As a seasoned city planner and mentor, Niroop Srivatsa believes in paying forward what she’s learned. “I’m at a place in my life where I want to give back,” she said of mentoring others. “You reach a point in your career where you have the experience and knowledge, and it’s your turn to pass that on.”
Srivatsa is currently the Director of Planning and Building Services for the California city of Lafayette. A city planner all her life, Srivatsa has applied her skills from Chicago to India to just east of Berkeley and currently manages a team that keeps Lafayette running smoothly. She also volunteers with the League of California Cities, where, currently serving as President of the Planning and Community Development Department, Srivatsa works with other representatives from the over 400 California cities to protect local land use interests and local control. And, of late, Srivatsa has devoted time to mentoring others through Everwise.
All this goes to say — Srivatsa has a wealth of experience leading others towards a common goal.
We sat down with Srivatsa to learn her perspective on giving back and empowering others. Read on to learn what she believes sets the stage for impactful working relationships, how an early career experience empowered her as a woman, and what she’s learned most recently as a mentor through Everwise.
Can you tell us about the role mentorship has played for you?
I would not have had my first job doing the master plan for Naperville, a small town in Illinois, had someone not taken a chance hiring me. I was fresh out of college and had very little work experience. All I had to my name was an internship with a county planning department.
But this person, my former director, needed someone to prepare the city’s first comprehensive master plan. He saw something in me and took a risk. He coached me into becoming the chief planner and then heading the planning division for that city. Importantly, he also allowed me to make mistakes. It’s through him that I’ve learned the power of mentorship. He’s 94 now and I try to visit him every other year; he’s been such a force in my life.
After he promoted me to head the planning division, I started mentoring junior planners and helped them rise through the ranks. I strongly believe in rewarding people for their accomplishments, and, allowing them to make mistakes. That’s the best way to learn — in an environment safe enough to make mistakes. I learned that quickly in my early years of mentoring.
What are you most proud of accomplishing as a mentor?
My proudest moments are when the people I’ve mentored get promoted or find their dream job. Knowing I had a small role in seeing them grow professionally is so rewarding.
Being a manager or mentor has huge responsibilities. Your job is not just about hiring the best people to do the best job. Managers and mentors also have a responsibility to train and grow people. If you don’t, employees will move away very quickly. Many of my planners here in Lafayette have been here over 10 years. They enjoy working here and see the benefits of their hard work.
What goes into making the employee/manager relationship successful?
Two things. First, I’m of the opinion that everybody likes to operate within a certain framework or set of rules. When you begin a job and no one tells you what to do, you don’t have any benchmarks to determine what you’re doing right, wrong, or otherwise. Establishing ground rules helps people know what they can do. And emphasizing those rules, even in casual conversation, is important.
Second, holding people accountable for their work makes for successful relationships. For instance, we have an online customer survey that we send out as a government agency. All responses come to me and, whether positive or constructive, I send them out across the department. We celebrate the wins, even if it’s just saying ‘Adam did a good job today and helped me through this process.’ Those are moments that shouldn’t go ignored. Equally so, we work through criticism together when it arises. Making employees more accountable is important because it involves them in the organization’s decision making.
Can you elaborate on why laying a framework is so important?
There are so many questions the youngest entry-level planners have when they start. How many hours do they expect me to work? Do they have a strict time sheet policy? How do I take time off?
Clearly laying a framework helps them understand the rules of engagement early on. That way, they can feel comfortable working to their best potential without worrying about breaking the rules somewhere along the way. Now, these employees are confident their supervisor has their back and will support them, whether or not they make a mistake. No one wants an employee that’s scared to come to you and say she’s made a mistake, instead of viewing you as a partner who has your back. Laying the framework is about confidence building. It’s trust. It’s building soft skills.
Can you speak to your experience as a mentor on Everwise?
I’ve been with Everwise for a little over a year now, and I honestly didn’t know what I was getting into. What I did know is: I’m at a place in my life where I was thinking about giving back.
Through this experience, I’ve realized sometimes people need a neutral, unbiased third party to be a sounding board and validate what they’re thinking and feeling. It took me some time to understand that. I plunged in thinking I’d solve someone’s problems. And I learned that I’m here to listen. I’m here to absorb, ask questions, and allow them to come to their own conclusions rather than shoving advice down their throats. This approach seems to have worked!
Through Everwise, I’ve been useful to someone I don’t know and wouldn’t recognize on the street. Yet, we connected through the common goal of making this person’s goals easier to achieve. My mentees are so diametrically opposite regarding what they do, who they are, their age. Yet the common thread is they like somebody listening — they want the freedom to speak about their careers and life goals without being judged.
What have you learned about mentoring through your experience with the League of California Cities?
It’s been such an interesting experience. You can imagine a small town like Lafayette coming to the table with equal position to the city of Los Angeles. We’re talking about cities of different sizes, cultures, needs, political leanings. But all of us come together with the same goal: preserving the rights of California cities. With the League, you listen and accept everyone’s perspectives. Then, you move together towards achieving your goal in the best way you can.
Establishing common goals is something I’ve learned through the League that’s helped me with my mentoring techniques. I could be speaking to a mentee with a totally different, say, political leaning or life goal than I have. But if we both establish the purpose of our relationship, our common goal gets us through.
Can you walk through challenges you’ve faced throughout your career?
People have asked me if I’ve faced struggles because of my ethnicity. I worked for a city that was suburban and conservative in the Chicago area. But that was not a challenge for me. People were very accepting of who I was.
I had a greater challenge being accepted as a woman leader. It was my gender more than my ethnicity.
Early on — we’re talking about the 80s — the director of the department would have a weekly lunch with the city attorney. He’d invite a person I supervised because that person was male. I never got invited to those lunches.
And we had a female mayor at the time, who took me under her wing and realized what was going on. One day, they all went to lunch. She walked by, asked where they were going, and said ‘Well, why isn’t Niroop going with you?’ You could have heard a pin drop. From that day on, they didn’t go out to lunch again.
And it empowered me. Culturally, I was hesitant to call them out or talk to them about this. The mayor came out and asked them the question, point blank. And they thought ‘Oh, maybe we’re doing something that’s not kosher.’ It empowered me to speak up and ensure that women were given equal opportunities to succeed in the organization.
I vowed never to let something like that happen again. I’ve learned from that and tried to pass that on to the people I mentor. Thankfully, we’re in more progressive times now. I’ve been fortunate though. People have been very generous and open.
What advice would you give emerging women leaders?
The first piece of advice: don’t view yourself as a female leader. View yourself as a leader. And that applies to your gender, race, or ethnicity. Be neutral. You were hired to be a leader; be the best leader you can for the people you supervise.
At the same time, I’m going to contradict myself slightly to say:
If you do see any class of employees — whether women or minorities — who aren’t getting ahead because of who they are, then step up and speak out. As a leader, you have a responsibility. You have an obligation to mentor all people, grow them, and help them succeed. That’s critical. Recognize and respect that awesome responsibility.