CareersIf you are a veteran of this profession – or you are new and hope to one day become one – I’d like to reflect a bit on the career path of the community management professional. Specifically, I would like to encourage you to seek advancement and not sell yourself short.

When we sell ourselves short as professionals, we don’t do justice to the importance of our industry. It impacts the space and those who work in it, in a negative way. It holds us back.

I know that, sometimes, you just have to take what you can get. You have a family to support. I respect that and it’s not what I am talking about. Also, if you are happy where you are and don’t want to take what might be a higher pressure role, I totally get that, as well. Family and happiness should be your priorities.

But then there are those of us who might not be aware of what is out there. Or we just might be a little too comfortable. Or possibly we are a bit too accommodating and too willing to compromise that we do so at our own detriment. You have to know your worth.

Me, as an Example

I’ll let you in on a secret. I’ve been talking to some companies about taking a role with them. I’ll probably write about this soon because I’d love to hear about interesting opportunities outside of the people I’ve been talking to. But I also don’t need a job. I’m not desperate for one. If the right role is offered, I’d love to take it. Otherwise, I have other ventures I’ll invest in. I am fortunate to be able to do that and not have to take a job.

But I also feel a responsibility. I care a lot about this space and do what I can to help it. I have a deep level of experience, have written books that have been well received and have a certain level of visibility in this profession. I feel like I owe it to my fellow professionals to ensure I take a role that befits my experience and properly values community. If I don’t do that, if I accept a job where I don’t have the authority, autonomy and support that I should, then I’ve let the space down.

With my work here and elsewhere, my aim is to advocate for this profession, the importance of it and how high it can go. If I take a job, I want it to be one that shows veterans a role that speaks to what we have to offer and shows newer professionals what they can reach towards.

To help visualize this, let’s walk through the progression of the community management role, that I am seeing at companies right now.

Entry Level Roles

More than two years ago, I asked if community manager was becoming an entry level role. What dictates that, more than anything else, is the salary paid. The reports that we have these days generally indicate the salary of an entry level role (or close), more often than not. For example, the Social Fresh report of 2012 salaries shows an average of salary of $57,732.77. That’s just not the pay that speaks to a senior role.

Let’s face it. For a lot of companies, “community manager” is a way of jamming a lot of responsibilities under one role and getting away with it cheaply.

That said, it obviously varies. Some community managers make six figures. At some companies it is a senior role, where more experience and qualifications are expected. There are community departments where there are paid employees who work under the community manager and report to that person. Moderators, assistant community managers, etc.

But for the sake of talking about moving up the ladder, let’s start with the community manager role and go up from there. On LinkedIn, there are 154,383 results for “community manager.” Of course, many of these have nothing to do with the online world. But it is fun to see such a high number. The profession has come a long way.

Senior Community Manager (and Other Positions Beneath the Head of the Department)

Not quite a director, but more than a community manager. LinkedIn shows 1,520 results for Senior Community Manager. Like community manager, what it means can vary quite a bit. For some, it might just be a way of recognizing (and keeping) a more senior member of the team without adding a ton of extra responsibilities. For others, it might mean that you get to look at a bigger picture view and oversee the actions of more junior members of the community team.

There are other in-betweens beneath the head of the department. For example, some might call themselves Community Strategist.

VP/Director/Head of Community

In a traditional business hierarchy, directors report to vice presidents. VPs are more strategic while directors are more tactical. But in looking at various higher level community jobs, I’ve found that sometimes it just means “head of department” (regardless of how it is worded). Of course, you can also run into the “senior” verbiage here, as well. Senior VP, senior director, etc. There can be levels, it just depends.

While you might see a VP of Community and Director of Community at the same company, mostly you just see one or the other.

This role typically oversees a community department. That department could be large or it could be a small group. Maybe even one person (for example, if you want to make a high profile community hire to launch that department at your company, you’d likely hire someone in this role, as they then work to build out a department over time).

LinkedIn lists 3,927 results for VP of Community, 53,936 for Director of Community and 4,283 for Head of Community. Again, this catches a lot of offline community professionals, but it’s still an interesting dispersal. There are also titles that include other words, like “Director of Social Media and Community.”

Chief Community Officer

This is the peak of our profession as far as job titles are concerned. Even with that said, for a lot of companies, the Director of Community is essentially their Chief Community Officer, just not in title. The use of the title is fairly rare but is slowly growing. LinkedIn has 140 results.

The first person I knew to have this title was Bill Johnston, when he was at Forum One Communications. He had it back in January of 2008. Bill is the greatest. He’s one of the leaders of our industry. I’ve joked with him that he’s the pioneer of awesome job titles for us. Right now, he is the Director of MFG 360 Community & Customer Experience at Autodesk (MFG is short for manufacturing and 360 is their cloud platform). Before that he was Director of Social Media and Community. He went to Autodesk from Dell, where he was Director of Online Community & Social Media, Commercial Business. As I said, great titles.

Update: in the comments, Bill mentioned that he borrowed the title from Jenna Woodul at LiveWorld. According to Ms. Woodul’s LinkedIn profile, she has had that title since 1996.

Since Bill doesn’t have the CCO title anymore, does it mean he’s had less responsibility? No. I’m sure his responsibility has only increased. He’s the CCO of the units he heads, but it just doesn’t make sense for the companies he is at to have a community professional at the C level. Not yet, anyway.

Another person who has this title is Rebecca Newton, the Chief Community & Safety Officer at MindCandy. She’s another super impressive veteran mind and a pioneer in our industry. You can look at her as a great example of how to ascend.

Here is how Rebecca’s career has grown in this space: Program Manager, various AOL Forums at America Online > Program Manager, Community Leader Program at America Online > Community Director at Lifescape > Director of Marketing/Product Development at HeyMax > Community Director at > Community Operations Manager at Sulake > Director, Community at Sulake > Director, Community at Mind Candy > Chief Community & Safety Officer at Mind Candy.

That’s a pretty solid example of how you can grow in this profession. Bill and Rebecca are both wonderful examples to follow.

Community as a Department

Outside of individual titles and roles, for me, one of the more exciting things is when community becomes a department onto itself – not simply a function of marketing. That is an area to push into. From being the community manager to managing your own department with the autonomy that provides. That can really open things up and create a fun, rewarding professional experience.

We are seeing this more and more and there are some very mature community departments out there. There are more on the way.

Moving On to Other Functions

In this article, I mainly talk about progressing through the community ranks. But obviously professionals move between departments and job functions. You might move to marketing or PR or communications or even a more drastic change. There are a lot of things you pick up that work well in other areas of business and vice versa.

Onward and Upward!

In conclusion, I encourage you to reach as high as you wish. If you are feeling stagnated where you currently are, with no opportunity for advancement (and you want it), look elsewhere. Don’t think it’s not possible because a given company doesn’t do it that way yet. Don’t sell yourself (or us) short.