06.22.2017

To understand the long and laborious journey that a community must go through in order to reach maturity, you need only look at the community’s steward: its community manager. To build a strong community that scales, you need a strong leader at its helm. But how do you become that leader, or find a leader to help you take your community to the next level?

In the CMX Slack Community, we’ve spoken with many leaders who fit in this mold, including Margot Mazur, Suzi Nelson, and Niki Vecsei. These women embody the traits of a “servant leader” that are required to build lasting communities. So what have we learned from them about what it takes to become a great community leader?

We break it down, using examples from Suzi’s work and the work of other community builders who are usually so behind the scenes that — in Sofía Mata’s words — their work gets “absorbed into the greater narrative” of the community and forgotten.

Deep Listening

According to leadership researchers Ann McGee-Cooper and Duanne Trammel, “listening without judgement” is the first characteristic of a servant leader.

When Suzi first began her work, her job was split between customer care and community. Because of the divide in her attention, it created more work for her to fight fires.

“I talked to my boss and expressed that I couldn’t do both tasks. That’s when I moved to community full time and spent an ungodly amount of hours working on being a presence in the group and on that course-correct. Like lots of middle-of-the-night time as well as regular work hours. It probably wasn’t healthy, but it was important to me.”

“Now our community culture is pretty solidified and it’s much easier. I have set daily tasks now because I’m not reactively ‘fighting’ everything. It frees up much more time to sit back and actually think about strategy,” she says.

Being Authentic

So many of us struggle to bring our whole selves to work. We feel we have to leave aspects of our lives at the door. But great community leaders bring their authentic selves to work, which allows others to do the same.

As Margot Mazur of Wistia explains: “I share most of who I am with the community. They all have my public twitter handle, which many use to communicate with me. I think it’s important to be a real, authentic, honest human being with your community members.”

Furthermore, she says, “I don’t expect them to be anything different for me. There are things I choose to omit around work in general, if it conflicts with current partnerships, but with community, what you see is what you get, and you usually see it all.”

Showing Appreciation

Showing appreciation for members of your community — especially your volunteers — is critical to success.

There are literally billions of communities people can choose to be part of online and offline, and if they aren’t appreciated in yours, they can go find another. Furthermore, it’s important to appreciate members for who they are and not just what they do for you.

“We actually sent one of our community members flowers when we found out she was in the hospital,” says Tim McDonald of his work as Head of Community at Huffington Post. 

Another great example of appreciation has been established in the Wistia community, Margot explains. “We drew up an admin agreement with folks who were already by far the highest engaged folks in our community. We now offer them a bunch of perks, including free accounts and free WisitaFest tickets. I even write them recommendations. There is a lot that goes into that trust.”

“In one of the tech support communities I have managed previously, sending end of year greeting cards was one of the most cherished and impactful actions I have ever done. You would never think such a small gesture ($100 for 20 cards and postage) can change the fabric of your community.” says Niki, after she sent some handwritten thank you notes to community members in 2015.

Want to reward and thank your members? We have a guide to reward structures here and there is a list of ways and when to say thank you here.

Sharing Power

It’s not all about you. We know this inherently, but it’s so easy to get trapped in this idea.

When Suzi started her work, her community “had 2,000 people and about 125 active members,” she explains. “My job was literally to just make sure people’s questions were answered. Back then, the promise to the customer was that they had direct access to our staff. I quickly realized that this wouldn’t scale very well.”

“So I spent a good year turning the Titanic around and moving our value prop to ‘There are LOTS of smart people in here, not just us’. Our staff still participates as much as they can, but we totally rely on our community to help each other out. It moved from ‘Talk to our staff’ to ‘Hey, here’s a person who’s been through exactly what you’ve been through, they probably have some awesome advice’ — which, turns out, made our community… much stronger. I’d say most of the initial course-correct was just spending a lot of time introducing members to each other.”

Suzi’s work has clearly paid off: Today DigitalMarketer’s Facebook community is home to 10,000 members of which roughly 20% are active participants. In her time at DigitalMarketer, the community activity has increased 92.81% through Suzi’s strategic approach to relationship building and reinforcing positive customer experiences.

And if you think sharing power can only be enabled  between community members, think again. As Margot explained, when she migrated her community from a homegrown platform to Slack, she “created only a couple of channels in Slack first, and moved over 10 of our power users — these people became our admins.”

Empowering your members to connect and share their knowledge is powerful, but enabling the same people to be in charge and fully invested in the future of the community is building lifetime evangelists for your brand and product.

Developing People

Great community leaders look for ways to create more leaders. They hire people who are better than them at their work so they can continue to architect the community instead of getting mired in details.

In her recent post on Impostor Syndrome, Niki Vecsei says, “I was lucky enough to be able to hire a great Community Manager for my team earlier this year. She is not only awesome, but also brings great experience to our organization. Her knowledge and skills are complementary to mine, filling in some of the gaps and holes that I may not have been exposed to so far.”

But it is not enough to just hire the right talent, you need to also make sure to nurture and support them beyond their community work. “I make a big fuss about my team attending conferences, networking events, participating in communities that strengthen their skills or give them a chance to give back to other professionals in the industry. I introduce everyone I work with to the CMX Facebook group and Slack Channel and the Feverbee community. These are no-cost ways to connect, learn, and share knowledge as a Community Manager. There simply is no reason for anyone to not participate,” says Niki.

You Still Must Care For Yourself

With all these character strengths, it can be easy to lose sight of yourself. But it’s vital that you manage your own energy when you’re a community leader. Your burnout could make the community come to a screeching halt. If you’ve done it right, you should be able to walk away from the community and let it go for a while.

As Suzi Nelson says, “Community management can overtake you, since the Internet never sleeps. We have international members… so it’s tempting to use my home time to “just check in” that easily snowballs into a couple of hours [of work]… Be intentional about your ‘me time'” I spend time with my doggos, I play the guitar, and I go to shows or visit a wine bar every now and then.”

Suzi recently won the CMX community manager of the Year award (2017), her success and that of the DigitalMarketer community is an inspiration to us all.

No matter what success looks like, we all need to remember Suzi’s words: “I try to remember that everyone, everywhere no matter the position or the job is largely just making it up.” It’s time for you to find your own way to “make it up” as you grow and empower your successful community.

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Carrie Melissa Jones

Carrie Melissa Jones | @caremjo

Carrie is the COO and Founding Partner of CMX. She has built community at Chegg and Scribd and has consulted with community companies around the world. She lives in Seattle, WA with her pup, Bruce Wayne.