14 community leaders share tips on building your personal community
Ask a community leader how they think about community and they’ll tell you, “EVERYWHERE!” — me, trying to make community jokes happen
Do you know what I love? I love grocery shopping.
I love grocery shopping so much, I would consider a side job working for Instacart.
Not in their head office, putting my company-building experience to great use, but on the ground. In the shelves.
Does it have bruises? When does it expire? Did that person mean 5 loose potatoes or the 5 kg bag?
(There’s only one right answer and if you thought it was 5 loose potatoes you are in for a surprise. I am the captain now.)
I spend so much time grocery shopping that it’s on my official list of hobbies. It’s one of my go-to first date activities. It’s what I do when I want to go for a walk but have to justify it with a destination.
Basically, there’s no part of my life that grocery shopping doesn’t touch.
So what does that have to do with being a community leader?
A community leader is someone who feels the same way about bringing people together as I do about grocery shopping.
They do it everywhere they go.
Maybe volunteering was the gateway drug for them. Maybe it was a job. Maybe it was a talent they were born with and the natural way they made friends.
However it started, they got hooked. It seeped into every part of their lives, from the professional into the personal and vice versa.
So who better to ask about building your personal community than a community leader who’s spent a ton of time thinking about what brings people together?
Each community leader featured here has shared actionable tips that anyone can use to become a stronger community leader in their own lives.
Let’s dig in!
“How has being a community leader changed the way you build your personal community?“
1. Carrie Melissa Jones, Community Strategist & Author of Building Brand Communities
“I am conscientious about whom I keep close in my personal community because the core people in your life have an enormous impact on your well-being. Research from anthropologist Robin Dunbar — backed up many times by other social scientists — indicates that we have about 5–6 people closest to us in our lives, then about 10 more who form our core support network. We typically have about 150 relationships at any given time — some unmaintained — but these have a much smaller impact on our well-being. It’s the core 15 that really makes a difference. And the same is true in communities; who you start with matters.
TIP: Conflict is healthy in your personal community! No one is perfect; conflict is inevitable. It is best to address conflict, listen and share without rushing to “fix” things, and assert that your care for the relationship is more important than any temporary conflict. If you’re unable to move forward after a conflict, that signifies that the conflict was more important than the relationship. That’s not always a bad thing (it shows you what your values are and how to stay in integrity), but it’s good to be aware that conflict never has one clear outcome. Let it unfold.”
2. Yuval Yarden, Head of Community at Venwise
“When I first rose into a community leadership role I developed personal relationships with so many of my community members. It ended up exhausting me and creating blurry lines between work and home. Now, I’ve learned how to wear two hats, a “community leader” who is warm, welcoming, personable, and friendLY and “friend.”
Over time as I’ve built various communities I’ve developed lots of great relationships but I’ve learned the difference between those professional relationships and my personal friends. In each community I’ve found a few close friends I know I’ll be in touch with regardless of my role. Now, my friend group is a compilation of a few great people I’ve met along the way.
At my wedding earlier this year, I remember looking out into the crowd and seeing representation from almost every community I’ve built but knowing each of them attended as my friends, to support me on my big day.”
3. Sarah Wood, Founder of Joy Soldier, Head of Growth & Community at Upstream
“Since coming into my role as Head of Community at Upstream, I am finding myself to be a more intentional friend, colleague, and even dinner guest! An introvert, I’m much less afraid of coming off as cheesy with introductions and icebreakers, knowing they are in service of connection.
For example, at a dinner with new friends last week, I realized that we didn’t have symmetrical information about each other (some people knew some people and others didn’t). This awareness (that I wouldn’t have had if I wasn’t thinking about community 24/7) led us to go around the table and do appreciative introductions — essentially one person sharing about the awesomeness of the guest they knew best, in a way people would never brag about themselves.
The dinner was incredible and I believe we were able to connect more deeply with the freedom provided by the structure of introductions.”
4. Willa Tellekson-Flash, Community Operations at Public
“One thing that community building has taught me is that relationships are ever-evolving, not static. The connections and relationships you make don’t simply exist because you met someone a couple of times and had a few great conversations — consistent, ongoing effort is required to keep relationships strong.
In the same way that I can’t apply a “set-it-and-forget-it” mindset to the Public community, I work to make sure I’m regularly showing up for the people in my circle and finding ways to support them. That mutual effort is what creates a sense of safety and intimacy in my relationships with friends and family, and allows us to simultaneously grow closer and grow individually alongside one another.
One of the qualities I see in strong communities is generosity — that can be being generous with your time, generous with your expertise, generous with connection making, generous with your money, or something else entirely.
During the pandemic, one of the things I’ve missed most is being able to cook dinner for my loved ones or buy their coffee when we get together. I’ve started regularly sending a different friend a gift card to a local coffee shop so they can get a coffee or treat as a way of providing a small reminder of how much I love them and want to show my care!”
5. Niloo Ravaei, Co-Founder of Good People
“I used to think connection and compatibility were what kept people together. They’re not. Building communities taught me that. What keeps people together is a shared common goal. You can be as compatible as you want, but if you don’t have a reason to keep seeing each other, the relationship won’t go anywhere.
I see this all the time in my personal life now — the friends I share a goal with (we’re both online dating, we’re building a business together, we both want to get fit) are the ones I see regularly. And the ones I get close to.
If you want to get close to someone, find a goal you both care about and work on it together. If you’re looking for a community, find one that’ll help you with your goals. The more important the goal, the stronger the community.”
6. Alta Sparling, Head of Community at Athleta
“To build an authentic community requires a clear, actionable purpose, collaboration, and time. Before taking on my role as Head of Community, I didn’t quite understand the importance of the third element in this equation. You can’t grow a community overnight, and this goes for any type of community — brand-led or other. As such, when building my own communities, I try not to create a specific timeline (i.e. I must have X members by X date), but look to other indicators of success first such as engagement and member value.
Personal tip: to jumpstart a community, engage someone to co-lead and recruit an equal number of members to start. This way you’re each bringing diverse members to the table, and can illustrate the purpose and spur collaboration more quickly. It’s a win-win!”
7. Shinjini Sur, Founder of The Great Kind
“I’m learning that people within a community need a manifesto — a way of connecting with everyone. Having a unified purpose encourages a team mindset, for the members as part of a greater collective. No matter who you are, where you are from, in my community, we are a team of shit-getter-doners, non excuse makers, habit builders, and mind-exercising dream chasers. We are a work in progress. We are The Great Kind.
TIP: Create a manifesto. Including the community as part of this exercise is even better!”
8. Alex Angel (she/her), Chief Community Officer at Commsor/Community Club
“For most of my career, I honestly didn’t think much about how my professional background influenced the way I approached my personal communities. In the past year, however, I helped move my “real life” community of knitting friends online and I have absolutely noticed some community-building habits creeping into how I approach that space.
I find myself either leading or advocating for events (group knitalongs, gift exchanges, and weekly virtual hangouts), reaching out to people 1:1 to check in and chat, helping mediate situations that arise (e.g. what happens if someone invites a random person to the private group?), and ensuring that people feel like they have a safe space to be vulnerable (we’re lucky in that we all know each other incredibly well, but there’s always *something* that comes up in any group of people).
No matter where you’re building community, you need to think about the people involved and what makes them tick, and the *why* behind your community — knowing the purpose of your community will help you and the rest of the people involved stay passionate and engaged.”
9. Carly Valancy, Founder of the Reach Out Party
“The world gets better when we pay attention. Being a community leader has enabled me to see and create dynamic connections and conversations with my personal community, especially with my family, friends, and partner.
Building a personal community is similar in many ways to leading a professional one. It takes a very specific awareness of people and intention to engage them in ways they haven’t been engaged before.
Recently, I’ve focused on asking interesting questions to my mom, interviewing my grandparents, helping friends connect with people who might make their lives brighter, and holding space for my partner with a curiosity to learn more about them.”
10. Shanley Knox, Founder of ABLE
“Kwame Christian, the Director of the American Negotiation Institute, commented once that it doesn’t make sense to give recipes to people who are too afraid to get into the kitchen. And for me, exercising courage as a continual practice has been at the center of my journey toward community leadership.
It started with shifting old ideas I had about qualities like social anxiety or depression. Turned into vulnerability and compassion, these qualities were the super powers I needed to create psychological safety and openness with, and for, others.
This has shifted my perspective across all my relationships into looking for opportunities to discovering and exercising our super powers together.
One actionable way I’ve pursued this is to start mini collaborations with others that give us a way to be brave and vulnerable together. For example: pitching a co-authored story to a publication!”
11. Jessica Gasiunas, Community Manager at Quartermaster
“Being a community leader is really about initiating the conversation, throwing out a line and being as respectful as possible. It’s about reading the room, knowing when to have the right conversation and trying to connect people through common interests/objectives. I think often times people have this idea that a community leader needs to donate or volunteer a ton of their time, plant gardens or run a bake sale every week. It doesn’t have to be that hard or time consuming. Small moves can make big ripples.
My actionable tip would be to overshare. Hahah! Sounds funny, but life is all about these moments we have in common. Whether you’ve just tripped in public, or made a typo cause you’re short on caffeine, sharing those small moments make you relatable and start the conversation. Go big or go home.”
💓 Find Jessica on LinkedIn!
12. Hana H., Founder of Blackmaple.io
“There is an African proverb that goes; if you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, go together.
My personal and professional communities intersect in various ways, whether through identity, values or experiences. I have been fortunate to have met and connected with diverse community members of various communities globally, that have taught me invaluable lessons and inspired me to not only participate but also build.
I make it a point to check in with people via slack, email, or video (meetup or zoom), also text or call on a daily or weekly basis. Sometimes these checkins are formal and sometimes just a “thought about you, how are you doing”.”
💓 Find Hana on LinkedIn!
13. Stefan Kollenberg, Co-Organizer of Future of Engagement
“Funny enough I have never really identified as a community leader until you reached out, I have always considered myself as one part of a much larger ecosystem. I am certainly an outspoken member of the ecosystem though, and the reason that happened is I wanted to find people whose values aligned with mine.
I was on a journey to ‘find my people’ and started publicly sharing my values, my experiences, and the learning process I was going on; essentially using social media as my soap box to attract folks that resonated with what I believe.
Once meeting someone on social media, I like to have one on one interaction and really get to know each other’s stories — this really brings me energy & joy. Over time this starts to ripple out and a lively community starts to form, centred around your values and vision for the world.”
14. Val Elefante, Head of Community at Lips
“From being in the Lips community, I have realized how important it is to surround yourself with people who align with your values and have seen the extraordinary magic that comes from working together to articulate those values and then choosing to uphold them every day.
Values such as kindness, generosity, respect, compassion, empathy, and a commitment to positive personal and societal transformation are not just reflected in Lips’ community-written guidelines but they have become my standard for how I expect (and know that I deserve) to be treated by people outside of Lips in every single sphere of my life.
Actionable tip: Take notice — whether in physical or digital space — how you feel when you’re exposed to certain people. Perhaps try making a list of the people in your life who make you feel seen, understood, appreciated, and allow you to totally let down your guard and exist simply as you. Then, reflect on the specific qualities or attributes of those people that enable them to make you feel that way. Just notice. Or, if you want, let them know that you appreciate them :)”
Learn something thought-provoking? Why not drop that community leader a line! If you’re not sure what to say, here are 5 tips for reaching out to someone without feeling weird 😉
If you loved Stefan’s tip on using social media as a soap box for finding your people, you can’t miss these 6 ways to meet new people you’ll actually LOVE!