"Everyone in Silicon Valley wants to talk about features but no one wants to talk about people," said Bailey Richardson to open our town hall. "We talk about users in data terms; we talk about a new feature that maybe we could build that could get people in there, but I keep seeing over and over again how important having the right people—specifically the right leaders—in any space, whether it's a dinner party that needs a host, a sports team that needs a coach, or a Facebook group that needs an admin."
"We don't spend very much time asking, do we have the right people in our product? Have we developed those people? Have we empowered them; have we educated them? Have we connected them to our purpose? Have we tried to replicate more of those people?"
Working with people is hard, but that's where magic happens. Bailey and Kevin know why communities matter and what makes the best ones tick. As early employees of Instagram and Creative Mornings, respectively, authors of Get Together, and founders of People & Company, they've spent years scrutinizing the ingredients behind successful community building. We hosted a town hall to talk to them about their #1 piece of advice for organizers: cultivate internal leaders.
Read on for takeaways from Bailey and Kevin on how to identify leaders, empower them, and grow more of them.
Invert the marketing funnel—instead of spraying wide, focus on niche people who really care about what you're doing and grow from there. "Start with a small group of passionate people, and then templatize and replicate whatever works to make more of them." Be intentional about who is there and how they can feel welcome. If your group contains many different kinds of people, consider unifying via a topic to discuss or activity to do together.
Identify your community's hand-raisers:
Hand-raisers are the people in your community who keep showing up. They're genuine, qualified, and can have an outsized impact on your group. They are the users who will help role-model behavior and take your product forward.
This insight is applicable to both startups and fully scaled communities. In fact, it drove Facebook's groups strategy. "As they began to dig into the data [to figure out what made groups thrive], they came down to one insight: the better the admin, the better the group," Bailey said. "Facebook started listening to those users, investing in them, training them, building tools for them—and focusing on this niche type of user that was having an outsized impact on the platform."
But how should you identify your handraisers? Ideally, you can build signalling mechanisms into products themselves, but sometimes, you have to get scrappy. When Instagram released its Android app and wanted more Korean users, Bailey sifted through the accounts that Korean Instagram users with iPhones were following to find who to target. In general, she "spent a lot of time crawling through people's comments" to make sure that everyone on her suggested users list was engaging with their audiences. (Builders—there's an opportunity here to help founders identify hand-raisers across platforms like Slack, Discord, social media, etc!)
Another option is to explicitly solicit interest from community members. "Open up an application or a form, and some of those [hand-raisers] will reveal themselves and come to you." When Bailey, Kevin, and Kai, co-hosts of the Get Together podcast, opened applications for the position of podcast correspondent, they were flooded with messages from people they had never known as listeners before.
Whatever mechanism you use to identify your handraisers, ask yourself why they are showing up, how are they treating other people, and what your group needs.
Model behavior to elevate trust and kindness:
To avoid power-gobbling behavior and the risk of fracture from handraisers, frame leadership as an opportunity to help others. "You can psychologically pivot someone to an orientation of generosity," Bailey said. When she ran Instagram's suggested users list, she often got emails from previously featured members who wanted to be featured again. In response, she'd thank them and suggest that they recommend others to extend the opportunity to.
Community builders should make a concerted effort to elevate positive culture, not just to take down what is negative. To make their fan community more inclusive, the managers of the Dr. Who fan community used their official accounts to elevate signals of kindness and positivity from other fans." The Bogleheads are also successful at this, making it a cultural norm to welcome and educate newcomers.
Besides modeling a culture of trust, organizers can introduce codes of conduct to ensure that people who "aren't in the majority [don't feel] at risk of messing up, feeling confused, or being punished." It's often best to introduce new members to these codes of conduct personally. In the Slack community Hundreds under 100, the person who nominates a new member must take the responsibility to tell their friend to look through the code of conduct.
Above all, find your people:
"The way that great communities have started is that someone took a risk. If you don't have the community you want in your life, you can start that for other people," Bailey said.
"Don't forget the power of participating," Kevin added. "Handraisers can be catalysts for organizations, but there is real power in celebrating the fact that someone showed up."
"The more I study communities, the more I feel that our next book might be about how to be a good member. The scaled approach is to think about leaders, but the human approach is to think of all of us as important participants."
A question for us:
Kevin asked how to counsel and serve as allies for community leaders who are having a tough time these days. "Communities feel magical, but they don't come together by magic—they come together because someone is wililng to take the first step. Often times, work like that is hard and challenging and can lead to burnout, and it's important to be able to pass the torch on if needed."
"I've been thinking about the German word handlungsspielraum—room to maneuever and empower," said Bailey. "In some ways, it touches on what I think it takes for really great community builders to do their work—to have that empathy and the imagination. What do small amounts of leadership look like? How can we all do more of that as individuals, and maybe magnify that as social groups?"