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How to succeed as a team of one

Posted on May 2, 2019
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Being a “team of one” seems like a misnomer, but, as I’ve learned in recent experiences with my colleagues, it’s a fairly common job title. So, what exactly does it mean to be a team of one? In my role as communications manager for Goodwin, I am the funnel through which all of our College’s internal and external communication passes. Digital marketing? Yup. E-blasts? You bet. Website? Commencement speeches? Print materials? Check. Check. Check. I also happen to be the only person in my College solely dedicated to this endeavor.

Sounds overwhelming, doesn’t it? At times, it can certainly feel that way. At my previous employer, I was a member of a ten-person team, responsible for a few elements of the many pieces that go into higher ed marketing. Switching from wearing one or two hats to 10 or 12 was a big adjustment, but in the last 18 months, I’ve found myself thriving. I also discovered there were a handful of other university communicators in the same or very similar (dragon) boat. So, I was asked by the folks who run our peer group meetings* to give a presentation about being a successful team of one. Here’s what I shared**:

*If you work at a large organization like a university, peer groups are an incredible way to share ideas and resources. Talking to people with the same job title as me has given me practical insights and keeps me up on best practices.

**TL;DR I don’t do it alone and saying “no” should be okay.

Relationships Are Everything

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Though I may be the sole communicator at Goodwin, I work with various Drexel offices frequently and they help our College with graphic design, web support, events, enrollment, recruitment, digital strategies and a bevy of creative outputs. I also work very closely with all of our College’s program directors and support staff. One of the first things I did when I started here was to meet folks in the other departments I knew I’d collaborate with—I met them at their offices, learned about their jobs and what they do, and perhaps most importantly, I asked how I could help them achieve their goals.

When you work at a place as big as a university, everyone is busy. When you work at a university on a quarter system whose schedule moves at the inexplicable speed of Daenerys Targaryen crossing the Narrow Sea, everyone is even busier. I felt it was important to let folks know I was there to help, work hard and share in our common success. So, if and when the time came that I needed an extra hand or a quick turnaround favor, they’d be more likely to take a pause and extend the same. So far, so true.

Set Realistic Expectations for Yourself and Others

This is the lesson that I perhaps learned the hardest. I’m Lisa Simpson when it comes to my work ethic—so when I first started at Goodwin, I said yes to every request that fell on my lap, promised they’d be done right away and very quickly found myself under water.

My manager, Assistant Dean Tim Gilrain (who we recently interviewed about his management style), picked up on it right away and guided me to the light of realistic timelines by asking, “does it need to be done right now or does it need to be done right?” Time after time, it’s the latter.

I had conversations with program leaders about needing X amount of days notice in order to achieve Y. And when new projects pop up (which they do, frequently), I make sure to ask “why?”  and continue asking more questions. Rather than being reactive to a request, I’ve become more inquisitive. That helps me uncover the root goal and best tactics to achieve it—which in turn helps me set out those realistic expectations—and it helps our directors think more deeply about their programs and messaging.

Work Smarter, Not Harder

Figure out your core professional strengths and reach out to those who can help fill in the skill gaps (hello again, relationships). Is it worth the time and investment to struggle against a task on your own? Or, are there people in your network who can help you and get it done faster? Can you be more efficient? I often turn to organizational helpers digital asset management tools and task calendars because I may be a team of one, but I’m not a human to-do list.

Once you have your proverbial ducks in a row, you can then prioritize and start taking on your tasks one by one. Things pop up, and you may need to set one project aside to work on another, but the more organized you are from the offset, the easier it will be to stay on track.

Learn to say “no” sometimes

Again, this goes against everything my overachieving-straight-A’s-in-school-self stands for—or so I used to think. Sometimes pushing back doesn’t just save you from burnout, but it can also open up new and different opportunities. Now, I’m not encouraging you to go into your next meeting with a “no” attitude. But, if you’re like me and you start to panic ever so slightly when you realize this new project request will take time and resources that you simply don’t have—you might want, or need, to push back in a collaborative and positive manner.

What does that look like, exactly? For me, it’s talking about what projects are already in flight, what’s coming up and what are the highest priorities. Sometimes it's about taking a wide lens instead of what's directly in front of you. I also think about alternative solutions — can this be a social media post instead of an e-blast? What can we do short-term and long-term that would better suit our current abilities? Then I have to think about it practically. Do we have the budget? What do we gain and lose by doing this from a straight dollars and cents perspective?

I am only able to do so because our College unit functions in a highly transparent and openly communicative manner that starts from the top. Again, my manager was the one who encouraged me to slow down and step back because I was struggling too hard against the current. More often than not, if I pass on an idea or project that lands on my desk, it’s not a hard “no,” it’s a “let’s do this right instead of right now.”

Create the culture you need to succeed

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By developing strong relationships, being organized and setting realistic expectations for yourself and your team, you can actually help lead the way your group functions. Speaking up or pushing back can be intimidating at first, especially if you’re not in an open and supportive workplace. However, it’s likely that whatever you’re feeling—overworked, overwhelmed, understaffed—you’re not alone. Understand your own capabilities and bandwidth to get the job done well as a team of one, then look for support. You may be surprised how many will follow.



Rachel Semigran

Communications Manager

Goodwin College of Professional Studies

Drexel University

Posted in professional-development-career-tips, leadership-management-skills