Surviving as a One-Person Team

I’ve been a one-person team several times in my career – but I’ve never felt like a one-person team. Fundamentally, I don’t think effective HR (or any People Work) can be done by just one person. The best People Work combines many perspectives and opinions, so I would never try to do it just by myself.

Instead, I build my Council. My Council is the group of people who support my work. We’re not necessarily “a team” because they do not always work with each other, but they are definitely my team because I could not do my work without them.

My Councils have helped me advocate for projects I thought would never get approved. They’ve educated me about how the organization got to the place they are at now. They’ve comforted me when I cried. They’ve taught me more than I could describe here. And ultimately, that’s what I want from my team. Even if they aren’t in the same department as me, even if they don’t fully understand what HR even does, they make me better at everything I do.

Are you a one-person team?

By “one-person team” I mean that you are the only person working on your specific function. (Some folks call this a “micro-team”.) For example, I was the only person managing HR at a small non-profit. I was part of the Ops Team which had finance folks, office managers, coordinators, etc., but no one else who worked on HR specifically. Similarly, at a larger org, I was the only person with DEI (diversity, equity, and inclusion) in my title. I was part of the “Learning and Development” team which had folks who worked on onboarding and sales education, which overlaps with DEI, but it was not their specific function.

At the same time, I think the idea of having a Council can be helpful for anyone, team or no team, especially if you’re in a position with less power.

Whoever you are, a one-person team or someone just trying to have more impact, it’s time to recruit your Council. Here’s who I think you need:

Your pirate

About: The first thing I do any time I join a new organization is identify the pirate(s) and reach out to them. The pirates are the folks who will ask the hard questions and bring up the uncomfortable topics. They push back – especially on leadership – but not just for the sake of it. They do it because they care deeply about the organization and want to see it succeed.

How your pirate will help you: I value the pirate because they will tell me the truth and they’ll be direct about it. When I’m proposing a new program or policy, I run it by them early on in the process so they can pick it apart, because then, if I can get them on board, I can get anyone on board. I also find that building trust with the pirate helps me build trust with other staff members too. The pirate’s internal advocacy builds social capital for them; social capital that I get to borrow, but only when I’ve earned it!

How to identify your pirate: if your organization is lucky enough to have a union, your pirate is probably on the union leadership team. If not, then look for the people who ask the first or second questions at your company All Hands. Bonus points if leadership looks hesitant to call on them!

Your historian

About: You know when a new season of The Mandalorian comes out but you’ve completely forgotten what happened at the end of the last season so you desperately google, “Mandalorian season recap”? Your historian provides the season recap for your organization. They’ll be able to tell you how each character got to the place they are currently in the plot, who they have alliances with, and what their goals and values are. Basically, they provide the context.

How your historian will help you: Context is everything – especially when you’re new to an organization or when you’re making big changes. You’ll need to have this information in order to be effective in a People role.

How to identify your historian: Your historian has a longer tenure at the organization than most other employees. Hopefully, they want to help you because they’ve seen a few people in your role and know a few ways to set you up for success. If they don’t reach out proactively, try to notice who answers historical/contextual questions in Slack or in large group meetings and then ask them to have a coffee chat!

Your Brian

About: I’ve been lucky enough to have several Brians, and a few of them have actually been named Brian (or Bryan…) This person is your advocate who has power and social capital to share – and they are eager to share it. In workplaces, it’s often white men in leadership roles who have this power, which is why I’ve titled this person “your Brian”. But they don’t have to identify that way. (For what it’s worth, my Brians have not always been white men in leadership roles!) Your Brian should have the social capital to advocate for things that would be more of a risk for you to bring up (and a willingness to use it!)

How your Brian will help you: In my experience, my Brians say the things that I can’t say without losing something – generally trust with leadership. I ask my Brians to talk to leaders about initiatives that I want to make happen. Sometimes, leaders need to hear from someone who looks like them and/or who speaks their language, in order to come around to an idea they were originally resistant to. Basically, they are here to be your backup when you’re trying to get leadership on board with something.

How to identify your Brian: Build good individual relationships with people who could be potential Brians (people with power). Eventually, if they are your Brian, they will ask you what they can do to advocate for you and your work. If they don’t volunteer themselves proactively, you can still ask them to be your Brian, but they may not be as adept at their role because that may indicate that they don’t fully understand the power dynamics at play within your organization.

PS: I had a tough time writing this one. I am immensely grateful to my Brians, and I know the system is broken if this is the only way we can make change and/or have access to power. So, read this and learn from it… But when you eventually become someone’s Brian, please lift as you climb. We’ve got to make this easier for everyone to access power.

Your shoulder to cry on

About: Some folks call this person your “work wife” but that feels unnecessarily gendered, especially because this person takes on a lot of emotional labor, which is often the unrewarded work we assign to women. This person really needs no introduction. They are the person you text when you need a walk outside of the office to vent or cry. They are caring, patient, and understanding.

How your shoulder to cry on will help you: Sometimes when you are a one-person team, it can be difficult to know when to be vulnerable. You may feel like you always need to come across as the expert in your area. But you also need a person who you can be human with unapologetically. And honestly, this person probably is looking for that in you too, so the help is mutual.

How to identify your shoulder to cry on: This one is easier than some of the others – they are the person you click with, the person you’re friends with. They probably notice you’re not ok before you tell them that you’re not ok. In my personal experience, these people are also the people who openly talk about going to therapy, but maybe that’s just my preference!

Your outside perspective

About: You’re not going to find all of your teammates internally, especially if you want a Council member who has experience in your specific work. This is when it makes sense to look outside of your organization for the person who can provide that input and can give you a perspective that isn’t clouded by the day-to-day challenges of your organization.

How your outsider perspective will help you: They can tell you about how other organizations have handled similar situations. They can also provide a dispassionate perspective, which is tough but can be important when it comes to some of the challenging decisions we make in People Work. They can also validate you and coach you on your approach to these challenges – which is absolutely key.

How to identify your outside perspective: Personally, my outside perspectives have been folks who were on my team at previous organizations. But, if you don’t have anyone who comes to mind in that category, you can also do some networking and find folks at local meetups, trainings or classes relevant to your specific work, or find Slack groups dedicated to connecting people who have the same titles as you. (In fact, the Collective Community is a great place to start!)

Bonus team members

As I wrote this blog, I kept thinking of the amazing humans I’ve worked with who have become part of my Council, so here are some additional Council members you can keep an eye out for:

  • Your spreadsheet champion: Technically, this is just a person who is particularly good at a skill that you’re not as good at. For me, this was spreadsheets. I always had a person in my org who I could go to with my nerdy spreadsheet questions.
  • Your IT support: Ideally, you have an actual IT team you can go to, and if so, USE THEM and THANK THEM. They are invaluable resources. If not, there’s a person in your org who is more tech savvy – maybe as a hobby or as part of their role. Befriend them immediately.
  • Your translator: If your organization specializes in a particular product or service, find a person who will help you better understand it. When I worked in politics, I had a translator who taught me about the work that organizers do and one who taught me about the politics we were grappling with on Capitol Hill. In tech, I had engineers who broke down complex technical topics with me.
  • Your unblocker: This person is probably on an ops team and may be a coordinator, a scheduler, or an office manager. They work actual magic when it comes to booking conference rooms, getting large groups together for a meeting, or even deciding the best date for an event.
  • Your snack advisor: Especially if you’re working in-person in an office, you should be sure to find a person who has tried ALL of the office snacks and can recommend the best ones. They also probably know where to get a pastry or french fries close to the office. (If you work with me, this is me, I am your snack advisor. You’re welcome.)
Go forth and build your Council

I can absolutely guarantee that creating your Council is worthwhile, partially because of all the reasons I’ve listed above about the ways these folks will help you do your job better (and keep you sane). But more than that, writing this blog post has been an incredibly fun opportunity for me to remember and thank the humans who have been my backup in my work throughout my career. I could not have accomplished anything without them. I’m so incredibly grateful.

Learn more about our Author: AnnE Diemer (she/her/hers) is an HR Consultant who prioritizes the human in HR. With eight years of recruiting, DEI, and HR generalist experience across tech startups and non-profits, AnnE is dedicated to supporting organizations who are ready to take a people-centered approach to HR. At Stripe, AnnE led initiatives focused on improving candidate experience, diversifying application pipelines, building university recruiting programs, and developing leaders within the company’s employee resource groups. In 2020, she brought these skills to political non-profits where she designed programs that improved equity in hiring, promoted self-care and sustainable work, led internship programs, designed performance reviews, and facilitated connections amongst staff as they worked remotely for the first time. In her consulting practice, aedHR, AnnE approaches her work through a lens that holds contradictions: ​​How do we build great workplaces while also questioning capitalist systems? How can we work efficiently and move quickly while also prioritizing ourselves and each other as humans? When she’s not trying to answer these difficult questions, you can find her crocheting or riding her new bike around Washington, DC.

*Disclaimer: This post was not generated by A.I. It is indeed written by a real life human. A pretty cool human in fact.