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Adaptive Leadership for Online Community Managers

Posted by Carrie Melissa Jones on Feb 28, 2019 10:00:41 AM
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6 minute read

Adaptive Leadership for Community Managers

 You want your community to succeed. You work tirelessly to plan content, reach out to members, host events, welcome people, and grow your community. But if you’re like thousands of other community managers, you may struggle to gain leadership buy-in, collaborate with other teams, and garner support for your work.

At first, these problems may seem minor. You can keep nurturing your community and sharing the results without any collaboration or extensive support. But, for many of us, no matter how hard we try to balance all the tactical work of building a community, we will hit a wall at some point if we don’t gain the buy-in we need to secure support and resources. Our careers may stall. Our communities may plateau. And we can’t do the work we know is so necessary in the world today if these things happen.

If you’re struggling through challenges like these, practicing adaptive leadership in your role can help you. Adaptive leadership skills have been employed by some of the most successful executives and change-makers in the world, from leaders at NGOs to Microsoft and Conde Nast. And these skills are not only helpful to the formalized leaders of organizations, but they’re also helpful for any leader, yourself included.

According to Cambridge Leadership Associates, Adaptive leadership is “a practical leadership framework that helps individuals and organizations adapt and thrive in challenging environments. It is being able, both individually and collectively, to take on the gradual but meaningful process of change.” Communities, by definition, bring about complex, uncertain challenges inside of organizations that need to be solved with an adaptive (rather than top-down) approach.

As a community builder, you can use these skills to get your team excited about the work you do, motivate people to collaborate with you, solve complex problems together, and get buy-in.

Here are three leadership behaviors from adaptive leadership that can help you do just that.

1. Distinguish between technical versus adaptive challenges.

Adaptive leadership gives us a tool for assessing the kinds of problems we must solve in our work. According to its creators, Ronald Heifetz, Alexander Grashow, and Marty Linsky, there are two kinds of challenges: technical and adaptive.

Technical challenges are those challenges that have clear answers, which an expert can jump in and solve for us. For instance, if you need to fix a broken page on your website, that is a technical problem that a developer can solve. If you need to schedule meetings with community members, you will have several technical challenges to overcome: scheduling, email invitation writing, writing an interview script. These are challenges that you, as the community expert on your team, can solve on your own or with other team members. These challenges do not require adaptive leadership skills.

By contrast, adaptive challenges do not have clear answers and instead involve changing complex systems in order to solve. These are inherently the problems that we must solve when gathering people. We must bring people along for change - both within our organization as well as outside of it.

A few months ago, when helping a financial services company assess their platform requirements, we ran into an adaptive challenge that had been identified as a technical one. Their members could not find the resources they needed in the platform, and therefore never logged in to participate. As a result, the leadership team stopped caring about the platform because it was not driving business outcomes. Their Chief Operating Officer was certain that the platform they had been using just needed a few technical fixes. They had framed the problem as technical.

When digging in deeper, I soon found that the platform had been picked in a silo and that most of the leadership team did not understand why they even needed one. We had to come together to define what their customers really needed (not just in a community, but as a whole) to assess platform needs. When we did this, the entire team suddenly realized that the community platform was not an ancillary offering, but rather a core piece of their strategy to bring value to their customers. From this place, we could move forward and solve the problem collaboratively (in this case, choosing an entirely new platform and migrating their users).

Go ahead and assess the challenges you face today. Which are technical and involve expert input, and which are complex and adaptive? For those that are adaptive, read on to begin solving them.

2. Map your stakeholders’ losses and gains before jumping into problem-solving.

One of the most impactful practices that adaptive leadership teaches is how to foster empathy for and between your stakeholders. In practicing and mapping solutions using adaptive leadership, stakeholders can fall into the following roles:

  • Opposition

  • Authority

  • Partners

  • Troublemakers

  • Casualties

Each of these stakeholders has their own set of values, loyalties they hold, and losses they will have to withstand if they make changes to their work. If you can map these and speak to them, you can begin to affect real change for individuals and then for the entire organization.

For example, when working with an executive leader of a large organization, I discovered quite quickly that this leader was behind the launch of a failed online community initiative several months prior. As a consultant, I was hired to help fix this situation, but I had to do so delicately. This leader had a lot to lose: they had put themselves out on a limb in suggesting a new approach, and if we deemed it an outright failure, the team may have lost trust in this person altogether. That would be a failure of the project.

Instead, we began by mapping all the team’s stakeholders’ values, loyalties, and potential losses as we rebuilt the online community from scratch. This person, in particular, mapped to the following:


Title: Chief Engagement Officer

Stakeholder Role: Partner

Values: Connections with customers, experimentation, innovation, scalable solutions

Loyalties: Customer needs, relationship with Chief Executive Officer, driving ROI overall

Losses: Credibility, being seen as an expert, status as a visionary


Then, throughout the process of changing the online community, we needed to acknowledge these possible losses and appeal to the loyalties and values of this particular leader to get them on the same page.

You can see how mapping these needs and aligning your purpose for one leader is impactful, but doing it across an entire team changes the game entirely. Suddenly, your whole team can speak the same language and solve problems together. You’re no longer at cross-purposes.

3. Get ready to experiment and over-communicate.

The most powerful outcome that can arise from adaptive leadership is to create more space for an organization to be flexible and experimental. This can and should start with you, today, right where you are.

If you want to change how something works in your organization, start with your list of adaptive challenges, map your stakeholders, and design an experiment to address that challenge.

For instance, if the challenge is that you cannot get an increase in budget for your programs, which is halting the growth of your community’s mission. Instead of jumping in and solving the problem, step back. (This is called “getting on the balcony” in the practice of adaptive leadership.) You can design an initiative to speak with all of the stakeholders who are involved in the process of securing resources - from your manager to the developers on your team to others who have successfully increased their operating budgets. The results will almost certainly surprise you.

In solving this challenge with a client recently, I learned in the course of interviews like these that almost no one on the team understood the costs of community software, that people didn’t understand how the community contributed to organizational goals (and even the organizational goals were not clear), and that the community team desperately needed to be able to connect the community’s success back to customer spending (but were unable to do so consistently, given the lack of budget to integrate their various systems). Once you can see the challenges before you and get others working to solve these challenges alongside you, you can go much further than you can alone.

In the process of creating change in a community and organization, you too must become adaptive. That requires self-awareness and communicating and being accountable for doing what you say you’ll do. How do you do this in action? Sending weekly updates, project updates, opening up your community dashboard, and gathering your stakeholders regularly to get their input and expertise as you tackle the many adaptive challenges of building a community. The process is messy; you will make mistakes. But the outcome will be far more sustainable.

Role of a Community Manager

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As a community builder, you are a leader. Practicing adaptive leadership can help you solve the unique problems you face as someone whose job is to gather humans and create change. This work is by its very nature complex, but these leadership behaviors can help you lead through the complexity.

Interested in learning more about adaptive leadership? You can delve deeply into the practice of adaptive leadership via the book or Cambridge Leadership Associates. https://cambridge-leadership.com/adaptive-leadership/.

Topics: Community

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