Most of the work companies do to promote engagement is associated with an intensive annual employee survey followed by a series of projects based on the survey’s results. I recently met Katherine Lunn, a community manager in at Baker Tilly International. Her job is to promote engagement, yet her work has nothing much in common with the annual survey approach to engagement.
Baker Tilly International is an accountancy and business advisory network, so the community Lunn manages is comprised of member firms, however it could just as easily be a community of employees or customers. Lunn sits in the communications & marketing team reporting to the Head of Communications who in turn reports to the COO. It’s important that she’s not far from the top, because if a community manager is to be effective, they need to be able to get action from leadership.
What is a community manager?
The community manager role crosses organizational boundaries and may be put in the communications department, HR or IT. The reason this job might end up in IT is that it’s very much about managing a communications platform. In Lunn’s case, she uses a tool called “Igloo Software” to manage downwards, upwards and lateral communication. From an IT perspective, you might think of a community manager as someone who ensures the tool is set up appropriately and people know how to use it. From a traditional communications perspective, you might expect the community manager to push out information to the members. From an engagement perspective, the role of the community manager is to be an effective listener.
Listening as a driver of engagement
As community manager, Lunn is constantly hearing what members are concerned about. If internal communications are usually about talking to others; you might label Lunn’s role as internal listening. Lunn says, “The important part of a conversation is what people are telling you.” When members have concerns, Lunn notes them, fixes the ones she can, and brings the issues she can’t fix to the attention of the appropriate leader. Then she loops back to the members letting them know what is happening, when it will be happening and if nothing will happen then at least why the organization cannot address the concern.
How it could all go wrong
I suppose it is prudent to consider how having a community manager listening all the time could go terribly wrong. The first thing that comes to mind is that you might encourage an endless stream of whining. Another is that even if someone’s point is valid, leaders may get fed up with the community manager constantly interrupting them with the latest problem. Apparently, at Baker Tilly, this isn’t what happens. For one thing, the community is largely self-policing. They know this is an important communications tool; they know the organization has many competing priorities; the community members act as reasonable adults. If the signal to noise ratio gets too low, Lunn can present the problem to the community and ask for suggestions on how to fix it.
The second thing has more to do with leadership philosophy; rather than seeing feedback from members as a distraction they recognize that managing members concerns is central to their work. It true that not everything can be fixed at once, even so it’s always good to know what the issues are and it’s always good to ensure members (or employees or customers) know they are being listened to.
Rethinking how we create an engaged workforce
What strikes me about the community manager role is that it is fixing problems on a day to day basis as they arise. Rather than focusing on cheery value statements about how important members are, the community manager approach drives engagement by solving real problems.
The softer aspect of this is simply promoting active conversation and communication—that creates engagement in itself. It requires a communication function that sees itself as enabling communication in all directions, rather than just being an effective channel for messages from leadership.
Just as we’ve seen a shift in emphasis from annual performance management to ongoing performance management, so too I believe we’ll see a shift towards ongoing promotion of engagement. Creating community managers who can listen and act is one way to build engagement every day.