As community teams expand, community managers are taking on a new skill set: Managing a community team.

While many community managers are used to being a one-person band, the data shows that community teams are expanding. According to our latest survey of 500+ community builders, 67% had at least 2 full-time people on their community team, up from 57% in 2019.

There’s plenty of advice out there on how to be a manager. But there’s not enough advice specifically for community managers. Community teams face unique challenges, like clarifying their role as newer industry or managing the emotional elements of the job.

How can first-time managers or those who aspire to the role navigate these challenges? To find out, we spoke with a handful of community professionals who have built and managed teams at companies like Google, Marketo and Salesforce. From writing job descriptions and creating team culture to getting buy-in from executives, these experts shared their top tips:

    • Holly Firestone, Vice President  of Community at Venafi
    • Kevin Lau, Global Head of Customer Advocacy, Adobe Digital Experience
    • Alfredo Morresi, Senior Community Manager, Developer Relations at Google

Holly and Kevin’s conversations are from a CMX Community Office Hours. Thanks to Tina Amper and Claire Smith for moderating this discussion and the members of the CMX Community that joined and shared their questions!

How do I move up the community career ladder to management?

For community managers, the path to the executive level isn’t always well-defined. While some companies have a more defined career path available to community teams, many community builders are in the unique position of being able to define their own path. This comes with its advantages — and its challenges.

 

Many community managers make the transition to people management naturally. After all, there are a lot of overlapping skills! Both require empathy, an interest in other people, and good listening skills in order to be successful.

However, it’s important to emphasize that management isn’t the only way to advance. You can also grow your career as an individual contributor, a specialist, or by charting a new path. Whether or not management is right for you depends on your professional goals and your organization. If you’re weighing this decision, consider these questions as you read through this guide: Do these challenges sound exciting? Would you enjoy solving these problems or learning these skill sets?

Use your passions to help chart your path

What’s the next step after your current role? There’s not always an easy answer; it will depend in part on your organization. But because community career paths tend to be less defined, you can often structure your career growth around your interests and strengths.

Even in management roles, community builders can often bring their own unique spin to the job description. As managers, this is also a way to develop other team members to take on more responsibility related to their strengths and interests.

“At the end of the day, you can create your own job description based on what your passion is and how it’s going to influence the business.” –Kevin Lau, Adobe

At Google, Alfredo Morresi identified his passions and use those to shape his career growth — then helped his team to do the same. For Alfredo, his passion for communication and program management helped him grow beyond a developer into people management. For others, the path to growth could be to specialize in marketing and communications, data and analytics, building relationships and community engagement, or events.

“You can be a great community builder, but probably you won’t stay as is for many years,” says Alfredo. “Right now we don’t have such-well defined career path for community builders. So you really need to think twice in advance than a normal person.”

Build your brand through speaking opportunities

While crafting your career path is important, raising your profile can also help position you for bigger challenges. It’s easier than ever today to share thought leadership in your industry using LinkedIn, Medium, Clubhouse, or any number of social apps.

If you’re ready to take things to the next level, seek out speaking engagements. These let you build your brand while sharing your knowledge with your peers in the industry, a win-win for everyone involved.

“Speaking opportunities are huge. Build your own personal brand, and take your expertise and help other people. You’ll never lose that way. Take everything you’ve learned and speak about it, write about it, or share it one-on-one with people that need mentorship. All of that will help you build your brand, help other people, and help you grow in the industry.” –Holly Firestone, Venafi

How do I know what positions to hire — and how do I make the case to hire?

Writing job descriptions can be challenging for community leads, who may be building out new capabilities within an organization or taking on a new scope of work. But that’s only half the challenge. After you identify what responsibilities a new role will take on, you’ve still got to make the case to leadership. Here are our experts’ top tips:

Advocate for the skill sets you need

Right now, companies are bought into building community. They may even be convinced that they need to hire someone (or two people, or more) to manage their community. But that doesn’t mean they understand the nuances of community roles, or that they’re committed to bringing on higher-level roles.

Holly Firestone’s advice for hiring is to identify the skill sets and experience level you need, and advocate for that tirelessly. “We as leaders have to make sure we are fairly titling and compensating the people on our teams, because nobody else is going to do it for us,” says Holly. “And nobody’s going to understand like we will.”

“Now we know, and everybody in the entire world knows that communities are really, really valuable for businesses, but we still have not quantified the value of an experienced community professional. Right now it’s a no-brainer to build a community for all these businesses, but it’s not a no-brainer to hire a director, VP, chief community officer. So we have a lot of work to do there. And I think that making sure that the people that we bring in are leveled appropriately will only help us.” –Holly Firestone, Venafi

Use data to make the case for headcount

Like any other resources, advocating for more headcount often comes down to showing your community’s impact on business and quantifying how an additional member would help. “If you can make the case of showing that your team is constantly helping the company either save money or make more money, that’s typically what VPs and higher-ups will care about at the end of the day,” says Kevin.

It’s all about speaking the language of your company, so the exact metrics you use to track ROI may vary. Look for ways to quantify where you can: Kevin suggested focusing not just on NPS scores, but on the cost savings of listening to your community vs. paying for a focus group. At Salesforce, Holly set up a ticketing system that allowed her to quantify the support requests her team was fielding before advocating for more support.

“We try to tie everything we’re doing from a community and advocacy standpoint back to dollars and cents for the business. Either it’s revenue that we’re generating, revenue that we’re protecting, or helping the company save money. With community, you can make the case for all three.” –Kevin Lau, Adobe

When to hire vs. empower community members

Should you hire someone to take on new roles, or tap in your most engaged community advocates to take on new responsibilities? It’s an age-old question in community.

Both can be a good option, depending on your circumstances. “I hire people for the foundational and operational elements,” says Holly. “When I think about scale and authenticity, that’s when I think about bringing in community members. Foundation operational pieces are run by the community team, and those things empower the community to build and scale and engage.”

How do I manage a team of community managers?

There’s plenty of best practices available to aspiring managers. But community management is a unique role with its own challenges and skill sets. So we asked our experts for their top tips specifically related to managing community teams and their day-to-day work.

Overall, building a personal relationship and building trust is key to building strong relationships as a manager. (Another recommendation? Have your team join CMX for a network to discuss challenges with!)

Create belonging within your team

Creating a strong team culture is not too different from managing values and expectations within a community. In fact, community managers are likely to be well-versed in many of the ways to build culture within a team:

    • Look for shared passions to build relationships off
    • Make sure your new hires have a great onboarding experience and a strong introduction to your team
    • Create clear roles and responsibilities that allow team members to be successful
    • Celebrate successes within the team
    • Look for ways to connect creatively that drive engagement

“One of the things that I did for my team was that every time we onboarded someone, we gave them a gift basket, but it was with something really random and unique from each of us with a story behind why it represented us,” said Holly. “You learn something really unique and weird about everybody on the team. I think that everybody just wants to feel their real, authentic self on a team.”

Navigate the job’s emotional elements

Unlike many other roles, community management requires an emotional attachment to the work. “We’re empathetic people, and we care about helping other people and building up this community,” says Holly. “You’ve built personal relationships with people in the community, but you also get a lot of feedback. You get knocked down a lot.”

Holly’s advice for navigating the emotional components of the job? Be mindful of the fact that everyone handles things differently. Issues that may not bother everyone on your team could still affect one person. And everyone manages their mental health and wellness in unique and personal ways.

Making space for open conversation is also key to creating a strong team. “A lot of people also aren’t going to want to just come to you and say they’re overloaded or whatever it is,” says Holly. “So being thoughtful about the conversations that you have or being proactive about some of those conversations and making sure that it’s a really open space for people to talk to you is really important.”

Make your team a bridge to the executive team

At Salesforce, Holly realized that because her community team worked in silos, she was the only person who could speak to other teams in the company about the community as a whole. After that experience, she realized the importance of empowering everyone on your team to be able to advocate for the community.

“Because community teams are usually pretty small, you have to distribute information about it out pretty wide, whether it’s with your customers or the rest of the company. That awareness is extremely important. People on your team are going to interact with executives, too. Anyone might end up in a lift with the co-founder of Salesforce and you need to be able to talk about what you’re working on and what the team is doing at a very high level. So you need to be empowering everybody to have those conversations at any level.” –Holly Firestone, Venafi

Model the communication you expect

It’s important to clearly lay out how your team communicates. In particular, community managers who are responsible for moderating conversation and engagement may feel “always on.” Let’s face it, community is not always a 9-5 job! So it’s important for leaders to be mindful about hours, and model the behaviors they want to see.

“I personally find it sometimes difficult to unplug and not reply to something because you feel like you built that relationship through your friend and you’re so invested emotionally on what the outcome might be,” says Kevin. “It might be helpful as you take on a new person to make them feel like they don’t need to be on all the time, and there’s a time and place to respond. Sometimes you just have to take it away and have some downtime.”

Highlight your wins, particularly in hard times

With no clear end to the pandemic in sight, it’s important that managers of community teams remain sensitive to ongoing challenges.

To keep team morale up during the pandemic, Alfredo shared that he put even more of an emphasis on highlighting the team’s wins. “When you receive so many noes, you really need one yes to give you life,” he says. “For me, it was super important to find that and give it to the person on my team.”

Another tip for leading through a pandemic? Be clear and consistent with your strategy. Too many changes can affect morale during already uncertain times. “In a pandemic situation, when negativity is all around, you don’t have as many places or options to give hope,” explains Alfredo. “So if you want to point somewhere, you really need to be convinced that it’s a good place to point.”

For more career advice, join the conversation in the CMX Community!

Mary Cass

Mary is the Senior Content Marketing Manager at CMX. She's based in New York and loves cats. ...

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