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.
Common Community Specializations
Typically, you can consider two directions for growth:
- Growing along the path of an individual contributor as you up-level your skills or develop a specialty within your broader field
- Growing along the path of leadership as you focus on team development and helping to organize and upskill other contributors.
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:
- Baseline community management skills and experiences — gaining lived experiences, stories, and validation for (or against) best practices.
- Program specialization — gaining success launching or improving a specific type of common community cornerstone program (like a UGC program, an ambassador program, or a distributed ownership live event program).
- Internal specialization — building expertise in or affinity toward a specific sub-area of Community Management (like engagement and content creation, scaled moderation, operations/technical implementation, or event management).
- Leading others on your team, formally or informally.
- More high-responsibility projects — like projects that require you to make strategic decisions, or work with more high-value audiences.
- A higher volume of responsibilities — as you become more efficient or effectively scale your projects.
ICs may grow in specialization or simply seniority.
Common specializations are:
- Community Engagement — often the most junior specialization ('Engagement Specialist' titles often ladder up into Community Management generalist roles, so this is a 'pre-specialization').
- Community Operations — manages workflows for community programs, team process, technology, and more.
- Program Manager — manages one or more specific community programs within a larger capital C community.
- Community Content Manager — works on creating content for a community and pulling content from it, often works in a curatorial manner.
- Community Strategist — works on researching & continuously ideating on community strategy.
More unique-to-use-case specializations are:
- Internal Community Management — works on a community comprised of their company's employees.
- Developer Relations (Dev Rel) — manages a community comprised exclusively of developers.
Common seniority paths for an IC
While this still varies depending on company size and resources, the path below is a good rule of thumb.
- Community Specialist
- Community Manager
- Senior Community Manager
- Director, [Program Specialty]
If you want to grow as an Individual Contributor
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.
A word of caution
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.
Common leadership paths
- Senior Community Manager
- Director of Community
- Head of Community
- VP of Community
- Chief Community Officer
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.
If you want to grow as a community leader
- Be explicit with your manager that this is a career path you'd like to pursue, and take on informal opportunities for training and coaching other teammates
- Take opportunities to manage contractors or ambassador programs—this is often a foot in the door for community builders to get into leadership
- Focus your attention on strategy and operations as a growing IC; these are the skills most transferrable to leadership roles
- Pursue training — C School now offers training for CMs in every stage of their career, including those who want to transition into leadership. Find out more, or apply here.
A word of caution
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.
Want to learn more?
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 email@example.com. 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.