPI’s pick for Local Authority Planning Team of the Year. 

Building a cohesive team out of two organisations with different working cultures required a measured approach, says Cara Portress, partnership communications manager at Engie. “We initiated a transformation project by appointing a business improvement manager from a non-planning background, and a planning manager keen to enable development. As a result, we were more able to cut through professional barriers and foster a new culture, which saw staff from both Engie and the council embrace new ways of working.”

The project saw a number of changes, says Portress. “First, we encouraged the idea that each and every team member has an equal responsibility for maintaining the service’s reputation through high performance, which helped develop our ‘one team’ culture. This included celebrating success too – ensuring team members at every level understood the value of their contribution.”

Recruiting to the north Lincolnshire area proved a challenge, but this has strengthened the partnership’s commitment to staff development. 

“It’s important for us to develop young people and ensure we have a succession plan to develop and retain our future leaders. There’s also a strong desire to create more job opportunities for local people. These factors have encouraged our ‘grow your own’ philosophy, supporting junior staff to progress through our graduate scheme, work placements and apprenticeships.”

Strong and effective teamwork in the planning department has had a knock-on effect for the organisation as a whole, says Portress. “Not only has it led to the success of the planning department, but also encouraged the wider organisation to embrace our approach in other areas.”


• Reward success and share it with every member of the team
• Make sure leaders are clear on purpose, outcomes and the role of each team member
• Take your team on a transformation journey with you and they will be proud of what is achieved

What the judges said

“This partnership is a high-performing planning team with a ‘can-do’ attitude,” observed Raynsford. 
“Their ‘enabling not controlling’ attitude to development should be held up as an exemplar. Feedback shows their planners are transparent, proactive, pragmatic, objective and professional. They have some great ideas for best practice including paper free planning, commitment to staff development, joined-up working and face-to-face or telephone engagement rather than email.”

RTPI Awards for Planning Excellence 2018

The 2018 awards will reward entrants in 14 categories, ranging from Excellence in Planning for Successful Economy to Excellence in Planning for Delivering Homes to the new Associate Member Excellence Award. 

Awards finalists will be revealed on Monday 12 February 2018, and the winners will be announced at a ceremony on Thursday 24 May 2018 at Milton Court Concert Hall in central London.

Read about the Awards for Planning Excellence on the RTPI website

Matt Moody is a reporter for The Planner