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How We’re Building and Structuring Our Community Team at Common Room

In high school and college, I ran track. At some point in the nascency of my running career, a coach quoted Rudyard Kipling to me, borrowed and abridged: “The strength of the pack is the wolf, and the strength of the wolf is the pack.”

Since then, I’ve loved Rudyard Kipling. And I’ve thought about that quote every time I consider the meaning of ‘team.’ Organizational behaviorists, business journals, company consultants, researchers, and fellow tech companies like Trello have profusely and astutely covered the pros and cons of different types of organizational and team structures with an academic rigor I won’t try to replicate.

What I will do is share how we at Common Room, and how I as the Head of Community here, think about the structure of our Community team. We recently ran this Twitter poll on the topic, and the results were fairly mixed—Community being its own separate function won with ~37% of the vote and Community reporting into Marketing came in with ~27% (more on this later).

I mention that here because while I think the way we’ve structured our Community team at Common Room is working well for us, it’s not the only way to structure a Community team. And in the future, it may change based on how the needs of our community and our internal teams change. For now, we press on together.

Finding and hiring the team

Our Community team, which reports directly to the CEO, owns a lot of scope. Since we’re relatively new (I joined as the first hire in late January of this year, and had my 3-person team in seat by late June), we have both the dizzying excitement of wearing a lot of hats and the overwhelming dizziness of wearing a lot of hats—we’re opening new community channels, writing educational content, meeting with customers, putting events and training courses together, doggedly dogfooding Common Room and constantly iterating with our Product team, crafting websites, penning newsletters, growing our social media presence and, most importantly, constantly looking for ways to highlight and elevate the work of community leaders everywhere. As we do that, we’re defining the workflows and culture around our team’s operations to set the tone for the next Community colleagues we bring on board as our team, and our community, grows.

That’s an expansive menu of tasks to ideate, deliver, maintain, and improve, and it’s unlikely we’ll find a single person that’s an expert in all of those things. Instead of looking for task-based Community teammates, I thought more about the qualities that would make the Community team shine when each person was brought together—a giveth and receiveth quality a la my man Rudyard.

I looked for people who met three foundational criteria:

  1. Does this person excel in a strength that will serve our customers and complement other team roles?
  2. Is this person passionate about growing into the Community space and willing to continuously learn?
  3. Is this person willing to embrace ambiguity and help their teammates deliver with velocity?

Those criteria generally map to our company values—be customer centric, strive for simplicity, craft excellence, and remember that we’re all in this together. With time, persistence (thanks for your latitude, team), and through our interview process -  which consists of a practical take-home exercise, a live presentation and Q&A with a cross-functional panel of leaders across Common Room, and a Values interview designed with the specific intent of illuminating a values match for both candidate and company - I found and hired my team.

Why the three-pronged approach? We believe that the three pieces give different kinds of candidates different opportunities to shine. The take-home exercise gives candidates time and space to think through the exercise and feel confident in the ideas they produce. The cross-functional panel presentation and Q&A allows candidates to go deeper on topics and demonstrates a Community team candidate’s comfort level with speaking to all kinds of people (just like they’ll have to do in the role). And the Values interview asks pointed questions, “Can you tell me about a time when your understanding of a customer problem resulted in your building (or guiding the development of) a solution you otherwise would not have created?” We caveat this question with the acknowledgement that ‘customer’ can be applied here with a loose interpretation—for Community teams, the ‘customer’ is likely a community member (who may also be a “customer” customer) or an internal stakeholder or team.

The team itself

Upon reflection, it’s become clear to me that, when viewed as a whole, each of us fits a sort of persona type that helps all of us do our best work when brought together. On our Community team today, we have four people who generally fall into four personas that complement one another quite well:

The Community Scientist: This person brings an analytical and experimental mindset to building community. For us, this person is Steven. More than one person has called Steven a “Community Scientist”, but I’m pretty sure Tina Amper coined the phrase. Steven is analytical, skeptical, eager to run experiments against hypotheses, and constantly data diving, manipulating spreadsheet columns, and emerging with new hypotheses to test against. He’s meticulous, excellent at articulating processes and results, and even more excellent at suggesting refinements based on his findings. If you’ve followed his how-to guides, you may have noticed this already. His guides always include a checklist and his language is clear and straightforward.

The Community Scientist, and in our case Steven, helps their team understand why we’re pursuing and testing certain ideas, if we’re appropriately set up to measure them, and that we’re giving the results the attention they deserve to affect future projects. In the spirit of our belief that Community leaders can come from a wide variety of backgrounds and experiences (and perhaps, moreover, that they should), Steven’s first career was in consulting. He later dove into Developer Marketing at AWS, and built a wide range of channels and processes for the community to interact with AWS teams and one another.

Side note: For more about the surprising ways leaders arrive in a Community role, check out our Rise of the Community Leader series, which chronicles stories like Tina’s, Jelena Zanko’s from Imply, and Scott Baldwin’s from Productboard.

The Community Strategist: This person creates structure and defines concrete executables for achieving a long-term vision. For us, this person is Melanie. Melanie has an uncanny ability to think long and short, big and small. She is thorough, organized, detailed, clear, communicative, and perhaps most importantly for the Champion and the Captain personas, she is patient. The Scientist and the Strategist are nearest to each other persona-wise and the two lenses they look through complement one another in building toward our shared vision—the Scientist through a data-first lens and the Strategist through an itemized-list-and-workback-plan lens.

The Community Strategist buttresses the velocity and scrappiness of a startup with the groundedness needed to build a tenured, horizon-less future. They stretch the short-term rubber band into the long-term vision at every meeting to help the team understand potential long-term impacts of a decision. Melanie’s previous background is in traditional marketing and product marketing at large, successful enterprises where she’s built everything from multi-year GTM plans to community programs like the AWS Data Heroes—she brings a nuanced depth of experience to every decision. When looking for a Community Strategist at our size, it was important to find someone who draws from their depth of traditional experience, but who also met Criteria #3 above—the one about embracing ambiguity. In our startup world, we’re not going to have the same answers as a decades-old company, and it can take time to find an incredibly discerning Strategist who also embraces yolo.

The Community Champion: This person recognizes, celebrates, and amplifies the work of community members. For us, this person is Alli. Alli notices moments and causes for community celebration that we might otherwise miss. A cool conversation happening in the Uncommon Slack that we should highlight elsewhere? A podcast or blog post that’s generating ideas or debates? A better way to make sure a community member feels welcome, heard, supported, and connected? Alli sees these and broadcasts them so others can get in on the conversation, too. Not only does the Community Champion celebrate community members externally, they advocate for them internally—for Alli, this means working directly with our Design team to create in-product content and flows that serve our customers what they need to know, when they need it. Or working with our Customer Success team to elevate customer case studies and cool uses we’re seeing across Common Room.

The Community Champion embodies an eagerness to both hear and tell stories—their ability to listen and to share forms a connective bridge from person → person. Alli’s background started in sports reporting (which requires a deep capacity for listening and sharing). Over time, she waded into product and content writing which ultimately led her to interacting with communities directly and indirectly—all through the written word. Now, she’s made the full transition to listening to, sharing with, and writing for communities directly.

The Community Captain: This person makes sure their teammates have what they need to excel at their positions. For us, this person is me. In honesty, I find this a humbling experience. There’s a part of me that asks: If my teammate is better at their role than me, what do I have to offer? The truth is, thank goodness my teammates excel at their roles—it was first in my criteria when I was looking for them. If I’m center midfielder and team captain of my soccer squad, I should not wish to be better at being striker or sweeper than my strikers or sweeper. I should simply do my best to move the ball between them, and forward, with grace and speed. If my striker needs support on offense, then I should be there. If my sweeper needs support on defense, then I should be there. As the Community Captain, I’m here to ideate on shared goals, communicate any information that would be helpful for my team to know, and lend support wherever support is needed. If we need extra email support, I can step in. If we need extra editing support, I’m there. If we need to evaluate vendors or hire new roles or post more social, I’m on it.

The Community Captain exists in service to the strengths of their team. They appreciate Kipling’s law of the jungle, and they center their team on their shared goals, asking questions to get at the balance of velocity, execution, and future-proofing. They ask things like, “What is this?” (even if it seems like it should be obvious), “Why is this?”, “Do we need this?”, and “Do we need this now?” They must be willing to be right and be willing to be wrong. And they must be willing to take responsibility when they are wrong, knowing that when you move fast within ambiguity, you’re going to be wrong sometimes. The Community Captain should set expectations with the team that being wrong is inevitable and that being flexible is more important. Figuring out how to correct mistakes, how to make new ones instead of repeating old ones, and how to maintain humor and respect for each other and for community members throughout the process is all in the Captain’s purview. My background is in writing, tech, and urban design—you might be surprised at the array of intersections between those three things (I was too, once) but ultimately, I found that my experiences at Airbnb, my Urban Design masters program, and building the AWS Serverless Heroes community at AWS shared a foundational ethos: The importance of community permeates all of the spaces, places, and people we feel connected to and inspired by.

While not every team can benefit from a Steven, Melanie, Alli, or me, I do think every team can benefit from bringing a Community Scientist, Strategist, Champion, and Captain to the table. It’s important to note that these simplified personas don’t illustrate the whole of any of us. For example, each of us like to explore data and each of us are always looking for ways to amplify the work of our community members. The meta point is that these personas represent crucial, singular strengths of each Community teammate. Our approach at Common Room is one way to build a Community team, and we know there are more ways to approach it than our own.

So across our Uncommon Conversations, we ask tenured leaders who they look for when they build their Community teams. Two key themes emerge: They’ve got to enjoy people and the responsibility that comes with relationships, and they’ve got to be organized—facilitating a community can involve a lot of logistics, so they have to be comfortable working with details. An alternative way to look at these two themes is to hire teammates who excel in each of these individually, and then work together to complement each other so that a healthy mix of EQ and strategic execution are represented across the team.

The Community team within the organization

That popular Twitter poll I mentioned above asked: Where should the Community team sit in an organization? The votes broke down like this: ~37% of respondents thought Community should be a separate entity in the organization, ~27% believed it should sit under Marketing, 22% thought it should roll into Product, and ~15% chose Customer Success.

Pie chart with answers to the poll: Where should a Community team sit in an org? 36.6% believe Community should be a separate function.

At Common Room, it’s our goal to empower Community leaders with such useful tooling that the entire Community function is elevated to a C-suite position—that Community is seen as so integral to the continued success of a company that a Community leader has a seat at the exec table and a voice that’s as heeded as the CMO, CTO, or CFO. We’ve seen movement in this direction, like Mary O’Carroll joining Ironclad as their Chief Community Officer, or CCO.

But we also know that plenty of Community teams are successful when they report to other functions. Marketing foremost because Marketing and Community teams are most closely aligned in their incentives—to make sure the community’s voice is represented internally and that product users are, to put it plainly, happy. In some cases, it also works when Community teams—potentially represented by Developer Advocacy teams, as well—report to Product or Customer Success. Ultimately, Community informs all of those functions—marketing, product, and customer success. At this nascent stage of Community being more formally recognized as a role type, I think it’s less about which team Community reports to, and more about the weight the team’s voice is given across each of those organizational functions.

A Community team who reports to Marketing—or Product or Customer Success— whose feedback and findings are received, respected, and acted upon by each of those teams is fulfilling its ultimate purpose: To amplify the needs of the community internally so their partner teams can build and deliver better products and experiences back to the community faster. If placing Community in the C-suite is imperative to ensuring that a Community team’s voice is heard and heeded across an organization, then that is certainly where it should sit, starting immediately. But if an organization is already building with a community-first ethos and their Community team sits under Marketing, Product, or elsewhere, and their community is happy, healthy, and well-served then, at least for now, they should keep their focus on serving the people that matter most—their community.

I generally view the ascendance of the Community title on a time scale of inevitability. Today, as the Community function stretches its wings and continues to grow and prove its value, I think a Community team can sit anywhere as long as their voice is being heard, respected, and utilized. In time, as the function matures (and with new roles opening up, new leaders entering the space, and new tools like Common Room, I believe it will mature rapidly), I firmly believe Community will very soon and very rightfully earn a C-suite seat in organizations it has yet to, and that it will be a natural and obvious decision.

There will come a day when Chief Community Officer is not a novel title. We’ll get there by continuing to help each other get better in service to our communities, and by building out the expertise and tooling that enable us as Community leaders to showcase the value of our work internally and externally. The C-suite will have no choice but to notice, and the rest will follow.

Looking for ways to continue growing the Community function together? I invite you to join our Uncommon community Slack.

Learn, share, and connect with community leaders.