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Mentoring Matters – Planner Danny Gray Leads the Way


Daniel “Danny” Gray is busy guy, but never too busy to lend a hand to those around him. He’s a Community Planner with Urban Systems, working out of our Saskatchewan office since it opened five years ago. Over the years, Danny has shared his experience by mentoring many junior to intermediate planners. He also holds a seat on five different boards. A competitive water-skier in his teenage years, Danny now coaches for a water sports club. If you’re lucky, you might even catch a glimpse of him teaching kids howto perform rolls and tantrums out on the lake!

“I’ve been in sport my whole life, and so it comes naturally to be a support,” he says. “It’s inherent. With watersports, we coach people through blind fear, and you learn so much about people that way. I also have a tough time saying no, which might explain why I’ve taken on so many mentees over the years,” he laughs.

To date, Danny has formally mentored six people, and nearly ten times that many on an informal basis. He’s also been on the other side and says he’s received guidance from some “pretty terrific and influential people” throughout his career. His role as a formal mentor started with a call for volunteers put out by the Canadian Institute of Planners (CIP). They were seeking guidance for an Indigenous work-study student who was going to Guyana to help tribespeople think about planning in terms of community building. He recounts:

“I responded because I come from an Indigenous background and because as a professional planner, I could speak the speak and facilitate the support they required. The student and I had frequent calls every week. We’d talk through his fears and issues, have conversations about what planning was, and discuss different scenarios he might face. This was such a positive experience, and it became a springboard for me to start mentoring others. He and I still keep in touch today so we can share thoughts and opinions.”

A Reliable Sounding Board

One challenge with planning in more remote communities is that new planners sometimes begin their careers without much support. This can be particularly tough if they’re dealing with the public face-to-face and haven’t had time to develop what Danny calls “thick planner skin”. For these new planners, the value of having someone to bounce ideas off of is huge.

“In some cases, people are hired right out of university and have no senior support. They want to lead on a good foot, but they need help at first. When you’re a planner, staying unbiased is hard when you’re pulled in various directions. The public has so many different personalities, so you have to be adaptive, open, and considerate of everyone. Getting help from someone who has dealt with many situations is really useful when you’re starting out.”

The Bigger Picture

And in the bigger picture, mentoring doesn’t stop within Urban Systems. Recently, Danny has been mentoring a Junior Planner working in the town of Nipawin, located in east central Saskatchewan.

“We try to be really active listeners in the meetings we attend, and in a meeting with the Nipawin CAO, we heard there was a need for senior support for their Junior Planner. I took him aside to chat about the challenges he’s facing, and in that discussion I saw an opportunity to provide some ongoing support.”

The planner Danny refers to is 27-year old Jeff Hrynkiw. He’s served in his role as the Planning Advisor and Development Officer for the Town of Nipawin for three-and-a-half years. As the only planner working for the town, Jeff says Danny’s help has been a game changer: “I’m the only planner on staff, and so I do many different things each and every day.  It’s a challenge, but I do love it. Danny’s insights, comments, and ear are so valuable to me.  He listens to the issue at hand and suggests different ideas or viewpoints for multiple solutions.  He doesn’t simply prescribe what he considers to be the best solution; he plants seeds for new ways of thinking. He reminds me of all the tools a planner has for situations and how each tool can be used in a different way.”

Of course, being connected with Danny really means that Jeff is connected to the whole Urban Systems team:

“It’s not just about me being there for Jeff, it’s about how I can connect him to our 450 staff—how he can have a bigger reach and more relevant support in his professional growth. We want to be a critical thought partner and to help him move forward,” Danny explains.

Working Ourselves Out of a Job

It’s ingrained in the culture at Urban Systems to partner with clients versus simply telling them what they should do.

“We want to work ourselves out of a job. That might sound like a bad approach to business, but it isn’t. We want to be a creative partner, not the ones holding all the cards. Our belief around ‘spirit in service of vibrant communities’ is real. It’s ultimately about empowering people and keeping things vibrant over the long term. This approach builds trust and deepens our relationships over time, and because of these solid relationships, ultimately clients are more apt to pick up the phone and call us versus another consultant when they need a hand.”

These days, Danny and his colleagues even sit in on job interviews for some clients, to provide insight during the hiring process and to be available to help new hires adapt—something clients have said they love. Looking to the future, Danny says he sees himself continuing to help others develop. “I can’t see myself stopping. It’s a lot of fun and a good way to give back to the profession and help clients be prepared for what they have to face on a day to day.”

And he’ll be getting some good practice at home too—he’s a new dad with an 11-month old son to care for. “He’s a total cutie,” Danny laughs. “He’s my little champ, now he’s mentoring me. There’s definitely a new dynamic with a newborn around. It comes with its own lessons like how to function on no sleep.”

In the end, Danny says that he views mentorship more as teamwork than anything else. “It’s about helping where you can, staying current in your field, and networking with your peers and newcomers to the field. It’s about being generous with what others have helped you learn. It’s really a privilege to get to do the work I do.”

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