Community pro Andrew Thomas was recruited by Northwestern Mutual while working at Shapeways. On this episode, he talks about what it’s like to go from a 200-person startup to an organization with over 7,500 employees that has been around for over 160 years.
With more teammates and internal knowledge comes the added responsibility of continuously learning, introducing yourself to new people, and advocating for your work across the organization.
Andrew and Patrick also discuss:
- The standardization of knowledge management practices
- How Andrew thinks about self-care and burnout for himself and for his team
- Getting buy-in and advocating for your work in a 7,500+ person company
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Standing out on LinkedIn as a community manager (04:16): “I think [I got noticed by Northwestern Mutual because I listed] out the tools that I have had experience with. My job is to manage our self-help portal and that includes knowledge and communities. One of my last projects at Shapeways was redesigning our knowledge base. I think that when they saw, ‘Oh, knowledge base and support communities. This is perfect.’” –@athomitron
About Andrew Thomas
Andrew Thomas lives in Brooklyn, New York and grew up in the suburbs of Boston, Massachusetts. After receiving a Bachelor of Fine Arts in sculpture, Andrew moved to New York City and has started many online and offline communities across industries that include finance, entrepreneurship, 3-D printing, and gaming. He is currently the lead community manager for Northwestern Mutual.
- Sponsor: Discourse, civilized discussion for teams, customers, fans, and communities
- Andrew Thomas on Twitter
- Andrew’s website
- Roll Control, Andrew’s fitness game inspired by Wii Fit and Super Monkey Ball
- Northwestern Mutual
- The Knowledge-Centered Service (KCS) initiative
- The official Minecraft feedback forum
[0:00] Announcer: You’re listening to Community Signal, a podcast for online community professionals. Sponsored by Discourse, civilized discussion for teams, customers, fans, and communities. Tweet with @communitysignal as you listen. Here’s your host, Patrick O’Keefe.
[0:24] Patrick O’Keefe: Hello and thanks for listening to Community Signal. We’re talking with Andrew Thomas, lead community manager at Northwestern Mutual about going from a startup to one of the world’s most well-known financial services companies, building community with financial pros, and how good communication with teammates unlocks better self-care.
We have a group of wonderful supporters on Patreon including Marjorie Anderson, Maggie McGary, and Heather Champ. If you’d like to join them, please visit communitysignal.com/innercircle for more info.
Andrew Thomas lives in Brooklyn, New York and grew up in the suburbs of Boston, Massachusetts. After receiving a Bachelor of Fine Arts in sculpture, Andrew moved to New York City and has started many online and offline communities across industries that include finance, entrepreneurship, 3D printing, and gaming.
After more than three years in community at Shapeways, he is currently the lead community manager for Northwestern Mutual. Andrew, welcome to the show.
[00:01:13] Andrew Thomas: Thank you so much, Patrick.
[00:01:06] Patrick O’Keefe: It’s a pleasure. So, Northwestern Mutual is a big old company, 29 billion in revenue, founded in 1857. You went from Shapeways, a much smaller, a 3D-printing marketplace and service where you were community manager for just over three years to lead community manager at Northwestern Mutual, which is the role you’ve held now for about a year and a half. Talk about that career move.
[00:01:36] Andrew Thomas: Yes, it’s really interesting. It’s very, very different in almost always except for how communities function. Shapeways is a 3D-printing marketplace and service. That community was incredibly diverse. It was built up of engineers, artists, entrepreneurs, people from all different walks of life who had found their way to 3D printing and we’re trying to figure out how to make that work for them.
Northwestern Mutual, my community are the financial representatives and mostly their staff, who are spread around the country. They are all working to support their clients and deliver amazing financial products.
Just a very different group of people. I guess I’d say they’re equally motivated and engaged with what they do, but it’s different of a community as you can jump from one end to the other. Then, I guess, the companies are very different. Shapeways was straight up around 200 people while I was there and then Northwestern Mutual is, yes, like you said, big and a corporate structure. Our corporate offices are split between here in New York, which has some of the product teams in development. Then, most of the company is based in Milwaukee.
[00:02:44] Patrick O’Keefe: How did you land the job? What did you say that puts your experience at Shapeways into context for the people who were hiring you at Northwestern Mutual?
[00:02:52] Andrew Thomas: I think for NM and for my boss, they wanted someone who had experience in support. They had experience with the tools that they were working with and understood that customer success use case for communities and how to build the space for people who want to help each other. That got their interest so they reached out to me.
[00:03:16] Patrick O’Keefe: Interesting. You’re saying that they actually reached out to you and recruit you or did you apply for a job?
[00:03:20] Andrew Thomas: No, I was recruited. Yes.
[00:03:22] Patrick O’Keefe: Wow. That’s awesome. Through LinkedIn?
[00:03:24] Andrew Thomas: Yes. LinkedIn. Yes, had a good recruiter, had a good talk with my current manager and going over what the challenges that they were facing and what their goals were. It sounded really exciting to me. It sounded like something completely different and I was just ready for that. So, took the jump and, yes, now managing a small team.
[00:03:44] Patrick O’Keefe: Yes. Interesting because like I wonder– have they told you– what was it that that recruiter saw? It must’ve been a keyword, something you wrote on your profile, something that hit the search term. Maybe they’re connected to you through a network or something, but, like– what was it?
Because community manager obviously didn’t cut it, a community manager in New York wouldn’t cut it. Right? So, then, there was something about it, something about you. It’s interesting how those connections are made because the right phrase, the right term, the right way to explain your experience in your LinkedIn profile can make all the difference in that next step in your career.
[00:04:16] Andrew Thomas: Yes. I think it was listing out the tools that I have had experience with. My job is to manage our self-help portal and that includes knowledge and communities. Actually, one of my last projects at Shapeways was redesigning our knowledge base. I think that when they saw, “Oh, knowledge base and support communities. This is perfect.”
[00:04:42] Patrick O’Keefe: That’s interesting.
[00:04:43] Andrew Thomas: Right now, actually, my big project is redoing one of our largest call center’s knowledge base and it’s migrating it and then it’s– Yes. It’s a really big task. It’s interesting.
[00:04:54] Patrick O’Keefe: What are you migrating from and to? Why are you migrating, I guess is the question?
[00:04:59] Andrew Thomas: We’re consolidating the support organization into one common tool. Previously, we’ve been using a couple of different systems for knowledge and for customer support, a whole range of problem incident, all of those things.
We’re in the process of making some decisions around bringing everyone into one place, bringing together a succinct set of best practices around knowledge, how people should be using knowledge, how they should be generating it, how a support agents should be applying it and tracking it as they’re doing tickets. Then, trying to use the same data that we’re getting in communities or for communities to build some more proactive support.
[00:05:41] Patrick O’Keefe: You mentioned best practices around using knowledge. What are the biggest things that you encounter of how people use knowledge incorrectly or the things that really foul up the works?
[00:05:51] Andrew Thomas: I’m still in the discovery phase for what all the problems are, but I guess what I can say is that when a lot of knowledge tends to be written for the wrong audience. So, it could be like an engineer is writing something for support staff or one tier of support is writing for another or someone’s just taking notes. They found something really quickly. They threw some notes together. They tossed it into a knowledge document and then it lives on in that way.
So, I think that the biggest challenges are writing for your audience, having a technical writer’s background or whatever you need, being able to compose something for a different audience that understands different language than you do. Then, having a maintenance and tracking system with reporting behind that, making sure that we can track and how knowledge is being used, what tickets is being applied to. When issues are being flagged, how do we make sure that knowledge is part of that process and we’re redoing things as is necessary and using data to make sure all of that’s running smoothly.
[00:06:53] Patrick O’Keefe: I think people that I connect with and they’re often, at least, I would say, adjacent to the community space and community work who brand themselves as knowledge professionals or knowledge management. That job is interesting to me because I don’t know a lot of people who hold it and I have to believe that’s a question of scale, right? The size of an organization, the amount of knowledge you have to deal with, the amount of customers you’re managing, where it becomes necessary that is a full-time or a team job to manage the knowledge just because having that resource saves you money in your people and how much time they have to spend to get an answer. Also, makes you money in the case of customer success because you’re educating people on how to use your products better, whatever the product is.
I don’t know. Is it a role that’s not well understood or–? So, for example, when I look at knowledge, when I look at how we start collecting knowledge. I think one of the things that a lot of companies do is they say, “Okay. A few people talk to customers a lot, 10 people, 20 people, 50 people, a hundred people, however big it is, and let’s start collecting our knowledge here. Let’s all throw it into place.”
They spin up some software, some knowledge base, and then they start putting things in without, as you alluded to, some standardization and communication style, language, editorial structure, who they’re writing for, et cetera. It could be someone’s notes, someone’s long-form article, someone’s bullet list, a whole bunch of things, mishmash them together.
Then, they build this albatross and it gets to a point where like, “Oh, my gosh. What a mess this is.” They sometimes just throw it out, totally throw the baby out of the bathwater, or they just blow it up and start over. It’s just an interesting role and I don’t know what is my question here. I think the thought that I’m having is knowledge management an undervalued skill, do you think? Is that something that not a lot of companies pay enough attention to?
[00:08:31] Andrew Thomas: That’s a good question. I think in the different spaces that I pull with, I think there’s a lot of really good attention and learning that’s coming to it right now. I don’t know if you’re familiar with– there’s a term called KCS, Knowledge-Centered Service methodology.
[00:08:45] Patrick O’Keefe: Tell me about it.
[00:08:46] Andrew Thomas: That’s like a copywritten restricted system that’s being created by a certain industry group. They are lean manufacturing and some of the six sigma in some of these groups that they’re creating a very well documented process and training around how knowledge management should work, with the idea that everyone in the organization, especially the people who touch the customers the most or communicate with the customers the most, should have a clear, a very active role in creating and using knowledge and that this is an ecosystem of information that everyone shares things through. Yes. So, it’s trying to make a methodology for how you solve that problem that you just brought up.
[00:09:30] Patrick O’Keefe: I think we need to find some knowledge management pros and have another podcast in the future, obviously, on the focus of today.
You mentioned who your community serves, it sounds like financial professionals and their staffs around the country. You mentioned, interestingly, Shapeways entrepreneurial group and I think this sounds like an entrepreneurial group, too; local offices and whatnot. How are these communities’ access to this private end portal for just them to log into in the communities live there or how does it work?
[00:09:54] Andrew Thomas: Yes. NM has a whole post of intranet resources for, as we’d call them, the field. So, for all of the financial advisers, their staff, people in those offices, they’re all independent. They’re running their own practices. They’re running their own businesses. Northwestern Mutual, the corporate office, is providing them with support for processing of all of the different products that they’re selling and that also includes the tools that they’re using.
Our resource is fairly new and it is, I guess, integrated into a stack of different tools that our community are using on a daily basis. When I say integrated, it’s we have our own portal where you can go and search for knowledge or you can join the community. Then, we also the ability to, through APIs, bring that knowledge directly into different applications in the places where that information needs to be. So, sort of that like omnichannel approach to content.
Our communities are, actually, right now, mostly built around the feedback loops on these different applications. If you go using a tool and you say, “Oh, I really wish it worked this way,” that we are providing a button where you can say, “Here, give feedback, and then join the community,” so you can have a discussion.
A big part of my role is making sure that we have processes set up where the different product teams that we’re partnered with can come in and respond to people and say, “Oh, yes. This is happening,” or, “That’s a great idea. Can you give me more information about what you really are using that field for?” That kind of thing.
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You lead a team of two analysts and one of them is focused on moderation. In the type of community you’re describing, it’s professionals and it sounds very feedback-driven. For example, you don’t get your garden variety public forum type of stuff that you have to deal with. Obviously, not even the type of stuff you have to deal with in Shapeways. What is that moderator? What’s the analyst looking for?
[00:12:18] Andrew Thomas: From a really basic standpoint, they’re looking to make sure that everyone is getting a response to their feedback or their question within the SLA that we give. Say, like, 24 hours, you want to make sure that everyone gets that answer. They’re project managing, just making sure that people are following up and everyone throughout the company– because a lot of these questions can ping-pong between department to department to department to department as people are trying to figure out what are they asking about.
So, they’re project managing a lot of that. They’re looking at reporting and trying to measure different metrics for are we growing, are we getting lots of feedback ideas, and going to the product teams and figuring out how do we make this more proactive.
We’ve had this going on for about a year. Now, we’re trying to figure out, “Okay. Cool. We have a place where people feel comfortable going and sharing their ideas or their questions about the software.”
Now, we want to start showing that we’re using their feedback. It’s valuable. It’s really appreciated. They took the time to share this with us. We’re going back and we’re saying, “Okay. Let’s update the status on this and show is this complete, is this in a planning stage, is this not coming,” whatever you have so that it’s easy to go back and track what’s been going on.
[00:13:38] Patrick O’Keefe: When I hear you describe this, and correct me if I’m wrong, what I’m picturing is there’s a place people can share their feedback and other members of the community can see that feedback and then respond to it. Is that correct?
[00:13:48] Andrew Thomas: That’s correct. Yes. They can respond to it. They could vote on it, rate it out.
[00:13:52] Patrick O’Keefe: Is that important to you? Do you think that they’d be able to see the ideas posted by other people? Because there is certainly a scenario where a company, any company, Northwestern Mutual, any company could just say, “Okay. We want the ideas to come to us privately and so that we can control the, I don’t know, the fallout that exists around an idea or an idea that we can’t accomplish let’s say because you can’t do everything,” I assume. Is that important to you to have that system set up where people can see each other’s ideas?
[00:14:16] Andrew Thomas: Yes. That’s very important to me. That’s one of the key values that I think is really great. There’s transparency. That’s something that we’re working through so our community doesn’t support every single aspect of everything in the company. We’re very focused on the things that we feel like we can have control over and we can have an impact on and that’s why it’s certain technologies.
Then, I think coming off that question, it becomes a game of setting expectations. That’s the point that I’m trying to learn more about, personally, is when you open up this Pandora’s box of opening your process a little bit or sharing information that isn’t– I don’t want to say isn’t vetted because it is but it’s a little bit quicker pace, how do you make sure that you’re not setting people up for disappointment when they ask a whole bunch of different things and they don’t get it?
So, an example of that. I’ve been looking at a lot and really fascinated by is Mojang’s community feedback forum that they have for Minecraft. I was looking at this. This was a couple months ago, so maybe it’s changed a little bit, but there was something like 10,000 ideas that had been posted. Only about a hundred of them had gotten any kind of a response. Only I want to say like 10 had been moved to that stage of their plan and maybe one has gone through the whole ringer and come out.
I haven’t talked to anyone at Microsoft or Mojang about it. If you’re listening, I would love to hear how you’re managing this, but I’m fascinated by the idea that that’s the breakdown and I think that that sounds about right. That sounds like the breakdown of how it should be issued.
There would be tons and tons and tons of ideas and only a few things get through. You want to be letting your community know that that’s how the sausage gets made. It really is this rigorous process and something that it was ideated. One year is going to take a full life cycle to get to the point where it’s something that is in production.
That’s what I saw at Shapeways, too. We were very receptive to community feedback. A lot of people were often like, “Oh, we asked for this a year ago. Why isn’t it done yet?” I think that comes down to setting expectations and being willing to show people like, “This is really what goes into it. This is the roadmap. These are how things are coming along,” et cetera.
[00:16:27] Patrick O’Keefe: When I asked you before the show about community challenges that were top of mind, you mentioned the self-care and mental health. I was curious to hear about this in the context of your current place in life, let’s say, your current role, because I’ve talked to many community pros about this topic and it often has to do with startups and companies that aren’t particularly mature, but you’re in a different boat now and maybe this is just battle scars from Shapeways. I don’t know. What does this mean to you right now?
[00:16:52] Andrew Thomas: Right now, it means I’m learning that in a much larger organization, you are always going out and meeting new parts of the org. You’re always building relationships. You can’t ever really sit back and be like, “Okay. Cool. I know everyone. I know everything. I know all the changes that are coming and I can just focus on living my life in my own little bubble.”
I think a lot of it is like constantly be going out, explaining who I am, explaining what I’m doing, explaining what our goals are, finding ways to show like, “This is how really directly we can work together,” and setting that up because the alternative to that and it’s like a mistake I have made before. It actually plays in is you do something and someone else sees it and they’re like, “Well, we’d do that. Why are you in this space and whatever? You have to work it out with them.
I guess what I would say is in a much more mature setting, one of the interesting challenges is that you have to be more proactive and more on the lookout for that blue water versus the red water for using that metaphor of like the blue ocean. That’s what it is. Right? It’s blue ocean, red ocean.
It’s not to say that there’s less blue ocean, but there’s many more groups who have probably considered the same thing that you are, probably have really good learnings into how that should work, and also feel like they should be involved in that process in making those decisions.
I think it’s incumbent on someone who is in that position to try the hardest to break down those silos and work across different groups. The more successes you have, the easier it gets.
[00:18:30] Patrick O’Keefe: How does that impact your self-care and mental health?
[00:18:33] Andrew Thomas: I think about it partially from being a new manager that I now have the power to ask people to do things and they do them. They may or may not express it that at certain point that it’s too much or they’re tired or something like that. I think about it in perspective of taking care of my team.
Then, for myself, it’s just like, I think I’ve suffered from burnout a few times. I didn’t know the warning signs until I was deep in it before, really just like, “What am I doing? Why can’t I think anymore? What’s going on?” I have horrible brain fog and stuff like that.
So, for me, it’s about figuring out my warning signs that I’m like, “All right. I need to step away from this and I need to pick up on something else, take a vacation, or whatever I need to do, whatever my coping mechanisms are.” It actually feels little bit more like they’re requirements as opposed to like, “Oh yeah, I can do that later.”
[00:19:28] Patrick O’Keefe: Then the blue ocean, red ocean. So, communicating with people, having open lines of communication and just tying that back into the conversation we’re having here about self-care. Is it that it creates a more thoughtful understanding and less adversarial relationship, which then has an impact on your mental health and how you feel and the understanding that you get from other teams?
[00:19:50] Andrew Thomas: Yes. That’s great. Thank you for helping me loop these in. For people who, I guess, who don’t know what blue ocean, red ocean is, red ocean is like you’re competing with someone in a market. Blue ocean is your–
[00:20:00] Patrick O’Keefe: Blood on the water.
[00:20:01] Andrew Thomas: New areas. Yes. Blood in the water. Exactly. I mean, I think this is probably true for a lot of other community managers, I would assume, is that I’m a people person. I’m pretty conflict-averse. I don’t like to fight.
[00:20:13] Patrick O’Keefe: When you have to fight, it’s very draining?
[00:20:15] Andrew Thomas: At least when I was approaching these things as conflicts, I find it exhausting because I was spending all my time thinking about, “Oh, this person thinks this about me, ” or that they’re unhappy about X, Y, Z and what have you.
Yes, I don’t want to say negative thoughts, but really conflict-driven, maybe not catastrophizing completely but I didn’t like it that I was trying to build something that is bringing people together. It felt like it could be like tearing people apart or giving them reason to be upset about things.
The learning I had on that aspect was to be more proactive, bring people in on the decision-making process a little bit earlier, and to acknowledge the role that they play in these things. Also, just understand it like sometimes we’re not going to see eye to eye because of different structures, we’re on very different teams, and you have this goal, I have this goal. This is something that we need to go to our managers and ask them to help us with.
[00:21:10] Patrick O’Keefe: I get it as someone who beats themselves up and who focuses on the five negative words out of 1,000 words. I get it. I get it for sure. I think a lot of people are in that boat.
[00:21:21] Andrew Thomas: Yes. I guess I think it’s like a combination of stepping back and just remembering that people have their own reasons to think those things or say those things or whatever. They’re not necessarily indicative of who you are, how you’ve done something, and something like that.
[00:21:36] Patrick O’Keefe: Another thing you told me before this show was that, I’m going to quote you here. “During our first year after launching the community, we’ve managed to onboard several product teams to engage with the community. One of the largest internal products likes the community so much that they decided that the community is the only method they want to gather feedback from.” Tell me that story.
[00:21:55] Andrew Thomas: When I joined the team, there were only a few– I guess what I’m saying, private groups. These are fairly distinctive applications that are custom to NM that our financial advisors and their staff are using. They have their own product teams. They have product managers. They have a support staff. They have these different staffs of people, each one is run a little bit differently right now, which is just how it goes.
I started by going to the ones who had already, I guess we just had close relationships with. They were already involved in some other initiatives that my organization was putting together or a few of them actually already had their own online communities, but they were just very separate. Went to them and it was like, “Do you want to be part of this space that we’re building? The benefit being that it’s in the same support tool that our support team is working on so we can link tickets together from there. It has this knowledge aspect to it and the benefits of being able to link things to our API and all these different things.”
So, some people were like, “Oh, we want to wait. We want to see what happens with it.” Other groups were like, “Yes. Let’s go ahead. Let’s try it.” Luckily, one of the most used applications, said, “Yes. Let’s go. Let’s go ahead and let’s try it.” Their product team really liked it. They really enjoyed being able to have that direct interaction with their customers, to be able to go to them and say, like, “We’re thinking about this. What do you think?”
They really enjoyed the way that we’ve set our community forum up. We can really easily track and report on what’s getting the most activity, what’s getting the most upvotes, what’s getting downvotes, who is doing those things? Yes, they just were like, “Let’s not have a conflict of having this survey go out here and this thing go over here. Let’s just put it all in one space and get the momentum going within the community that they’ll just keep showing up to the same spot.”
It can be confusing, I think, for any user to be told, “You can give feedback through this forum. You can give feedback over here. You can either–” when there’s too many channels, people will get paralyzed by all the decisions that they can make.
Yes. That was a group that cared about that a lot, wanted that interactive community aspect and they felt comfortable being really transparent and showing what they’re working on.
Yeah, I don’t know that every other group would be willing to do that, some different products or different points in their lifecycle. I understand when if that’s not the right answer for someone, but I thought it was great. We were able to show data that it really looks like it’s working.
[00:24:17] Patrick O’Keefe: Andrew, thank you so much for coming on the show. I’ve enjoyed the conversation. I need to look more into knowledge management and I appreciate you stoking the fire there.
[00:24:26] Andrew Thomas: Yes, my pleasure. We can all get more knowledge about knowledge.
[00:24:31] Patrick O’Keefe: We’ve been talking with Andrew Thomas, lead community manager at Northwestern Mutual. In his free time, he’s creating a fitness game inspired by Wii Fit and Super Monkey Ball called Roll Control. Visit andrewsimonthomas.com to find out more.
For the transcript from this episode plus highlights and links that we mentioned, please visit communitysignal.com. Community Signal is produced by Karn Broad and Carol Benovic-Bradley is our editorial lead. See you next episode.
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