5 Things Great Community Managers Have in Common with Great People Managers
Tap into your skills for creating thriving online communities to build and scale great teams, too.
As I’ve begun to share more about my career in the last couple of months, I’ve talked a bit already about how before starting my most recent role at Commsor, I didn’t think I wanted to be a people manager. I loved being a doer—being able to ideate, launch, and iterate on projects on my own. And, I was worried about the emotional toll being a people manager would take on me—I tend to feel deeply invested in the people I work with. What if I screwed it up?
But, I knew that building C School, the educational program I launched during my time at Commsor, would require a team to scale—so, I dove into the project despite my fears about this aspect of the role. I am incredibly glad I took this chance—managing my team was one of my favorite elements of my role at Commsor. I loved setting up structures to help my team collaborate effectively, watching them launch incredible projects I’d seen them working on for months, and having deep conversations about career and personal growth. It didn’t hurt that the people on my team were incredibly smart, kind and collaborative, and were thoughtful and direct communicators who were willing to give me feedback to help me grow.
What I also realized as my job became more about people management was how much overlap the things that were working with my team had with the things that had worked for me as a community manager. It was a great feeling to realize that some of the groundwork I'd already built as a community manager wouldn't go to waste in this new skill set. I've been thinking about these overlaps a lot lately—so, I put together a list of five rules that apply to both community building and leadership.
1. Be a servant.
While there are always limits to any single leadership approach, one that I’ve gotten a lot out of both as a people manager and a community builder is servant leadership. If you’re not familiar with this concept, it’s just what it sounds like—that your job as a leader is to provide service to those who are in your care, whether those are your direct reports or your community members.
As a community builder, I believe this concept has helped me take a more nuanced approach to the ideal of egalitarianism that’s often lauded in community building circles. I hear a lot of community folks touting the idea that we should build communities where ownership is entirely shared, and decision making power is evenly distributed—and while I also aspire to the ideal of equity in communities (and on teams), I don’t believe that the best way to get there in practice is by equally meting out decision and task ownership. I believe that the most functional and equitable communities, and teams, can be created when a leader understands and fully owns that they have a greater responsibility to the success of the team or community—a responsibility to serve.
How might this look in practice? In communities, this means knowing that your job as the community builder is to reduce roadblocks to participation as much as possible. Setting up login flows that reduce friction, running an engagement calendar to help draw out less active members, and creating clear community guidelines are all ways we make it as easy as possible for community members to show up and easily get value. As leaders, this might look more like always creating clear meeting agendas and structures, or making it your mission to spend most of your day resolving your team’s blockers. Crucially, this approach doesn’t mean you do everything, make everything about you, or make the decisions that are best for you—it means that you’re constantly, actively looking for places where people need help, and consistently providing that.
2. Meet people where they are.
In the community building world, we tend to accept that not every single member will be a super-user, and that even those who are generally super users will not be that way all the time. We understand that people’s ability to engage in a community may fluctuate based on seasonality, or what’s going on in their personal lives—or, that they may outgrow the community entirely at some point. And, we understand that people’s motivations for being in communities may be different, too—some people come to communities for transactional reasons (getting their questions answered as quickly as possible), others for more intangible things like social connections. If we want to be successful, we design communities with these realities in mind, and try not to judge them.
This may be controversial, but I believe in trying to apply some of the same curiosity and lack of judgement to building teams—for me, the first step to doing that is to understand what motivates my team to come to work. Some people on your team may be at work because they want to climb the corporate ladder and become a VP in three years. Others are there mostly because they want to do a good job, have fun, and collect a paycheck. That’s completely ok, too (and for what it’s worth—I’ve found in my career that most people do have some internal motivation to do a good job, if only for the reason that "phoning it in" is pretty boring).
So, if I have someone on my team who's trying really hard to get promoted, that might mean working with them to identify a flagship project that they can own that helps them demonstrate their strongest skills to leadership. If I have someone on my team who's trying to pivot into another industry, that might mean working with them to identify projects that have overlap with their current responsibilities and desired next role, so they can get the right stuff on their resume before they go. If I have someone on my team who just wants to do their job and create the greatest work life balance possible, I might work with them more on efficiency and worry less about getting them bigger, more ambitious projects. Dropping your own personal judgement about these things and just trying to understand them is a key ingredient to understanding how to enable your team’s best work, and how to keep people happy. That’s important because retention is, on teams as in communities, everything.
Putting this into practice means requires building trust—because people have received the message that all bosses want them to be as ambitious and passionate as possible, it’s going to take time to get someone on your team to level with you about what truly motivates them at work. But, once you do that, you have the incredible opportunity to scope work that both you and your team agree are mutually beneficial—and that's a key ingredient to good work.
3. Get buy-in from the jump.
When we make big changes in communities, one of the most valuable things we can do to make sure those changes go well is creating buy-in with members. That’s why when I was doing a big community migration project in my role at Teachable, I did a ton of user research calls to understand first what was important to members about the project and have them weigh in on key decisions.
The same is true for teams—if you want your team to respond well to changes and decisions, you need to involve them. For me, that has meant:
Your team is informed on big points of strategy before they’re communicated publicly (at big meetings, etc)
Your team is involved in goal setting on a quarterly basis, even if they don’t have full say on the alignment (i.e., the top level company goals department goals stem from)
Your team is able to choose which projects they do and don’t want to work on to achieve agreed-upon team and personal goals (and for what it’s worth, this has never once led to projects that really needed doing getting dropped—when people have shared ownership, they understand prioritization, too.)
An important caveat to all of this—getting people’s buy-in is 100% about trust. If you want people to tell you what they really think and truly feel ownership over shared projects, they have to trust that you are willing to hear thoughts you don’t agree with. Most leaders get this, but they don’t always get that simply saying “please disagree with me” is rarely enough. You should expect as a leader that people will not trust you until you prove to them through your actions that they can, and if you have more institutional power than someone, it is your job to earn that trust. As a leader and community builder, this is sometimes worth verbalizing—something to the effect of, “I want you to be able to give me feedback, but I know that that might be hard to do since I’m your [boss/community manager.] I hope I can prove to you through my actions over time that I’m someone who will take feedback well—all I ask is that you have a willingness to test me on this just once!”
4. Fight for your people.
As community builders, we often play the role of being an internal advocate for community members back to the business at large. And, that often means we do a lot of talking, listening, understanding, and ultimately translating behind the scenes—we’re not always presenting exactly what community members have said back to company leadership, but rather trying to understand what they truly want and not missing opportunities to insert their voice into rooms they’re not in.
As a leader, your job is to represent your team to your company as well, even if they’re not directly asking for that, or not asking in what you think is “the right way.” That’s what you’re there for. That can look like any of the following:
Advocating for your team to be fairly compensated even if they are bad at negotiating.
Talking up your team’s achievements whenever they’re not there to do so, and never claiming their achievements as your own.
Saying no to stuff that’s out of their scope on their behalf, or being willing to “be the bad guy” and defend their workload if they’re getting steamrolled.
5. Make it fun.
At this point in this post, you’re probably catching on to a theme—my core belief as a leader is that you should want to make your team happy, and want them to stay on your team as long as it’s mutually beneficial for them to do so. As in community building, retention on teams requires you to care about making work feel (ideally) enjoyable (or at a minimum, not a huge bummer). That doesn’t mean work is going to feel like an amusement park all the time, but it’s generally true that people aren’t going to do an amazing job if they absolutely hate showing up every day, or worse, if they’re scared, anxious, or upset. So, as a leader you should absolutely care about putting your team at ease and doing what you can to help them enjoy their day.
As a community manager, you probably already expect that people will stick around in your community more if they enjoy the company of the people they are with and form relationships with them—do the same as a leader. Some great ways to do that that will feel pulled right from a community engagement playbook:
Carve out intentional time from meetings to chat—10 minutes at the front of an hour-long team meeting for this is great.
Run optional social events during the work day, and help your team deprioritize work that’s making it feel hard to carve out time for bonding.
Show there’s room for human talk in work settings by bringing yourself to work—sharing music you’re into, what you did over the weekend, what you’re eating on your lunch break, a picture you took on your walk.
Lead by example by taking an adequate amount of vacation for yourself, and working normal hours. Especially if you work in an “unlimited vacation/flexible working hours” environment, doing this is the best way to set a healthy environment.
Thank you so much for taking the time to read this—I hope it was helpful! If you’re a community manager and leader, I’d love to hear more from you about what these things have in common in your experience.
Want to take this all a step further?
If you're looking for more hands on help, I coach clients 1:1 to help with community strategy or personal career growth in the community industry. If you or your team is working on something you could use a hand on, check out ways we can work together here. I’d love to hear from you.
Lastly, you can get free resources on community building straight to your inbox —like a templatized guide to a community launch, a cheat sheet for community management job postings, and more—by clicking below:
Thank you for reading!