Future-proof your community

Surprise, but hopefully not really a surprise, it’s about your people.

Hello friends! Fall has finally come to Madrid and I couldn’t be happier. It’s time for sweaters, soup, and annual planning. Hooray! And, after a lot of travel, I’m back home, cozy and comfortable. 

Moka is also very much on board with all things cozy and comfortable

Fun fact about me: I hate being in my comfort zone for long. I thrive on the uncomfortable edge, where all that excellent, juicy growth happens.  So, this morning, as a crisp fall breeze glides through my office and I enjoy a truly fantastic cup of coffee, I invite you to get comfortable too, and join me in an uncomfortable thought experiment. 

What would happen if you stepped away from your community?

Imaginary audience responds, “Ah! The horror. Why would you say that? Are you leaving? I can’t leave my community, I’m in the middle of 18 projects and launching 42 more next week. People need me. Go away with your stinky thought experiment, Angela. Nothing could tear me away from my community, I love it too much.” 

Ok, it is a stinky thought experiment. It’s still a very good question to ask yourself, especially if you hold any responsibility in your community. The best communities inspire passionate members, resulting in stronger senses of responsibility. It is often unbelievably difficult to think about letting go of that responsibility. 

At the same time: life happens. People are studies in change, especially so today (side note, try a PESTEL analysis on your community, it’s wild). Jobs change, people move, pandemics, hurricanes, and war. Slower change is also real: we burn out, we realize that we want to do something different. 

So while you may not be thinking about leaving your community at this moment, as super responsible people, it’s important to think about what might happen if you suddenly had to leave. Business circles call this succession planning, and it usually scares people when you bring it up. 

It’s immensely worse when you don’t have an existing succession plan, and suddenly need to put one into action. If a community relies on one person to continue, or for any key function, you need a succession plan. Better yet, you can future-proof your community by planning for its success, with or without you. 

Here’s how to do it, starting right now, in three steps.

Step 1: Recognize that it is normal, and may even be healthy to leave

As noted earlier, things happen. Deciding to do something different is normal, healthy, and ok! However, people who feel they can’t leave a community role are literally stuck: not only can you not leave, you can’t be promoted either. 

While a high degree of responsibility could be blamed here, I also attribute it to protective thinking: a desire to remind others that we belong because of our utility. Community members who feel so trapped see their responsibilities turn into a burden, sucking joy out of their participation. The result is resentment, a palpable and demoralizing feeling. So take a deep breath, and remember that you deserve to belong by virtue of who you are, not just what you can do. In a community, you are not alone, and your fellow community members want to help you. 

Step 2: Invest in the leaders of tomorrow, today

Yes, it takes precious time to mentor and coach others. Even more emphatically, yes, it is worth your time to do so. This is how we best leave our community positioned for future success: by preparing the next generation of leaders. Who has impressed you recently, and who shows high potential? Are they interested in more? Go find out! 

Step 3: Identify what you are responsible for

If you disappeared from your community today, what responsibilities would others need to take on to be successful? What information do they need to know or have to be successful? Write all that down, and share it with the folks who need to know – especially those future leaders. 

This is all stuff I encourage you to do right now even if you have no plans for leaving. It’s all healthy activity for a community, and excellent community management! And yes, it is good preparation for when you step away, permanently or periodically (take your vacations and disconnect, friends). This is also a great way to position yourself for a different role in the same community. 

And when you are ready to leave…

Step 4: Let others lead

One more deep breath, because oof uncomfortable. If you are leaving your community permanently, especially if you hold a leadership role, let it go. 

When you pass responsibility to others, let them lead. This one is difficult, because new leaders will take your community in new directions, ones you may even hate. Especially if you are not invited to do so, poking back in with your opinion (regardless of your intentions), can easily create conflict in the community. If you have the bandwidth, and if appropriate, try an ex officio role. 

Why is this on my mind today? Thanks Megan, a fellow community deputy, for bringing it up. This is a conversation I’ve had with many community members, so it’s worth writing down. Also, I work at Automattic, which has the super cool benefit of a sabbatical after 5 years of employment. I’m due for a sabbatical next year, and very much thinking through all these steps in preparation, today.