The Broken See-Saw: Work-Life Balance in a Community Professional’s World

Trigger warning: This post contains mentions of pregnancy loss and disease diagnosis.

Update: After you read this post, check out the follow up post here.

Here I am writing a blog post about work-life balance as a Community Professional. Anyone who has worked closely with me is probably making this face right now: 🤨

This post walks you through things that I’ve done wrong when it comes to work-life balance, how I struggle deeply with putting myself first (a common issue for community professionals), and what it took for me to get to the balance and self-care I practice now. This is not my typical community strategy post, but rather a set of very personal and honest stories focused on work-life balance from the perspective of a community professional.

I mentioned in my first blog post that I was planning to share mistakes I’ve made along my community professional journey, and this blog post has no shortage. I hope you‘re able to learn from them.

I’m Not Perfect, But I Am A Perfectionist! 💯

The work we do as community professionals keeps us focused on putting other people first. We are also still constantly fighting for resources and working to prove value, both for our programs and our teams. It’s certainly gotten better, but the pressure still exists. We care deeply about the work that we do and the members of our communities. Those things mixed with the often deeply personal and emotional aspects of our jobs are a recipe for being overworked, emotionally exhausted, and lacking balance in our lives.

I have been the WORST in my career when it comes to work-life balance. My need for perfection has been a thorn in my side for years. I know this is the characteristic that people bring up in an interview to play it safe when asked, “What’s a weakness of yours?” 🙄 The reality is when you’re really a perfectionist, it’s like you’re wearing horse blinders to everything that you’re not focused on in that moment. You sacrifice so many other important things and it ends up hurting you in the long run. Some of the things I sacrificed that I know could have beneficial in the long run — connecting with other teams and co-workers, getting enough sleep, setting an example for my team, space for open thought and creativity, letting things break to prove the need for more resources, my health, taking time to grow a more well-rounded skill set, less stress at home, and so much more.

To serve our communities better, we have to be better about serving ourselves.

I Locked Myself In a Phone Booth, And When I Came Out, I Was *Kinda* Superman 🎤

When I was working at Atlassian, my manager left a couple months into me starting. We went months without hiring anyone else for the Community team, so I was a one-woman band. I remember locking myself in the phone booths (personal work cubbies) at the office and cranking through work all day. Then, I’d come home and work from my couch. I would work straight through the US work day and the Australian work day. My co-workers in Sydney would be signing off for the day and I’d still be going. Sixteen, seventeen, eighteen hour days — regularly.

In those long hours I spent locked away in a phone booth trying to build Atlassian’s community on my own, I did some incredible work. I feel like I did the work of five people. What I didn’t do though, was take the time to build important relationships internally that could have made a massive impact on the work I was doing. While I was a community team of one, there were plenty of people at Atlassian that could have gotten involved with the community in various ways. I stifled that collaboration by focusing my attention in only one place.

About six months into working at Atlassian, we had a big karaoke night in the office. If you know me, you know I can’t turn down karaoke. I moseyed out of my phone booth, signed up to sing the classic love ballad, “Shoop” by Salt N Pepa, and away I went. I had already been working there for months, and barely anyone knew who I was. From that moment on, that was no longer an issue. If you have ever heard me Shoop, you understand. I get *really* into it. Anywhoodle, finally taking a break from being heads down in my work, I was able to enjoy the amazing group of people I worked with. I started building real relationships with my brilliant coworkers, which led to a deeper understanding of the work I was doing and a lot more support from other teams. I still continued to put in unbelievable hours, which at that point in my career and that point in Atlassian’s community, I don’t regret one bit. However, I could have been a lot smarter in how I did it all, and that’s something I still work on to this day.

Why Did I Spend So Much Time Picking Macaron Flavors? 🍪

When I started working at Salesforce, it was March, and we would be inducting a new class of Salesforce MVPs (top contributor program), just a couple weeks later. The night before we announced publicly, I started getting all of the documents together for the email I would send out to the award recipients that night. I took one look at the Welcome Packet we were sending our new MVPs, and decided it just wasn’t going to cut it. I remember staying up until 3am rewriting the entire packet just in time to shoot off the announcement emails around 5am. I was a zombie for the next several days, making it impossible to be effective in my work and in my life. I didn’t have any time to recover.
I immediately had to pivot to planning our team’s biggest event of the year, MVP Summit. Happening just two months later, MVP Summit was where our 200 MVPs would come together in San Francisco to hear presentations from our product teams and spend time together. When I started in March, the only thing finalized was the venue. We had to arrange the travel, menus, party, transportation, volunteer activity, content, swag, schedule, activities, etc in just two short months. It was a tremendous amount of work, and I was still extremely new. I basically had no idea what was going on, but had to run at it 1000 mph.

That first two months at Salesforce really took it out of me — it was non-stop. I worked until 2–3am almost every night and was in the office by 9:30am every day. I look back now and think — why did I do that to myself? Yes, the work I was doing was important, but I pushed to make sure every last detail (no matter how insignificant) was perfect — sacrificing my own well-being. Did I really need to toil over the macaron flavor choices for the party? 😳

Several people told me when I started at Salesforce, “Salesforce will take whatever you give it.” I saw that across the entirety of the company. I worked with some of the smartest people I have ever worked with, and I worked on some of the most incredible initiatives I could ever ask to work on, but it came at a price. Work-life balance was always encouraged, but I saw very few leaders setting that example. Salesforce did take whatever you would give it — especially on the community team. We worked hard over the years to prove value and to make the case for the eventual growth of our team, but the team growth was slow, the expectations were high, and the community growth was explosive.

One other (amazing) issue with Salesforce (and any successful community, really) is that it was impossible to ignore the impact the community was having on individuals’ lives. When you wake up to a blog post called “Salesforce Saved My Life,” where a community member is talking about their journey and the role the community played in it, it’s impossible to not spring out of bed and bolt into work. It’s impossible to not feel like every minute you’re not working on the community is a minute wasted. That made it even harder to step away and take a break. For someone like me, who loves what I do, I have a hard time not delivering the best of the best work at all times. If I had to pick my work suffering or me suffering, it was always going to be me.

Trust Your Team, Empower Your Team, & Delegate 🙌🏻

I did make some major strides in being better about balance, but certainly not where I needed to be. I started taking longer vacations, removing email and Slack notifications from my phone during PTO, and never, ever responding to work emails when I was away. I started treating Saturdays as sacred. I never worked Saturdays unless I absolutely had to, which was rare. The reason I was able to feel OK doing any of this was because of my team. I learned to loosen my grip and delegate more.

I built and managed an exceptional team at Salesforce, and I completely trusted them. They are brilliant individuals, and I knew they could handle anything that was thrown at them while I was away. They were empowered to make decisions, and even if they didn’t make the decisions I would make, they always thought them through in the most meticulous, brilliant way. When you have trust like that in your team and empower them to make decisions, you also feel empowered. Empowered to step away. Empowered to let go. Empowered to flip the switch to “off.” However, I was only doing that during vacation time. I still wasn’t doing enough to bring balance to my everyday life (and theirs, if I’m being honest — more on that below).

When It Rains, It Pours, And I Didn’t Pack An Umbrella ⛈

When I had my first miscarriage, I was devastated. Of course. My body was in the front row of the upside-down, twisty turvy, emotional roller coaster. I decided not to tell anyone at work. (This post is actually my first time talking about this publicly). The next day, I worked. I was in a meeting at 10pm with someone from my team and a coworker in India. My co-worker in India popped on camera with his new baby. I turned my camera off and started sobbing. Why didn’t I take that day off of work? Why couldn’t I give myself a break? Why did I absolutely have to be on a call at 10pm that night?

I told myself that work would be a good distraction. I needed something to get my mind off of things. Work would make me feel better. I was lying to myself. I really just felt guilty and scared. Guilty because I had just taken a two week vacation — how could I possibly take more time off? My team had already been covering for me for two weeks. Scared because I didn’t want to tell anyone what was going on. I didn’t want anyone to know my husband and I were even trying because of the ramifications it could possibly have on my career trajectory. I promise this is still a real issue for women, even at the most forward-thinking companies. I felt trapped, and I made every excuse in the book to justify what I was doing to myself.

As if that wasn’t enough, also during this time we had a really difficult member of the community that was personally attacking me. This person was making my life difficult in more ways than I can describe at a time when I already felt the weight of the world on my shoulders. I’m sure many of you community managers have been there with a community member like this. This person didn’t agree with some decisions made by our team, and when I stood up for those decisions, I became a target of harassment. It was a non-stop barrage of complaints, trying to get others to rally against me (unsuccessfully), and attacks. At every turn — every email, every post, my LinkedIn profile, anything I said — it was all scrutinized and twisted to be used against me, and it was happening every day. I was constantly on edge, and it was exhausting. It got to a point where I started asking people who were aware of the situation if I should be scared for my physical safety. Of course, all of this had a very negative, destructive emotional impact on me. I cared deeply about the work I was doing and about the people in my community. For anyone to say otherwise was devastating. As community professionals, we are so enormously invested in our communities that a situation like this is painful beyond measure.

I still didn’t step back. I still didn’t take a break. I still tried to stand in and be the person to protect my team as best as I could from this person’s harassment (even though most was hurled straight at me personally). I shouldn’t have let it get to me as much as it did. I should have used my voice to demand support from leadership. Those were regrettable decisions.

A few months went by and the pressure kept mounting. I had my second miscarriage on a work trip to San Francisco. I went into the office the next day, and I smiled like nothing happened, but I was crushed inside. Again, the guilt — I had so many scheduled meetings, I was only there for a few days, my team would be disappointed in me, the company had paid for my travel — how could I call in sick? What would I even say? I continued moving at 1000mph — it was what I felt was expected. Both what was expected of me at work and what I expected of myself. I can’t tell you enough what a mistake this was. I should have put myself first. I should have pushed back. I should have set boundaries. It took a toll on me, my family, and my health.

These things also took a toll on my team. They were relying on me to be their leader during some difficult times. I always regarded my team as my number one priority, but looking back, I realize I was not setting the right example for them. To be the best kind of leader, I needed to set the example of balance and I needed to “cut the fat.” We didn’t have to do it all to be successful. I will forever look at that time — the example I set and the pressure I put on my team — as one of my biggest mistakes of my career.

Take. A. Break. 😴

When I resigned from my role at Salesforce, one thing I knew I needed to do was take a break. I didn’t have any specific plans for that break. I just knew I wanted some time off to catch up on life, to clear my head, and to not be thinking about work. My new company, Venafi, was very supportive, which was amazing. It really kicked off my relationship with Venafi in the right way — full of gratitude and mutual respect.

Those two months of break were incredible. I didn’t do anything particularly notable, but I did get a ton of things done at home that I had been wanting to do. If you can pull off doing this between jobs, I can’t recommend it enough. It’s like hitting a reset button. I cleaned everything in my house. I made doctor appointments I had been putting off. I scheduled lunches and dinners with friends. I started actively participating in a nonprofit I had been wanting to get involved in. My sweet little dog Zeus got sick and I was able to give him the extra care he needed. I didn’t think about anything related to work for two solid months. It was glorious.

Then, my whole world turned upside down.

My World Turned Upside Down 🩺

I was ill for a few days and I thought things would get better. They didn’t. I was admitted to the hospital overnight, pumped full of drugs and painkillers. I had never felt pain like that in my life. It was the last couple days of my two month break, and I was stuck in bed, scared, trying to figure out what the hell was happening to me. The first appointment I could get with my doctor was two days later, on the morning of my first day of my new job. Of course. I can’t make this stuff up. I almost didn’t take it because it was my first day of work, but I knew I would have to be an idiot to make that decision. I can’t (but actually can) believe I considered not taking the appointment.

That morning, before I even started my day of work (I’m remote), I had tests and procedures done, and my doctor diagnosed me with an incurable auto-immune disease.

My head was spinning the whole way home. Incurable. The rest of my life. More appointments. More tests. Remission. Prescriptions. Pain management. All these words just spinning in a cloud above my head. How could I even focus on work? I still tried. I went through the motions. I set up my laptop, started setting up my accounts, and took every pocket of time in between to google my disease. I met with my manager and pretended everything was OK. I didn’t even know how to verbalize what was going on to myself yet, let alone my new manager.

The next week, I flew out to our office in Salt Lake City for New Hire Training and meetings. I look back and I know that I shouldn’t have gone. I needed to stay home and focus on my health, but I just couldn’t stomach the thought of not showing up my second week, my first trip out to the office as an employee. The guilt once again. I brought two suitcases. One was almost entirely full of medication.

I decided that I needed to let my manager know everything as soon as possible. This was already an improvement, because in the past, I wouldn’t have told anyone and tried to work around it without anyone finding out. This time though, I was truly scared. I didn’t know much, but I knew that I was going to have to make some adjustments. It was our second ever 1:1 and I told her everything I knew. She was extremely supportive. We started discussing ways to cut my work travel down to only the essentials. I scheduled my doctor appointments around meetings and travel. I administered medication during open pockets of time during the day — I missed it sometimes.

I made it all work as best as I thought I could.

The Whole World Turned Upside Down 🦠

March 2nd, about two months after my diagnosis, the whole world started shutting down. Business travel came to a halt, and both with my disease and being on immunosuppressants, I was on major lockdown. It was far too dangerous for me if I were to catch the virus, so no more leaving the house (and I still haven’t). It had probably been around seven or eight years since I had gone over six weeks without getting on a plane. I zipped up my suitcase and put it in storage.

The choice was made for me. I wish I could say I would have made the right decisions if Covid had never come, but I know I wouldn’t have. I already wasn’t. Guilt and fear always reared their ugly heads. I can hear the little voice in my head: “This is a new job, you have to go. You’ll miss so many important opportunities if you don’t travel. You’ll be letting your new team down if you don’t show up…”

The decision was made though, and I started doing something I had never done before — actively and purposefully putting myself first.

Greater Support Than A Five-Clasp Underwire Pushup Bra 👙

My medicine was making me feel weak and tired, so I scheduled a thirty minute nap every day. That nap made it possible for me to get through the day, and I never sacrificed it. When I needed to schedule an appointment with my doctor, I didn’t delay — I would drop everything and make sure that it happened. When I needed to administer medication four times a day, I did it. I never missed one again. I started to eat lunch every day. Stress could exacerbate my situation, so I meditated every morning. Still do most mornings. A year ago, that wouldn’t have been me. I would have ignored my reminders, put off doctor appointments, skipped lunch, missed medications, and sucked down ten coffees to keep my eyes open.

I really didn’t have a choice any more. I HAD TO take care of myself, and I didn’t have an excuse not to.

Having the support of my husband, friends, family, manager, and company has been huge. However, without question, the greatest and most important support I’ve gotten these past few months is the support I’ve given myself.

Winner Winner Chicken Dinner 🍗

Even with everything going on in the world and with my health, I have done some of my most exciting work. I launched Venafi’s customer community, participated in several company initiatives, helped with our annual (virtual) customer summit, and now, even kicked off the blog I’ve always wanted to start. I’ve been able to remotely volunteer and manage two successful donation matches to support causes I care about. I’m participating in the Community Professional community again. I feel like my stifled creativity has come flowing back. I’ve rediscovered my voice to loudly and proudly stand up for what I believe in. Even while trying to get a disease under control during a pandemic, I feel like I have a new perspective and I am winning at life. 🏆

This disease has been horrible, but both the disease and the pandemic provided a much-needed slap in the face to REALLY practice work-life balance. I still don’t have my health completely under control. Some days are good, some days are bad, and I navigate through them the best I can. However, I can say that even with everything that’s happened over the past several months, my life has improved significantly.

Workin’ 9–5, Sorry Dolly, Not A Community Professional’s Way To Make A Livin’ 🕔

Being a community professional is more than your regular 9–5 job. We have some of the most mentally and emotionally exhausting jobs. We value empathy and authenticity above all else, and when we receive negativity in return, it’s almost impossible to not take it personally. We pour our hearts and souls into the communities we are building. The individuals in the community and their experiences in the community mean everything to us. I’ve talked community members through loss of other community members, being laid off, community member disagreements, discrimination, personal health issues, family issues, and so much more. These relationships are deeply personal not only for the members of the community, but for me as the person they are confiding in. There’s also entitlement. There’s complaints. There’s the hateful, racist, and anti-semetic trolls posting in the community that I’ve had to deal with as well. I’m sure most of you are familiar with them. It also goes both ways though, and the many good days outnumber the bad, and those are the days that bring us immeasurable fulfillment and joy.

Community professionals are often overworked because we’re never willing to sacrifice our community members’ experience, even if we are under resourced, undervalued, and under appreciated. Even on the days we do feel valued and appreciated, we find it hard to step away because we can see the impact we are having on individuals’ lives, and we don’t want to stop pushing even for a minute. Being a community professional is not for the faint of heart. These things are just part of the job and many of them will always be part of the job.

We have to make self-care and work-life balance a mandatory part of the community professional role. We have to train, empower, and support ourselves and our teams to prioritize balance and self-care. I implore leaders reading this to make a commitment to do this for yourself and for your teams. Set REAL goals (with metrics!) for your team to live a more balanced life. And dammit, lead by example!

Oy Vey, Holly 🤦🏻‍♀️

I actually can believe that it took a diagnosis of an incurable disease paired with a pandemic for me to start doing the right things for myself. If you know me well, this doesn’t surprise you either. Oy vey. I deserve better. You deserve better. We ALL deserve better. Being stressed, overworked, and exhausted is not a badge of honor.

Put yourself first. Shave things off that you don’t have to do right now. Prioritize. Push back. Make adjustments. Take time to celebrate your wins before moving onto the next thing. Drink water. Say no. Practice gratitude. Find something to laugh about every day. Practice mindfulness. Take good care of your skin. Give your pet some scritches throughout the day. Take time off. Take more time off. Meditate. Volunteer. Take walks during the day. Eat lunch. Exercise. Schedule your medical appointments. Call your mother every once in a while, she worries.

Learn from my mistakes.

There’s No Time Better Than Now 🔜

Do not put this off. With all of the stress, anxiety, and expectations surrounding us, we cannot succeed without self-care and balance. I truly believe that. When you put yourself first, there will be a chain reaction of good that comes from it. For you, your family, your friends, your work, your team, and your community. It might be uncomfortable at first, and you might doubt yourself, but I promise you’ll see amazing results. I know from experience.

Quick shout out to my incredible husband, Eric. He is my rock, best friend, and the most amazing life partner I could have ever asked for. ❤️

TL;DR

  • To serve our communities better, we have to be better about serving ourselves.
  • Take the time to shift focus from your every day work to build relationships internally. It will only help you in the long-run.
  • Trust your team, empower your team to make decisions, and delegate.
  • Use your voice to demand support from leadership when you and/or your team need it.
  • You don’t have to do it all to be successful.
  • Take a break. Take lots of breaks. Take extended breaks. Practice gratitude. Say no. Push back. Prioritize. Celebrate your wins before moving onto the next thing.
  • Actively, thoughtfully, and purposefully put yourself first.
  • The greatest and most impactful support you will ever get is the support you give yourself.
  • We have to make self-care and work-life balance a mandatory part of the community professional role. We have to train, empower, and support ourselves and our teams to prioritize balance and self-care.
  • Leaders, LEAD BY EXAMPLE, DAMMIT!
  • When you put yourself first, there will be a chain reaction of good that comes from it. You WILL see amazing results.

UPDATE: I received a lot of great responses from this post. So many, in fact, that I wrote an update the day after I published it. Check it out here: https://medium.com/@HollyFirestone/update-the-broken-see-saw-work-life-balance-in-a-community-managers-world-75abde0183e5

Community Strategist. Currently: Head of Community at Venafi. Previously Salesforce & Atlassian. Challenge me to a pun-off. Twitter: @hollyfirestone