I spoke about my experience coaching community leaders on The Get-Together podcast. Listen below! 🎙🦉
Five years ago, an exec coach friend told me:
“Leadership doesn’t get easier. You just develop the tools to tackle bigger challenges.”
This quote was top of mind today. I’ve been reflecting on the ~30 conversations I’ve had this year as a coach to community leaders, organizers, and managers. Nearly every work day for the last seven weeks I’ve spent an hour, usually 1:1, with community leaders working through their big challenges.
The experience has lit my brain on fire. I made a resolution to do more coaching because I wanted to help more people get their people together. These coffees and Google Hangouts quickly evolved into my daily source of motivation. Every day, my business partner Bailey sees me with my post-coaching buzz. The leaders I meet gain clarity from talking out strategy and structure. In turn, they inspire me with their commitment to other humans.
They’re out there—building communities of women, creators, moms, scientists, artists, activists, models, POC, Asian Americans, educators, meditators, founders, employees, LGBTQIA, gamers, designers, developers, musicians, athletes, baristas, and more. Sometimes as an organization, sometimes as individual people people.
Here are three reflections, notes to myself, as I grow as a coach.
1. Jamming with others is a lot more fun than talking at them.
In his book, The Coaching Habit, author Michael Bungay Stanier declares that if you take one thing away from his coaching lessons it should be to ask more questions.
Before these meetings, I’d often jump in with tips/tricks/lessons. But this year, I developed an aversion to doling out advice in conversation. In each session, after getting to know the leader and their community, I focus on teasing out their key challenge with my questions. Some challenges are important, urgent, both, or neither. When you find the right challenge to press on, it’s like a domino. If we can move it, other aspects fall into place.
After identifying a challenge to go deeper on, the questions continue. Different communities have different context and different cultures. How can I assume to know the best course of action? I might believe in certain principles (like the power of shared ownership!). Yet, these leaders spend 99x more time with their people than I do.
What I can do is channel their brain power to lead us to an answer. So I guide, prod, and push, but still don’t assert. From these sessions, I’ve come to viscerally understand the difference between hearing great advice and reaching your own epiphany.
I believe the latter honors one’s experience, builds capacity, and downright feels better.
2. Leaders need different support at different times.
What someone needs in a coaching session depends on who they are and where they’re at:
So I’ve had to wear different hats as coach:
- Sorter: “I’ve bucketed the strategies you’ve mentioned for attracting new folks into 3 categories. Is there a fourth that’s more collaborative or community-driven?”
- Decider: “Sounds like you’re flip-flopping on which fundraising strategy to spend time on. How about we define criteria to help make this decision?”
- Focuser: “You have a lot of interesting ideas to get people talking in the Slack community. How might we focus? What’s the primary thing that members will come back for?”
- Stickler: “Can I push you on your desire to ‘keep gatherings small.’ Why is that? It seems to be in tension with your overall mission.”
- Extractor: “We agree you must make this fundraiser more participatory. Let’s jam. What are some ideas for how to achieve that?”
- Backer: “Zoom out. You should know that this community you’re cultivating is rad. Thank you for the work you do.”
I hope to get quicker at reading what support leaders need. If I deduce what role I should play early in the conversation, I can push our conversations more confidently—not only arriving at insights faster but also exploring them at a deeper level.
(What’s your experience as someone who’s either given or received coaching? Are there other hats? 👒)
3. My challenge is to scale my impact.
While coaching an hour a day this year has already introduced me to more NYC communities than last year, I feel the weight of my limiting factor: time.
To do more with my finite hours, I mulling over:
- How can I streamline my coaching process? Minimize/eliminate not-so valuable activities?
- How do I prioritize who to spend 1:1 coaching time with?
- How do I multiply my efforts to help people get people together?
I’ve already implemented mini-improvements (e.g. Calendly lets folks book time slots with me, cutting down on back and forth e-mails). But I believe the highest return will come from what I believe is at the heart of all community building: sharing ownership.
Can I work with others to support more community leaders? Perhaps that means getting cohorts of leaders together. Maybe collaborating with or training other coaches? If you have ideas on how I might scale up/evolve, please holler!
I’m not sure where this coaching thing leads, but I know I love it. A fun byproduct has been just making new friends. I’ve gotten to participate in new gatherings/activities/efforts in my city. So thank you to every person I’ve jammed with, friends who provided intros, and folks who have been supportive. If you, or someone you know, are interested in meeting up, learn more about my coaching here.
P.S. If you have recommendations on coaching resources/training/tips, please share with me at firstname.lastname@example.org!
To kick off the new year, I’d love to connect with and coach more community leaders/organizers who are cultivating a community they care about.
I’ve had the pleasure of coaching/advising a few incredible folks who get people together over the last few years.
From helping Jess and Brie scale their meetup to gather female changemakers in multiple cities, to strategizing with Hadley on how to shepherd the Edcamp education movement, to helping Jiwon prioritize as she launches accelerators for female and immigrant founders… These experiences helping organizers problem-solve, strategize, and persist in their journey to harness people-power has been among the most fulfilling of my career. 🚀
I definitely didn’t have all the answers. They did. We discovered them together. Learning by helping others learn has been rad, and I’d love to spend more time doing so.
So, are you building a community? Do you know someone? Need help getting organized? Let’s talk!
Here’s what I’m looking for
- Extra points if you’re based in NYC. I like face to face and want to invest in my city.
- Preference to folks bringing together a minority/POC or marginalized community.
- I especially like working through ops stuff—structure, process, systems. (But not only that stuff.)
- 👍 if your group has an in-person element. All-online isn’t my jam.
- Kudos if you’ve already gotten started. The less hypothetical the better. I was an engineer. I need pieces to play with.
- Doesn’t matter whether this is a side project or full-time thing. You could be hosting a neighborhood meetup or at the helm of a global network of lawyer activists.
(You should still consider reaching out even if you don’t neatly fit into this criteria.)
And here’s how it’ll work:
- Likely free/pro bono unless you’re running a profitable business.
- We’ll meet up/Google Hangout and go from there.
If you’re interested send me an email (email@example.com) with a few sentences about you, the community you’re building, and what’s on your mind.
Please share this note with anyone you think would be keen. Thanks for listening and doing what you do. Happy new year!
Bailey, Kai, and I at People & Company made a podcast about the nuts and bolts of community-building. It’s been so fun 😬 interviewing a diverse group of fan club leaders, grassroots organizers, community managers and more. (And drawing thumb people versions of my business partners).
Here’s a clip from our pilot episode. Bailey’s the main host, I co-host, and Elm special guests.
Thanks for listening. 🙌 More to come.
There’s a palpable difference between a tight-knit community and a loose group of people with a shared interest.
“…recognize the difference between organizations that can activate only people who are in agreement and those that can transform people who are not.”
Gun-control groups attempt to mobilize loosely affiliated advocates while gun-rights groups are built on a stronger foundation of relationships, responsibility, and places to gather in-person.
Gun-rights groups don’t need to start with ideology. They can cultivate it through a sense of community. Han writes:
“There are more gun clubs and gun shops in the United States than there are McDonald’s… My friends who support the N.R.A. did not join a club because of politics. They joined because they wanted somewhere to shoot their guns.”
She also talks about how those who protest outside abortion clinics subscribed to their cause. Relationships shape our views.
“Most people assume that people who join groups like the N.R.A. are people who support gun rights — but that is not always the case.
Consider the anti-abortion movement. The sociologist Ziad Munson has found that almost half of the activists on the front lines of the anti-abortion movement — those who protest outside abortion clinics — were not anti-abortion when they attended their first event. They attended because a friend asked them, they had just joined a new church, or they retired and had more free time.
They stayed, however, because at these events, they found things we all want: friends, responsibility, a sense that what they are doing matters. By finding fellowship and responsibility, these people changed not only their views on abortion but also their commitment to act.”
And how gun-control organizations often don’t nurture leadership and identity in the same way:
“When I joined gun-control groups, I got messages about narrowly defined issues like background checks and safety locks… But none introduced me to anyone else in the organization or invited me to strategize about what I could do. Instead, I felt like a prop in a game under their control.”
“Building a movement will require organizations to invest in the leadership of ordinary people by equipping them with the motivations, skills and autonomy they need to act. Most organizations never give people that opportunity.”
It’s Friday—the end of another work week. But this week is special. This week seven years ago I moved to New York City.
Seven years ago…
I drove a car with everything I owned from SF to Dallas.
I left that car and most of those things in Dallas with my brother. (He said that if New York spat me out, I could move in and get back on my feet before we told Mom and Dad.)
I subletted a bedroom that’s bigger than every bedroom I’ve had since.
I didn’t order anything at this restaurant because I was worried about money.
But I did eat a lot of this pizza.
I celebrated my first NYC July 4th on a rooftop in Midtown.
I had my first day at work.
And I met Yoko.
Thanks to everyone who was part of that time—the roommates, friends, family, bosses, colleagues, and visitors. The polite person who told me not to lean on the subway pole.
Thanks for helping me get settled.
One of my favorite terms that I learned last year was “progressive elaboration.” I studied (and passed the test!) for the Project Management Professional (PMP) certification which yielded plenty of project manager vocab including this gem.
Progressive elaboration means to improve and detail a plan continuously as you gather more information. Like my teammate Kai says, “We’ll be smarter tomorrow than we are today.”
We’re gearing up to kick off a new consulting project next week.
That means this week involves reviewing the timeline and dependencies—getting clear on what we’ll need by when to keep us moving.
But it also means I have to recite “progressive elaboration” to myself like a mantra. It’s not helpful to go wild and plan out every detail so early on when so much can change.
As we gather context from the client, absorb learnings from community members, and progress with the problem we can elaborate on our plan.
My team and I finished a draft of our book on community building yesterday. Woo! A milestone.
Plenty of editing and design work lie ahead. There are holes and inconsistencies. But, we finished a draft.
If I were to teleport back in time one year ago when we started writing I’d tell myself: just keep showing up.
At times, this work felt like driving in circles. I’d feel confident in one direction, swing to another, and vacillate back. Left, right, flip, flop. It was hard to imagine emerging with a coherent, unified piece. But with time, it’s come together—like kneading ingredients into dough.
I’m glad we kept showing up.
I’d also tell myself to start drawing earlier. When I used to write lab reports, the charts and diagrams were vital. Visuals conveyed pertinent information quickly and more effectively than paragraphs of text.
At first I thought of visuals as an add-on to our writing, meant to embellish points. But once I started making doodles and flowcharts, I realized visuals were not only core to communicating our points but also additive to my writing process.
Drawing let me examine ideas through another lens.
There’s work to do. But we finished a draft. Just gotta keep showing up.