Breaking “the glass ceiling” in the community industry


Is there a glass ceiling in the community industry?

That’s a loaded question that gets asked a lot in community manager forums, Facebook groups – like the CMX group (highly recommend joining btw) and podcasts like this Community Signal podcast episode with Patrick O’Keefe and Alexandra Dao, of Vimeo.

If you look at our industry, there’s a growing number of director, VP and c-level community pros. You wouldn’t know that based on the many discussions you hear on and offline. The discussions in forums and Facebook groups online tend to skew towards complaining. They don’t always match what’s actually happening.

The reality is while there’s a lot of people moving up the ranks, there’s also a lot of people who are stagnant, or move into different industries like Alexandra in the Community Signal podcast episode that I shared above.

People automatically assume that the reasons above are correlated. Incorrectly so in most cases.  Every community professional is different and has different aspirations and needs. There’s a lot of directions you can go from an entry-level community role.  Because of these assumptions, you wind up with a lot of generic advice being thrown in community manager groups – like “manage up” and “practice self-care” if you want to advance and grow as a community manager. Both are well meaning, but as you will see both have some real, potentially harmful side effects that can lead to a false sense of security. This is especially true for the second tip, and the one that I’m going to focus on.

Self-care is really important. Anytime you are working with lots of people, burnout can be a real struggle. Community managers are no different than social workers, nurses, teachers or tech support professionals in that regard.

The problem is often times we lull ourselves into a false sense of security by over-emphasizing “self care best practices.” and “how to prevent burnout” at the expense of becoming a better community professional.

Yes, self care can prevent burnout. But, burnout is only an issue when you are over-working or over-stressed for too long of a period of time. Burnout isn’t just an indicator that you have too many things going on and have taken on too many projects and tasks. It is more of an indicator that you struggle with prioritization and delegation.

When every task is new and urgent, urgent loses its meaning. Not to mention, things fall through the cracks, projects go unfinished, mistakes happens, etc.

The thing that seems the most urgent at the time is almost always NOT the most important task. For example, responding to a negative email or comment from a customer is an urgent task. An important task is creating a crisis communication system and training others for how to respond to negative comments in all forms. Therefore, you don’t always have to drop everything else and fight fires day in and day out.

It is really hard to engage in strategic planning and deep work, if you are constantly putting out one fire after another.

Fighting fires and too many “urgent tasks” competing for your attention is only half of the problem.

The real root of the problem is community manager roles inherently can be a little generic or undefined – especially for people who are brand new to the role or entry level.

This leads community managers – especially ones who are entry level or only a few years in- to go out of their way to find anyway they can to show their value in their respected organizations. This often means being the one to work on projects across multiple departments and usually volunteering to lead projects that no one else wants.

That inherently can be a great thing. That’s how you become indispensable to an organization.

When left unchecked, it can also be a major weakness. If you take on too many projects at once, you subject yourself to missing deadlines, overworking, subpar results and of course burnout (if it goes on too long).

Not to mention, if you are constantly being asked to show your value, prepare yet another powerpoint or spreadsheet for what you do every day and take on more and more projects, it is a recipe for lack of confidence and insecurity in your role.

That’s a deadly combination to be in. You are taking on more and more work. But, the results aren’t as good as they can be. Plus, you are growing more insecure in your role and as a result losing credibility within the organization.

So you start looking for another project to take on or more ways to show your value. And, you stretch yourself even thinner. The cycle repeats itself.

If you find yourself in a situation where you are drowning in too much work with less than amazing results, how do you fix it?

The answer lies in simplifying.

There’s something called the Pareto Principle where 80% of the results comes from 20% of the work.

Audit yourself and figure out the 20% of things that you are doing that net the majority of results. Keep doing those things and find a way to delegate, automate or stop doing everything else. I realize that’s easier said than done.

Don’t beat yourself up if you can’t get rid of everything that isn’t netting the biggest results right away. This process can take time. In some cases, lots and lots of time.

This exercise is worth it even if you can only get rid of 1-2 tasks taking up a hour a week at first. That extra hour compounds to 4 extra hours each month. Or, 12 extra hours in a quarter. You can do real deep (strategic) work with just a couple of uninterrupted hours.

The next part is to get smarter about what you are measuring and then tell a story with your data. Data is fairly worthless on its own. The real impact lies in how you analyze it to write a narrative. That’s how you can convince senior managers and executives to invest in new projects, hire more team members and further highlight the community’s impact in your organization.

The cold reality is it is really tempting to overly work for the community at the expense of not tracking and showing how what you are doing directly ties to the bottom line for the organization.

You might be thinking, “You are crazy. I’m doing a great job. My community metrics are on the up and up with hockey stick level growth.”

I’m guessing – this is just a guess- that your metrics are engagement-driven then and probably look something like this:

* Increased the number of lurkers to active participants by 50%
* Sentiment is moving progressively more positive
* Or number of comments increased by 100% year over year.

All of these are great results (Something you should be proud of), but they are all highly tactical, engagement-driven metrics. Most of the time they can’t be traced back directly to business results like increased sales or decreasing support costs. That’s the problem.

As community professionals, we often think way too much in terms of tactics and not enough in strategy.

It is not just about getting comfortable with spreadsheets and Excel. It is about understanding how the business makes money. And how your initiatives play into that.

Community engagement and sentiment based metrics are great but nice to haves
Revenue and profits are the lifeblood of any business.

Number of new comments doesn’t pay the rent or your salary. The only things that do are generating new revenue or decreasing costs.

I love being a community manager, and truly believe that there’s never been a better time to be in the community industry. Community continues to play a huge role in an increasing number of businesses. Until you can make the leap from engagement metrics and tactical thinking to strategic analysis, you will always be spinning your wheels and not progressing as much as you could be.

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About the author

Jessica Malnik

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