Understanding your potential career path is important no matter what field you work in — but in a fast-growing, fledgling industry like community? It's crucial.
The road to professional community management has, historically, been winding — and Commsor founder Mac Reddin wasn't joking when he said "accidental Community Manager" almost feels like a required step in any Community Management career in this Twitter thread.
But things are changing. You'll notice in the tweets above that when folks transition into more structured community roles, their progression becomes more linear.
Whether you're on the hunt for a new community role, looking to specialize, climb the ladder, or even hiring, knowing the next steps can be powerful when it comes to growing your career.
Like technical organizations, the community industry tends to recognize a need for many ways of growing and upskilling, regardless of whether or not you want to manage other people.
In reality (especially in community as this field develops) these paths are often quite mixed — you may be mostly an IC, but manage a team of contractors, or a leader who still owns "in the weeds" projects. This largely depends on the size of your organization.
Still, as with any career, working towards leadership will often mean you shift your focus away from your direct discipline and into team management.
As you grow, you may be developing across a few different dimensions:
ICs may grow in specialization or simply seniority.
Common specializations are:
More unique-to-use-case specializations are:
While this still varies depending on company size and resources, the path below is a good rule of thumb.
Be explicit with your manager that you would like to grow your skills, specialization, or responsibilities, but don't want to become a people manager, if this is the case. It's also important to ask for high-impact, high-visibility projects and develop leadership skills in how you collaborate with other teams, even if you're not developing a leadership skill as a people manager.
Don't be a machine. A common trap for ICs (especially in community) is to think that executing lots of projects at once will help you grow — this can backfire. Aim to strategically work on the things with the highest impact, and visibly say no to things that don't. Being seen as strategic, rather than an executor, can be more effective for growth.
Developing along the leadership path will generally require you to reach a certain level of experience and seniority as an IC, first.
Along the leadership path, expect to work less on day-to-day program execution, and more on developing and up-skilling other team members and positioning your team and strategy within the larger organization.
It's worth noting that, especially at steps 3, 4, and 5, not every company will have this granularity of leveling, and this will very rarely be a clear, pre-defined career path. The highest level available within community may speak more to how much the company is willing to value community than your personal growth potential.
A common problem that community leaders have is transitioning away from the "in-the-weeds" work to more high-level, strategic work. While it's important to keep a foot on the ground and make sure you have an understanding of the job of those you manage, learning this balance can be what makes a great leader in the community world.
The above is one of the concepts we unpack in C School, our 12-week Community Manager program. In this hands-on course, we offer education, mentorship, and independent practice — everything you need to land a full-time job in community.
If you’re interested in applying for a C School cohort, apply here if you’re looking for your first job in community. If you're already a CM, apply here. We've also launched a course to help experienced CMs transition into leadership roles. You can find out more here.
These are rolling applications, so you can apply now even if you want to participate in the future.
You can also email questions to firstname.lastname@example.org. This program was built to help community folks break into this field and make their start in a way that enables long-term growth. If it's up your alley, we can't wait to hear from you.