Roza Szafranek of HR Hints: Five Things You Need To Be A Highly Effective Leader During Uncertain & Turbulent Times
You either do something or you don’t. Luck is great, of course, but you can’t base success on it. Doing three companies at one time, or building a company while being a part-time C-level, manager or CEO is not the way. You need to connect the dots and to have many contexts in which you are needed. Also, you need to understand, set up and keep the people vibe. To motivate others, you need to be fully dedicated yourself, as a real role model.
As part of our series about the “Five Things You Need To Be A Highly Effective Leader During Turbulent Times”, we had the pleasure of interviewing Roza Szafranek.
Roza Szafranek is the Founder & CEO of HR Hints, the first HR boutique operating in a subscription model, dedicated to startups and fast-growing tech companies. Together with her team, she has supported over 50 startups, teaching leaders how to be better with people and effectively develop companies. She shows founders and managers how to run companies based on engaged teams that deliver.
Roza helps to build superior organizations of the type dreamed of by founders and managers. She cooperated and still cooperates with companies such as Ramp Network, Infermedica, Packhelp, Omnipack, Telemedi, inSTREAMLY, Zowie, Aleph Zero, ShopRunner, Inovo Venture Partner and Innovation Nest.
She is a mentor of InCredibles, Sebastian Kulczyk’s mentoring program, a winner of the HR Pearls competition and the title of Recruiter of the Year 2018. She is featured in the Strong Women in IT Global Edition 2021 report. Roza is the author of both industry and academic articles, co-author of books, and a conference speaker. In addition, she runs the People from Work podcast.
Thank you so much for your time! I know that you are a very busy person. Our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your ‘backstory’ and how you got started?
I have been working with fast-growing organizations, including startups, since 2014. During that time, I was working in a recruitment agency, leading teams, and acting as an HR and People Manager. I was also responsible for people and operation parts in the Polish arm of an American startup. Later, I started working as an HR freelancer in startups, being recommended by VCs and other startups. In this time, I received many offers to join the management boards of companies as an HR expert. And every time I heard: “It must be you”. And that was the moment when I decided that we must change our thinking and approach to HR in general.
I strongly believe that good HR cannot be based on “one special person”, but on a deliberately built culture, relevant expertise and committed people. What’s more, I’m 100% sure that it can be scaled. Sales, marketing and other business functions went through the same process several dozen years ago. Sales also had that narration about themselves: “it really depends on a customer, we cannot measure our work, everything depends on a situation”. And, after some time, we have a well-described, scalable and measured business area. HR must go through the same. And our goal and ambition now is to do that. That was my main motivating factor behind the foundation of HR Hints. So, in 2021, after 7 years of working with founders, I set up my own company, an HR boutique, supporting founders in building teams, communication, defining values and good leadership. We chose a subscription model for our customers and partners, on one hand to standardize and universalize good patterns in HR and, on the other hand, to show that we are able to scale. That’s why we were able to help more that 50 companies in 1.5 years.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lessons or ‘take aways’ you learned from that?
Mistakes seen from the present often seem funny, but when they happen, all they provide us with is a sweaty neck and a sleepless night. But yes — it is quite “funny” that — having hired dozens of senior HR people, from Senior Recruiters to Chief People Officers across Europe and the US, when it came to hiring such a person for my own company, I did it wrong… Even when verifying the organization’s culture, values and other qualities on a daily basis, I made a rather childish and simple mistake. I and my experienced recruitment team, made a bunch of mistakes that in other companies would have immediately caught our eye. As a result, we hired a person mismatched to the company in terms of values, managerial culture, transparency and organizational culture. Fortunately, this became apparent quite quickly, and we were able to say goodbye and end our cooperation in harmony and friendship.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story?
Oh, I have many such people to whom I owe a lot! First and foremost are the people on my HR Hints team, from whom I can learn every day not only about HR, but also sharpness, humor and witty ripostes. The most important of these for me is naturally the co-founder of HR Hints, Filip, who not only believed in the idea of building a company that standardizes and universalizes good HR, but also fell in love with it so much that he brings into life all my crazy ideas and big ambitions.
Extensive research suggests that “purpose driven businesses” are more successful in many areas. When your organization started, what was its vision, what was its purpose?
HR Hints’ vision from the very beginning has been to scale good HR practices. To show that it is not one outstanding HR professional who can scale organizational culture well, support founders, develop leaders and address other People & Culture challenges — that it can be done in a repeatable, standardized way. Because, just like in sales, just like in marketing, and just like in HR, every founder and every company is a little different and unique, but there are a lot of mechanisms that you can understand and see that a lot of situations are repeatable and predictable.
Thank you for all that. Let’s now turn to the main focus of our discussion. Can you share with our readers a story from your own experience about how you lead your team during uncertain or difficult times?
My team is the backbone of my business — not just an essential part of it, but the foundation from which the building of a product, a scalable HR method, comes. Our work is mainly based on working with startups and growing technology companies. In these current times, which are very uncertain for both these types of companies, and in times of declining valuations, lower or no frozen rounds, and at the same time increasing inflation, I made the decision to diversify my client portfolio, to extend our support also into the area of crisis communication, such as layoffs, payroll changes, downgrades due to crises and others.
In addition, the most important rule of communicating with the team in times of crisis for me is not to play double games, and not to nurture drama within our doors. If I make a decision, I always explain it, and I always have a space for everyone in the company to give their feedback, to criticize me. With such a scale of our company, after more than a year of existence, almost 20 permanent staff and a total of about 25 when including associates, I also use external advisors, whose feedback I also share with my team.
Did you ever consider giving up? Where did you get the motivation to continue through your challenges? What sustains your drive?
Of course! I believe that operating in a difficult startup industry and pretending that “I’ve never had moments of weakness because I always believe that I will succeed” is not only fooling others and myself but also — in the long-term — creating a false image for the community.
I’ve worked with many founders who say: “Fuck it, I’m going to work in a corporation; I’ll get twice as much pay for twice as much work”. I always reply: “Sure, but you won’t do it your way then.” And “If you can do it, wait some more. It’s easy to leave for a corporation but harder to return to entrepreneurship.”
And I get strength and drive from knowing that failure, discouragement, decreased motivation and other downs are natural parts of doing business. I have seen many leaders reaping very high rounds and, after a year, winding up their businesses. Or those who were on the covers of business magazines at a time when they had to cut their teams in half. And still: this does not testify badly about them. Nor does it testify badly about anyone that they had a moment of weakness. A founder also has the right to be weak, to hesitate or make a wrong decision. The only thing he must not do is deprive himself of boldness and courage. I consider these qualities necessary to be a good leader.
I’m an author and I believe that books have the power to change lives. Do you have a book in your life that impacted you and inspired you to be an effective leader? Can you share a story?
One of the most important books for me is Peter Thiel’s “From Zero To One”. This is one of the first important business books, even a bible of the startup world, which, after reading, I dared to criticize sharply in a forum of experienced entrepreneurs and VC investors, who did not hide their admiration for this text. I remember saying, at the time, that the text had “grown old ugly,” e.g. in the area of below-market remuneration of founders, because “the founder must be hungry”.
I think that’s when I first saw myself as a critic, rather than an unreflective devourer of books written by authorities. Today, I often see that we all follow this path. We assume that “if Z has made a well-known product, it means he is a good leader” or “if Y has a growing revenue and is considered successful, it means he knows how to act and work with people.” This is absolutely not the case, and nothing could be further from the truth.
What would you say is the most critical role of a leader during challenging times?
I think that a leader in times of crisis and panic should first and foremost ensure that they can make decisions as clearly, logically, and lucidly as possible. Their choices should be influenced as little as possible by their emotions (their own and those of their employees). Such a leader is able to help people and be a support for them when they lose their strength and faith.
When the future seems so uncertain, what is the best way to boost morale? What can a leader do to inspire, motivate and engage their team?
It is crucial to set boundaries properly. It’s not about turning the company into the embodiment of procedures and policies, but about removing all barriers from under people’s feet, and muting the noise so that they can work with focus. So that they can make only those decisions that for their positions are necessary and for which they are competent. No more, no less. And over time, of course, good performers raise the bar, and develop them. And to be a role model, not only to tell them what to do and how to do it, but also to show with their behavior the declared values, to develop themselves and ambitious to reach for more all the time.
What is the best way to communicate difficult news to one’s team and customers?
You always have to use your empathy for this and keep in mind that the leader and the team members are not in the same position, especially in a crisis or when the situation is difficult. The leader is in charge of the team, and they are the one who shows direction and must keep their cool in the worst situations. Of course, they have the right to weakness. But when their team cries, they can’t cry along with them — the leader has to find the strength and ways to say: “Hey, we’re going to make it after all.” Here again, we come back to that key leader’s skill for me: clear thinking. If a leader loses this, it will be hard for anyone else to save their own team.
How can a leader make plans when the future is so unpredictable?
We can see in recent years how the approach to planning has changed. No one writes business plans for the next five years anymore; plans are written for a year, maybe two. But it is definitely and indisputably worth doing them. It is worth writing several versions to have in your head and on paper. Not only plan B, but also C and D. And not only on the financial side, but also on the operational, strategic, and market sides. Those plans should be regularly changed and modified when needed. Treat them a bit like a sign from which you need to bounce in another direction, when a “broken tree” lies on the straightest path. Because maybe there is another way to our goal after all? And if we insist that we necessarily want to force our way through and cross this fallen tree, we may simply get nowhere, and fall over for good.
Is there a “number one principle” that can help guide a company through the ups and downs of turbulent times?
I always repeat this phrase — first to myself in my head and then to the team: “This company exists to solve founders’ problems.” The same thing usually answers my question whether to continue a super difficult project or not. Or how to proceed in tricky situations, such as situations of conflicting interests.
Can you share 3 or 4 of the most common mistakes you have seen other businesses make during difficult times? What should one keep in mind to avoid that?
With pleasure, sure! Since, on a daily basis, we see many leaders and businesses come to us for help precisely at the moment of crisis, difficulties and problems are our specialties, because it is their solution that we deal with in our People & Culture subscription support. However, if I were to list the most important ones, I would highlight the ones I have been observing most recently.
The first mistake is neglecting proper communication that cares for employees in a crisis. If we have to lay off an employee because we want to save money to save the business, it really does matter how we communicate this to them. After all, I once managed to lay off 80 people in an atmosphere of mutual understanding and even offering support to the then CEO, and I also managed to conduct such layoffs when all 10 people being laid off were resentful and took their cases to court. It is not true that “Since you have bad news anyway, the rest is already indifferent!” Quite the opposite! The style in which you dismiss people is fundamental, but unfortunately, many leaders do not understand this.
The second common problem is the inability to cope with the tension and stress of having to make a difficult decision. Such decisions that often need to be made in a crisis are pushed away by leaders. They literally push them away by saying: “Let the sales director handle it” or “They’re the head of HR after all, let them do that”!
Another mechanism is to postpone decision-making. So they pose — often unconsciously — that they have to wait with a decision, that they still need additional information or someone else’s opinion. We all know perfectly well that one never has the complete set of information dreamed up to make a decision. No leader has such comfort. That’s why you must fight the problem with what you have, especially in a crisis, to react quickly to changes. Leaders, however, cannot jump over their fears and private concerns. They then mainly deal with what they like to do or what they feel safe in.
In the most challenging situations, I often see that a leader corrects commas or sentence formation on slides instead of discussing the main message with their managers or HR, for example, or simply taking a deep breath.
Another problem is leaders’ egos and forgetting the purpose of running their company. Of course, a company leader never forgets what their company does, what it does for a living or what customers it serves. However, that is not the point. The point is understanding one’s purpose for being in it and running it. Leaders often get lost in clients, advisors and their C-level suggestions. They lose clarity of mind and what they, specifically THEY, want. And they stop doing what they prefer to do and start doing what others say. And it’s super important to remember that; while it’s worth have advisors and mentors, it’s just your vision and only you have the full context. That’s why it’s not worth focusing on daily operational things and going deeply into everything as a CEO, but to give context to different company areas and bring the bigger picture to the whole team.
Something that is already typical of the industry and HR is that the Talent Team is often laid off when there is a hiring freeze or no hiring. Then, shortly after the layoffs, employees whom the company did not intend to say goodbye to also leave the company. So, the Talent Team is needed again, only now at much higher wages. This is exactly the situation we faced in the COVID-19 pandemic when a large number of recruiters were laid off in Q2 2020, and already in Q4 talent acquisition team rates were the highest ever.
Here is the primary question of our discussion. Based on your experience and success, what are the five most important things a business leader should do to lead effectively during uncertain and turbulent times? Please share a story or an example for each.
The first one I would like to mention is a concern for one’s sanity. The ability and comfort of changing contexts — having friends, family, a partner, or someone you love or is otherwise close to you.
When HR Hints conducted a study on the mental health of founders and employees of startups, many leaders said that the way out of the many hours and hard work of building a company is just additional context. My experience absolutely confirms this. It’s much better to switch off completely, have a full break from work for the weekend and then come back to intense work with a high focus than to work all week long for 12 hours with low efficiency.
The second most important thing is the no-ego approach. Failure and difficulties are not about you. Just because you fail doesn’t prove you wrong. Just because you’ve closed a business doesn’t mean you’ll never succeed again. Failure is a natural part of doing business. If you hope they won’t affect you or things will only go well for you, you are not a leader. Your success is the success of your people. Maybe you have great talent and skills to lead them well. Maybe you took years to learn it. Good for you. But that doesn’t entitle you to speak of others with derision or contempt.
The third is focus; you either do something or you don’t. Luck is great, of course, but you can’t base success on it. Doing three companies at one time, or building a company while being a part-time C-level, manager or CEO is not the way. You need to connect the dots and to have many contexts in which you are needed. Also, you need to understand, set up and keep the people vibe. To motivate others, you need to be fully dedicated yourself, as a real role model.
The fourth is a willingness to work with the people you have on your team. They’re the ones that the company is based on. You don’t have to be friends with them, but you have to trust them at least a little bit or believe that, together, you can do a lot.
The fifth is responsibility. This is a responsibility that carries weight. You’re responsible for the people and for the movements you make. You have to keep the execution boundaries that you should set and abide by, and you have to clarify to the team the environment in which you operate. And if something goes wrong, you need to be able to say that it’s your responsibility. But at the same time, don’t get down about it, have a light approach, learn from your mistakes and move on.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
To reflect this, let me quote Witkacy — a Polish artist and brilliant innovator, but also a somewhat scandalous individual: “Apart from us, nothing exists — we are unique, alone, giant.” And it’s not about having a huge ego. It’s about having the feeling and awareness that sometimes no one will check after us. That’s the way I work and do things — with full trust to others on one hand and with the sense that full responsibility for people, concepts and ideas on the other is on me at the end of the day.
How can our readers further follow your work?
Of course, I invite you to follow HR Hint’s website www.hrhints.io, and our social media channels, especially our LinkedIn profile. If you want to know more about my thoughts and insights, please find my LinkedIn profile as well — you will easily find me by typing “Roza Szafranek” in the search bar.
Thank you so much for sharing these important insights. We wish you continued success and good health!
Roza Szafranek of HR Hints: Five Things You Need To Be A Highly Effective Leader During Uncertain &… was originally published in Authority Magazine on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.