Community manager musings is a series of occasional posts looking at the roles and skills of community managers – usually within science.
I’ve been thinking a lot recently about what it is that makes community managers / network leaders unique. How do we accurately describe a role with activities that require seemingly opposed skillsets and that in many cases can also be somewhat invisible?
In his short publication “The Less Visible Leader” (free to download here), Andy Robinson lists 12 attributes of net-centric leaders that fall into three broad categories:
Catalyzes a culture of spirited cooperation
1. Listens deeply to fully appreciate and understand the diversity of perspectives and motivations held by all involved.
2. Shows gratitude and encourages mutual appreciation for the ideas and contributions of all.
3. Regularly uses both/and thinking to identify solutions that meet both shared and individual goals and needs.
4. Communicates openly and clearly, matching the medium to the message.
5. Fosters opportunities (at all levels of the system) to develop camaraderie and trust
Shares power and generates momentum
6. Creates space for others to step up and contribute
7. Embraces ambiguity and encourages experiments and innovations
8. Helps the group to develop enough infrastructure to effectively make decisions and keeps everyone moving forward
9. Pays attention to conflicts in values and beliefs and productively orchestrates resolution
Stays true to the long-term vision while navigating frequent twists and turns
10. Persistently holds a clear picture of the purpose for working together
11. Helps those inside and outside the collaborative effort understand the progress that is being made as well as the roots of that success.
12. Courageously continues to adapt in an effort to successfully achieve the long-term vision.
What’s interesting about this particular list is that I suspect team members wouldn’t necessarily recognise that the network leader was carrying out any of these activities during the day-to-day functioning of the team. I think there may be a few reasons for this:
Multiple different one-to-one interactions don’t always reveal the scale of the whole role to any one network member
For example, in the first example of the set of attributes about catalysing collaboration, “listening deeply” may be taking place on a one-to-one basis via a consultation process instigated by the community manager to talk to a subgroup of members about their perspectives on an issue. While a member may feel momentarily appreciative of being listened to for the hour of their meeting, she may not recognise the time spent doing similar consultation with other members of the network.
Personal work in private is often needed to be a good leader
Some of the attributes listed above such as “Create safe spaces” and “embraces ambiguity” require the network leader to be emotionally adept and fluent – picking up on subtle dynamics within the group and regulating her own reactions to them appropriately while leading others through theirs.
I’m increasingly coming to believe that you cannot be a good leader without doing your own ongoing, personal work to recognise your habitual responses and emotional triggers. For example, there’s personal work involved in being able to recognise when to take a walk and mull something over instead of dictating next steps to the group to overcome a sense of personal vulnerability. And yet, if the group only sees the positive outcome of a well-facilitated exchange, they will likely be completely unaware of the commitment and labour that may have been necessary to get to that moment. Couple this with the additional challenge of urgency as a norm – where taking a break or asking for space to think is not always possible – and this can create pressure on the community manager due to a lack of understanding of the invisible work that’s needed.
Constructing and maintaining a vision takes time – and belief
The idea that leaders help to co-create, develop and reaffirm a group’s vision of its purpose is often raised as one of their key roles, but what is talked about less is the process by which that occurs. Typically leaders don’t wake up one day with a polished vision of what needs to be done. Instead, they synthesise ideas through consultation with community members, stakeholders, sometimes years of experience in a particular field, pages and pages of background reading and more. This all takes a lot of time – and in the early stages of a project may be more time than any one else in the network is putting in – yet it’s almost all work with no immediate output and therefore easy to miss.
Secondly, and related to the previous point about personal work, a community manager needs to be able to hold the vision with enough conviction to persist with it, while holding it lightly enough that it can be changed based on feedback and evolving needs. The belief powering a vision is a very personal thing. And that belief may be tested repeatedly, leading to moments of doubt and acts of bravery in reimagining the path ahead. So not only does a leader need to be skilled to synthesise various group inputs into a shared vision that she champions, she also needs to navigate the moments of doubt skillfully as a member of the network that she’s safely holding the vision for. That’s a delicate balance to find between the roles of network participant and group facilitator, and also between personal feelings and collective actions.
The goal is to distribute power
If the hallmark of a successful network is one that is densely-connected with information well-distributed throughout the network then by definition the network leader cannot persist as the central node in the network as it matures. This means that their facilitation work becomes increasingly behind-the scenes and about empowerment (literally conferring of power) to others in the network.
This understandably can lead to burnout, frustration and a sense of being under-appreciated, especially when coupled with the emotional work often required of the role.
So what can we do to better support those in an often invisible role? I believe that illuminating more clearly the role of the network leader such that the various network members and stakeholders understand its challenges is one crucial first step. This list of 12 attributes is one approach. In my next post in this series we’ll look at a different model for community manager skillsets.