Strategies for survival (and maybe even some success) in a newly created community manager position

In December, we wrapped up the first year of the Community Engagement Fellows Program (CEFP), funded by the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation. The first cohort of Fellows was made up of 17 scientific community managers working with a diverse range of scientific communities. We’ll be recruiting for cohort two later this year for a start date of January 2019.

Meanwhile, we’re continuing to share reflections from the 2017 Fellows on the blog. In today’s post, Josh Knackert shares some reflections about his experience as a first time community manager. You can catch up on all posts by the Fellows here.

Scientific community manager positions often evolve from existing roles within an organization or are fostered by an intrepid individual, passionate for this type of work, who convinces stakeholders of its necessity and their fitness for the position.  (Here’s some great advice on how to be this intrepid individual.)  Another origin story is beginning to emerge as the benefits of scientific community managers are becoming increasingly recognized and valued–organizations are realizing a need for these positions and creating them independently of the these more organic methods.

While these newly built positions offer fantastic potential for a manager and their community, they can come with some unique challenges.  Back in January 2017, I found myself in just this situation, filling a newly established community engagement role with the IceCube Collaboration at the Wisconsin IceCube Particle Astrophysics Center (WIPAC).

What were your most successful strategies as a first time community manager? Image credit:
What were your most successful strategies as a first time community manager?
Image credit:

In looking back on my time in my first position as a scientific community manager, some strategies stand out as being especially helpful:

Study your community

Each community is its own living organism, flowing, functioning, and failing in its own ways.  Always look to learn more about the community-organization, leadership, and shared goals and functions as a start.  But with some time and lots of questions, less obvious mechanisms and features will emerge, like how things typically advance and at what pace, unofficial leaders and champions, historical precedent, and culture (inherent to both the community and included discipline(s)). A better understanding of a community’s unique quirks will make supporting and representing it easier.  This knowledge can also be used to help plan and advance initiatives within the community in the least disruptive and most efficient manner possible.

Set priorities, but know when to pivot

It’s natural to have lots of great ideas and suggestions when entering a new position.  With the risk of spreading efforts too thin and exhausting community leadership with too many proposals, picking a few key initiatives and focusing on these at first is recommended.  This is where knowing a community further comes into play; even a cursory understanding for how a community functions can help identify these key needs to pursue first.  However, even needed initiatives can hit a variety of roadblocks, making the ability to re-asses, retool, and even pivot away (often temporarily) from stalled projects a necessary skill for this position.  And while setting priorities is important, documenting any ideas for community projects or initiatives, no matter how small or seemingly unattainable, is also a great practice.  These will no doubt become relevant when it comes time to pivot or build on your successes.

Find role models and model communities

Very few functions and initiatives associated with this position haven’t been done, at least in part, by another community manager.  Examples of common community features like a code of conduct, discussion forums, newsletters, and mentoring networks can be readily found online and can serve as strong foundations for versions molded to your community.  Especially pertinent examples are often found in communities that have similar composition and/or function; identifying comparable, model communities can offer useful resources, examples, and comparisons.  There may even be a community manager role model present in these model organizations. Community managers in relatable organizations, or doing admirable work that mirrors your list of goals, offer an immense source of knowledge, experience, and can offer a reality check for how things work elsewhere.

Build a personal network

Any newly created position will lack a certain foundation of resources and connections, but especially a community-centric one like this. A personal network, for both support and resources, can be pivotal for the growth and success for both your community and yourself.  Don’t be intimidated to contact, pose questions to, and discuss with a few of the previously mentioned community manager role models; they will likely end up being your most important resources, support, and encouragement in the beginning and during your most frustrating moments. (The CSCCE Community Engagement Fellowship would be a great place to begin looking for these kindred spirits).

Some strategies for being most effective in my new role were apparent right away, while others took some time to develop. Each position will be unique in its challenges and solutions, but starting with a few strategies will help provide a focal point, improve productivity and, most importantly, slightly reduce the feeling of being overwhelmed.  At some point, I made the transition from surviving to succeeding in this new role.  Hopefully these strategies will help future, newly-minted community managers make the transition even faster.

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