6 Tips for Scaling the Community Career Ladder | CMX

One of the top questions we get in the CMX Community is: How do I advance in my career?

The community industry has made a lot of progress in the last few years. However, it’s still a relatively new field. Many companies still have small community teams, and there’s still a limited community presence at the executive level.

All of this can make it difficult to chart your career path from community manager to high-powered community executive. To help you, we’ve rounded up some tips from the experts who have made it to the top.

For International Women’s Day, CMX hosted a panel of community professionals in leadership positions. These panelists took us through their career journey, and shared their top tips for how to advance up the community career ladder. Some of these tips are tried-and-true advice for community careers, like advocating for community at the executive level. Others might surprise you — like when to be ready to walk away.

This panel featured:

  • Jen Sable Lopez, Senior Director or Community & Advocacy at Outsystems
  • Cindy Au, Director of Community & Engagement at Brainly
  • Caty Kobe, Head of Community at Nextdoor
  • Shana Sumers, Principal Marketing Manager of Diversity, Inclusion & Belonging Community Programs at Hubspot

Read on for their top tips!

1. Community is on the rise — embrace the moment!

Let’s start with the good news: The community industry has wind in its sails after 2020 — a good sign for anyone making a career in community.

Caty Kobe noted that the rise in social isolation and loneliness in 2020 only reinforced how important community is in society: “What I’ve learned most during COVID is just how important community builders are. Everyone needs community no matter what. When the entire world stops, you really recognize that connection is more important than ever before, and connection is what helped to pull all of us through those challenging moments.”

Jen Sable Lopez added that there are more jobs in the community space than ever before, reaffirming the opportunity for community career growth. “We’ve seen how many jobs are coming through in the community space. I think that the forced digital transformation has also forced people to realize that community is necessary and we need people to build it.

2. Develop the skills that will take you to the next level

What skills are most important for community managers looking to move to the next level in their career? Shana Sumers broke down a few key competencies.

Networking

Networking has been a key element of Shana’s career development. But don’t neglect relationships inside your company! Networking internally is just as important as connecting with people outside your company. Talking to teammates in other departments helps you learn how to align your community program to all sides of the company’s business model.

“My favorite networking trick is just to drop in people’s DMs and message them questions about anything and everything. But you want to come in with a purpose. You want to come in with questions, and make that thirty minutes or an hour valuable.” – Shana Sumers

Presentation skills

Presentation skills are vital as a community organizer, so connect with people that can help improve your skills. Sharing your pitch in community forums like the CMX Community and asking for feedback is also a helpful tool to better your pitch. She also recommends watching pitching competitions to learn from the pros.

Document your wins

Shana adds that demonstrating the work you’ve done is vital to getting the compensation you deserve. She suggests keeping receipts from the start of all your community initiatives and tracking your results.

“Keep a running tab of your initiatives, and keep it quick! You can point out things you’re doing outside of your job description. Then you can say, ‘This is outside of my scope. If you want me to continue doing these initiatives, you need to pay me and give me the title on that level.’” – Shana Sumers

3. Advocate for your team at the executive level

When Cindy Au started at Brainly, community was not represented at the executive level. She noticed the lack of communication between her team and executives was having a negative impact on her team and career. So she stepped in and advocated for her spot at the executive table. That way, she could trust that the needs of her team and the community were heard directly, not filtered through other teams.

How can you better advocate at the executive level? Our panelists shared their top tips.

Learn the language of your business 

Caty emphasized the importance of speaking your company’s language. Even knowing when to communicate over Slack vs email will help your case land better. The language of executives usually centers around data, so make sure you have your numbers in order.

“Get to know your analysts or data science team, and ask your questions,” says Caty. “When I first started my career there was a misconception that community professionals needed to know everything, from deep analytics and data visualization all the way to event planning, and team operations. But the reality is that’s not the truth. You don’t have to know how to do everything, but you do have to know who the right people are to ask for help. Partner with them to show how your work ladders back to key business goals.”

Ask questions

Shana adds that asking questions to executives can yield to the best outcomes for both you and the company.

“If you’re going to collaborate with another team, see what numbers they’re impacting,” she says. “Then you can say ‘My action here will impact this part of the company and that’s already growing the added value that you need.’ I’m at the point where I’m basically taking on myself on a mini road-show through the company and telling them my ideas and asking, ‘How can what I’m doing help you?’”

Be ready to repeat your pitch

Cindy and Jen noted that repetition and education are key to communicating with executives. Understanding brand communities is not necessarily intuitive for everyone, so continued education is needed to improve everyone’s understanding of community’s role in the business model.

“You are going to get sick and tired of hearing yourself tell your story,” says Cindy. “So if you feel like, ‘Oh my gosh, I’ve said this so many times,’ Who cares! Keep telling your story, because nobody else will pick up on that.”

Eventually, with enough internal communication between the community team and the rest of the company, you won’t need to continuously make your pitch. Those conversations will begin to happen without you needing to facilitate.

4. Blaze your own trail

Jen reminded us of a very important lesson: There’s no specific path for community managers, because community-building doesn’t have a specific established place in every business yet.

“Community doesn’t have a clear place in company structure,” says Jen. “It depends on the organization. Is it in marketing, in product, in support, or its own separate thing? That plays into the problems you encounter going down the career path.” At the end of the day, you have the power to trailblaze your own path to the executive level.

5. Set boundaries within your company 

While many companies today want community, they don’t always understand the time and resources it takes to build it in a healthy way. When community organizers are underpaid or overworked, they’re likely to burn out and the community suffers.

Below, our panelists shared their tips for making sure that community roles are given the respect they need to flourish into a thriving community career.

Cindy: Pitching to your company that you need more roles to be created to run your community is not always easy, but the impact of adding resources to a community team will come back in return ten-fold. “When we map out the work to be done and the impact it can have, what are the roles required to actually do all that work? Usually that means one job is actually three.”

Shana: “Is this the right place for you to grow? That’s the question.” Advocating for yourself when you know you are taking on more than one person can handle is vital for yourself and your community. If your company doesn’t invest more resources into your community program when you begin to burn out, the company likely doesn’t see the value that community provides, and it may be time to walk away. Shana recommends “figuring out your workplace boundaries, being clear and consistent with your communication, and understanding what can be done and what can be put on hold.”

Caty: To get the compensation you deserve, Caty suggests looking into the compensation philosophy of your company and learning to speak that language. Beginning at the interview phase, ask HR about compensation so you can get an idea of how to position yourself to receive the compensation you desire. “Asking those questions and getting clarity can often help you make the case because you understand the parameters you have to work with.”

6. Know when to walk away

Shana shared the challenging experience of leaving her first community role at HER. Because she built the community program, she knew its members by name and face. She felt a connection to people and was reluctant to leave that behind.

However, she understood that if something didn’t line up with her path for professional development, it was time to move on. She had to trust that the systems she put in place to keep the community alive would carry on, which they did. “That’s the mark of a really great community manager. Knowing that the systems you’ve put in place can last without you being there 24/7.”

Caty shared her similar experience of being challenged to step away from a community she had built. She recognized that it was right for her and trusted that it was time for her team to step up. Caty also noted that reorganizing a community team is challenging, but sometimes absolutely necessary to keep the community alive.

“Building a community team is like gardening. When you prune something, it comes back and grows back bigger. I’ve noticed that in my career it always makes way for new growth. Once you figure out how to work in a new construct, you see better results and better collaboration.”

Have any more tips? Share them with the CMX Community!

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Megan Carter