Rebuilding companies as communities

I found an article written over 10 years ago that re-surfaced itself as the top hit when I typed into google search, “companies that utilize community leaders to grow.” This article, written by the Harvard Business Review author Henry Mintzberg, introduces the idea of rebuilding companies as communities rather than hierarchies . Though he starts out by touching on the benefits of individualism for developmental and promotional advancements, he dismantles old systems of top-down leadership and shines the spotlight on “communityship” – a “modest form of leadership that might be called engaged and distributed management.”

Before we begin unpacking this article, it’s important to provide some contextual incentives behind my decision to deep dive into this topic:

Growing our community at LexBlog and what a community leader program might look like for us

When Kevin hired my back in June, he made it abundantly clear this path was unchartered territory – each time I would ask him what community would look like in the legal blogging community, he would turn the tables back on me and ask what I envisioned it to look like. Since community seems to be a buzz word yet everyone seems to approach it differently these days, I’ve spent the majority of my months in this new role straight up researching. Studying what other companies are doing, studying how community management and engagement even became a commodity, and trying to unpack what goals it would achieve for our clients + members of LexBlog. What value it would add for our clients + members?

As a starting point, laying our foundation, Henry says this about community,

We are social animals who cannot function effectively without a social system that is larger than ourselves. This is what is meant by ‘community’—the social glue that binds us together for the greater good.

Pause. A few key words that will be important for our program: “social system” “larger than ourselves” “glue that binds” “greater good” I read these and pocketed them. They will return throughout the development of these ideas.

Unpause. Last week I was asked to start digging into the concept of a community leader initiative – what would that look like at a legal tech company? Who would partake? How would we find the community leaders and approach them in a way that looks appealing for them to join? What would they get out of it? Why are we considering this – what will ‘success’ look like? How will we measure success? What are the goals even? Why would we bother? My mind was flooding with ideas while I sat on an internal call and began to dream up what a community leader program could look like. I went from crippling fear to an overflow of possibilities in minutes.

Henry sites an article written by the Harvard Business Review from 2008 called “How Pixar Fosters Collective Creativity.” My key take away from this article lands here,

Getting talented people to work effectively with one another takes trust and respect, which we as managers can’t mandate; they must be earned over time. What we can do is construct an environment that nurtures trusting and respectful relationships and unleashes everyone’s creativity.

Pause again. A few more key takeaways for our community leadership program. “Talented people” “Trust and respect” “construct an environment that nurtures” “unleashes everyone” – here I see at least a handful of goals packed into these two sentences alone. These goals will also be setting the precedent for our program.  By attaining and upholding these goals, we’re outlined with the results…

If we get that right, the result is a vibrant community where talented people are loyal to one another and their collective work, everyone feels that they are part of something extraordinary, and their passion and accomplishments make the community a magnet for talented people coming out of schools or working at other places. I know what I’m describing is the antithesis of the free-agency practices that prevail in the movie industry, but that’s the point: I believe that community matters.

Only after the goals are established, will we have standards to compare results with. By having these goals outlined early on into the program setting, we will be able to more accurately measure the success of community growth + health.

Community leaders and role models are in every industry. They are the ones who stand out, the ‘go-to’ experts, the leaders who you can rely on for honest, timely information that is relevant to their reader/ client. What would it mean to let leaders lead; distributing ownership between those on the forefront of the community blueprint. Alongside them, LexBlog – equipping and empowering lawyers at a larger reach – what a dream I thought. To engage with our clients, for our clients,  for the benefit of furthering and deepening our community as a whole. But how do we create a program that incentivizes lawyers to partake? Well, we must first find the helpers. We must find those that are speaking up often, looking for ways to help others, looking for ways to expand legal access to others, and those already passionately engaged in their practice area.

Bailey Richardson, partner of one of my favorite community-based companies, People & Co, broke the top attributes of a community leader down when she wrote,

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.

Henry describes this concept a few different ways. He believes, “it’s time to rebuild companies not from the top down or even the bottom up but from the middle out—through groups of middle managers who bond together and drive key changes in their organization.” The community leaders we’re looking for are the ones currently driving change and advancements in their practice areas. We’re simply recognizing them and utilizing them to pull others up, too. We’re looking for those n the inner circle – the ones who believe in the work of good they’re doing, and the ones who are ready to help others get there as well.

Here are some of my favorites qualities of these leaders that Henry mentions. We will use these to be our guiding pillars for outlining the leaders we reach out to in these efforts.

1. Community leaders see themselves as being in the center, reaching out rather than down. They facilitate change, recognizing that much of it must be driven by others.
2. Community leaders are personally engaged in order to engage others, so that anyone and everyone can exercise initiative.
3. Community leaders benefit and get benefitted, too. Commitment becomes contagious when people realize its immense benefits not only to the organization but to themselves. healthy organizations take corporate social responsibility seriously and gain significant benefits in return.

At the forefront, Henry explains, our goal is to shift the way we view company structure from “a collection of human resources to the institution as a community of human beings.” We’re looking for the leaders who take the corporate social responsibility seriously – those who contagiously infect others to do the same because they recognize the value in the results. We’re looking for those who are shifting the approach from hierarchal leadership to engaged management.  He explains this concept with this short metaphor

The conventional view of the organization puts the chief executive atop a pyramid. Well, picture yourself atop an Egyptian pyramid: From there you can have no idea what’s going on inside, and what’s happening on the ground is too far away to make out…within an open hierarchy, in contrast, [leaders] may be better placed to make the key connections between operations and strategy.

Here’s a pitch – “Look, I know you’re already struggling to get six hours of sleep a night, feed your family, work a twelve hour day, walk your dog, have a social life, attend meetings and conferences, and brush your teeth. Would you also mind leading the charge of the Corporate and Commercial legal blogging community?” “Well, what does that entail?” Good question. It means to keep doing what you’re doing, only with a spotlight upon you. The details and programming for how this will play out are still being worked through.

However, one thing made explicitly clear to me through the efforts of research I’ve done thus far – to advance an industry or multiple industries, we must place community importance at the forefront. Feeling a sense of belonging, a sense of ownership, and a sense of being part of something greater than oneself will be the fuel that creates sustainable success. We need leaders to look to, shared responsibility and engagement, and a middle-out approach to leadership. Henry outlined this perfectly:

Employees of a company that barely functions as a community can hardly be expected to care about any other community. But members of a company that has a robust sense of community realize how much their organization depends for sustained success on constructive engagement with the communities around it.

So – this is why we’re taking it seriously. Ultimately, this program is going to take time. It’s going to take extensive trial and error simulations, it will require detailed outlines of programming, and it’s going to rely heavily on members of this community stepping up to the plate for us to shine a spotlight on. What this community will reap in return, however, could change everything. And I want to see that through.