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115. HR Tips for New Leaders with Sara Skowronski

As a new leader, learning about Human Resources (HR) policies might not be the task that you're most motivated to do. But it's critically important. And, bonus: in this conversation with Sara Skowronski of EOS Human Resources Consulting, we tie HR practices and policies to the fun and motivating task of helping people develop and reach their full potential. In this episode, we discuss how to:

  1. Adopt fair, consistent, and kind HR policies for effective leadership in any organization.

  2. Understand the significance of documenting expectations and workplace events for smooth operations.

  3. Master the art of providing regular feedback to foster employee growth and development.

  4. Embrace empathy, curiosity, and vulnerability as crucial skills to becoming a remarkable leader.

  5. Tackle tough conversations and make informed decisions regarding employee termination.

Resources shared:

  • Follow Sara on LinkedIn here

  • Get HR support for your small business here

  • Find out what makes you uniquely gifted to lead! Take our Leadership Advantage quiz here

About Sara:

Louise Brogan
Sara Skowronski

Sara Skowronski is a seasoned Senior Human Resources professional with a progressive background spanning over 18 years. She has played a key role in the rapid expansion of several businesses in the Bay Area. As the Principal Consultant at Eos Human Resources, Sara and her team provide consultancy services to start-ups and small businesses that are not yet prepared to hire a full-time Human Resources staff but require access to the expertise necessary to manage employees. Eos HR serves clients from diverse industries, such as finance, design, engineering, and food service, among others.

Before establishing Eos HR, Sara collaborated with small business owners on operations, strategy, finance, marketing, and IT. She has worked in various industries, including telecom, banking, staffing, and hospitality management. Sara holds certification as a Senior Professional of Human Resources (SPHR) and possesses a Life and Health Insurance Producers License.


While it's not perfect, we offer this transcription by Capsho for those who prefer to read or who are hearing impaired.

When I mention human resources or HR policies to you, what comes to mind?

I'm not sure about you. But I can't say it brings happy thoughts to my mind. As someone passionate about developing others and full of hope that those I lead will always be engaged, self-motivated, respecting others and performing at their best. I don't like to think about policies and compliance.

But I originally brought our guest, Sara onto the podcast, because I know from experience that establishing a strong relationship with your HR partner and having it clear knowledge of policies is an important task, especially for a new leader.

Sara is the principal consultant EOS Human Resources, where she and her team provide consultancy services to startups and small businesses that are not yet prepared to hire a full-time human resources staff but require access to the expertise necessary to manage employees. EOS HR serves clients from diverse industries, such as finance, design engineering and food service among others.

The funny thing is my conversation with Sara opened my eyes to the value and power of the support that HR experts provide. And I think it will do the same for you. So let's get to it.

I'm Teri Schmidt, founder of Stronger to Serve Coaching and Teambuilding and this is the Strong Leaders Serve podcast.

00:00:01 - Teri Schmidt Welcome, Sara, to the strong leaders. Serve, Podcast. I'm really looking forward to our conversation today.

00:00:07 - Sara Skowronski Thank you for having me. I'm excited to be here.

00:00:10 - Teri Schmidt I'm curious to know a little bit about your story. Is just why you love HR, what really excites you about it?

00:00:20 - Sara Skowronski I think with HR, for me personally, it combines so many different things. It combines helping people and solving problems and kind of taking difficult situations or difficult concepts and breaking them down for employees and breaking them down and also watching people flourish. When I see a transformation of somebody who's not doing well and being able to coach them into a better situation or a manager who's struggling with an employee and being able to coach them into a better situation, that is like, oh yes, okay, we've got this. For me with HR, I get to do a little bit of all of those things. So it feeds all those different parts of my personality and my brain.

00:01:07 - Teri Schmidt Just kind of unleashing that potential in people through the processes that you have in place and you help them to use effectively.

00:01:15 - Sara Skowronski Exactly. So it can be very powerful for people and very suffocating for people also if they aren't allowed, if they aren't shown what's expected of them. And so it can be really difficult to be an employee in those situations. But when you are empowering people, when you are sharing and helping them grow, then to see what they can achieve is amazing.

00:01:40 - Teri Schmidt Definitely agree. So how did you get there? How did you get to where you are today? And maybe you could start by just telling us a little bit about your company and how you support organizations and individuals.

00:01:53 - Sara Skowronski Yeah, so I am the principal consultant at Es Human Resources Consulting and we do outsourced HR and HR consulting for small companies. So businesses with less than 25 employees helping them manage the day to day functions, the compliance, the onboarding offboarding, employee management, the difficult conversations and everything within that lifecycle of the employee, just as if they had an HR department on staff. Generally our clients aren't able to afford a full time HR person or a full time person to focus on that, so it takes that burden off of them. But something I'm also passionate about is working with people who are ready to hire their first employee and getting set up for success and making sure that when you're ready to make that leap, that not only are you ready to offload some work, which I think is why we end up hiding, but that you're doing it compliantly and you're doing it in a way that is going to be actually helpful to you and is not going to get in trouble with the government or any other compliance agencies. So just allowing people the information that here's all the boxes you need to check off before you make that step, so that when you are ready to focus on working with your new employee. You can actually focus on that rather than worrying about all of these things and worrying about letters from the government that come in.

00:03:20 - Teri Schmidt Nobody wants letters from the government.

00:03:24 - Sara Skowronski It doesn't matter what they say. When the IRS notice comes in, you're like, Right.

00:03:31 - Teri Schmidt I think the only time I was excited to get a letter from the IRS was I actually founded a nonprofit back in 2017, and I was excited that it actually was a 501, but that was about it.

00:03:42 - Sara Skowronski That's about it. Usually even when they just say you're changing the address, it still gives your heart a little like, what do they want?

00:03:50 - Teri Schmidt Exactly. Yeah. I love that that's a special area of focus for you because it is such an exciting time for organizations when they are making that first hire, and you don't want that excitement to be lessened in any way by everything else that comes with bringing someone on board.

00:04:14 - Sara Skowronski Yeah. And I know a lot of people who they either choose not to bring someone on board or they choose to bring somebody on as an independent contractor which carries its own set of risks because they get overwhelmed by that compliance piece and by setting a structure up. What I like to do when I'm working with small businesses especially, is help them understand that this is what the risk is and then help you make the decision as how risk averse do you want to be? There's a choice there, and I think a lot of people come out of, like, it's black or white, and it's like, well, there's a lot of gray in there of what can you do and can you stand up? Are you willing to stand up and fight for this? If you want to hire an independent contractor, are you willing to if somebody said, this is not an independent contractor, do you know what you're facing? And just being educated in that, I think, is important so that you can make the educated decision on it.

00:05:24 - Teri Schmidt Yeah, that's a great service that you provide. Just because we like to think of things in black and white, it seems obviously easier to understand, but there's so much in life that is not black and white. And I think, like you said, just knowing which risks you're taking and which risks you're willing to take, but at least going in with your eyes open as opposed to just kind of putting the blinders on and hoping you don't get that letter from the government.

00:05:53 - Sara Skowronski Right, exactly. Yeah. There's a very fine line between doing HR and being a lawyer. And I always joke that lawyers, their answers to all the questions are it depends. And about 80% of the answers to my questions or to questions to me are, it depends. It's like, tell me more, because you have to get all the little nuances before you can really answer a question.

00:06:23 - Teri Schmidt Which just speaks to the value that you provide to organizations because they don't have to have those answers or understand the nuance. They can go to you, who does, and feel secure that they're making the right decision based on all the information that they have and all the knowledge that you have.

00:06:44 - Sara Skowronski Definitely. It's definitely something that I'm trying to allow my client to have.

00:06:50 - Teri Schmidt Well, speaking of just loving black and white and also maybe not knowing as much about the nuances that they need to know, we have a lot of leaders who are either new to their role or maybe it's their second position in which they're leading people. I'm curious, from your perspective, what are the most important HR policies that they should be aware of as they are moving into people leadership? Or maybe they didn't learn it when they moved in and they should when they're getting to their second job?

00:07:23 - Sara Skowronski Yeah, I think in terms of HR policies or things, you want to be careful about what you're saying and how you're saying things to people. I think the workforce now is more than educated in what is or what they think are their rights. You just want to be careful. It's important to treat people fairly and kind of be consistent about things. The other thing I would highly recommend is find a system to document information so that when you need to refer back to things, you have that information and documenting just the facts. Don't talk about how Susie made you feel that day and how you were upset. Just say that Susie did this and this is what happened and this is how you addressed it. And then I think the last part is kind of a follow up to that is is when is if somebody is doing something that you don't want them to be doing, whether it's they're doing something wrong, they're doing something that's unprofessional or inappropriate, they're not meeting your expectations. You want to address that as soon as possible. You want sure that you are, one, setting clear expectations with the employees and two, are correct, making that corrective action as quickly as possible, preferably as soon as in the moment, pulling the person aside and having a private conversation with them, but doing something where you can actually say, look, stop this. Stop and continue doing this. Start doing this and continue that. And going back to expectations, I think so much of the problems that I have seen in management and leadership and stuff is setting appropriate expectations with employees. I can't tell you how many clients have come to me and said, this person isn't doing what I want them to do. And I've asked, have you told them that you want them to do that? And I said, well, it's in their job description. They should know. Or they've had this kind of job before, so they should know. And it's like, no, you need to sit down and say, this is what I need you to be doing. This is exactly what I need you to be doing and be direct. I think a lot of people are so afraid of confrontation that they're not direct with what they want and what they need. And especially as somebody a first time leader or a small business owner or anything where they are taking on this role for the first time. It can be really scary to be direct with someone and say, this is what I need. When I first started, I had to practice. You have to write down what you're going to say. You have to practice, you have to ask for guidance, but you have to say it. If you don't say it, it's never going to improve.

00:10:38 - Teri Schmidt Exactly. I fall back a lot on Brene Brown's quote that clear is kind and I think that can apply in so many different situations. But I'm really glad that you circled back around to expectations because that is so important and I can see particularly if maybe you're a new leader like you said, and maybe you're younger than everyone on your team. You might have an assumption that everyone just knows exactly what you expect and exactly what they need to do. But that is one of the first steps that you really need to take as you're moving into any leadership role, is help people to understand what you expect. That gives them a sense of stability. It can help start building that trust that you need in order for your team to perform effectively. And then getting back to the first one you said about making sure that you're careful about what you say in the regard of yes, hopefully we're all very empathetic and are seeking to respect others as we should, but sometimes we may not, like you mentioned, be as direct as we need to be. And again, getting to that clarity can do so much for a relationship, even if it's hard in the moment for both parties, can do so much for the relationship.

00:12:05 - Sara Skowronski And I think that people get so afraid that they are going to say something wrong or the person is going to come back and sue them or the person's going to complain about them or something like that. And I think it's important to remember that this person was hired to do a job. And as long as you keep it about the job and setting expectations about the job. And there may be some culture into that of like, I remember one of my first clients when I was consulting, and I sat down, met her at a coffee shop, and the first thing she said after we'd done some kind of pre work and she said, It's like being a babysitter. Unfortunately, there are times where it feels like that. But you have to kind of think about how would you set expectations, not in a demeaning way, but to a child. You need to be clear of, this is how we act. This is how we act in this culture. We are going to behave politely to each other. We're going to so it's not just the performance, the job performance, but if somebody's talking to somebody in a way that you as a leader don't want them talking, then it's okay to say, that's not appropriate in our workplace.

00:13:20 - Teri Schmidt Yeah. And I would say even more so than it's okay. It's your job to say that.

00:13:24 - Sara Skowronski It's your job. Yes, exactly.

00:13:27 - Teri Schmidt And especially if it's not just about kind of checking the box, it's your job type thing. As a leader, I would hope you're concerned about how well your team performs and having a high performing team where people are thriving and hopefully excited to come to work, and it's supporting their well being. All that can stem from you setting those clear expectations and speaking up and setting boundaries when those expectations for how they should be treating each other aren't met.

00:13:59 - Sara Skowronski Exactly.

00:14:01 - Teri Schmidt And then finally, just the documenting piece, I think is, from my experience, a great piece of advice. Always make sure that you are documenting everything. I think particularly for us who are very empathetic, we want to believe that people will always be doing their best, and maybe they are always doing their best, but they're operating under different circumstances that are causing them to act in ways that their best is not what is needed in the workplace. And so even though we want to think that nothing's ever going to happen bad in that relationship, you do need to be prepared just in case and have those things documented.

00:14:50 - Sara Skowronski Yeah, definitely. And I think to your point, you shouldn't be documenting only to manage somebody out or disciplinary issues, but it's also looking for patterns. So if you feel like somebody is always calling out sick, or you're always getting feedback about them from a client, or you have this feeling, but when you document, you have facts. Here's when I got a call from a client about this employee, here's another time. I got a call, here's another time. And now you can present that to the employee and say, okay, how can we correct this? Or Is this the right position for you? And so it's not just documenting when you're writing them up or when you're giving them any kind of a warning, but it's just keeping a note of, this is what's going on with this employee, and we need to address this, or, hey, they're doing a great job. Hey, we got this compliment and this compliment and this compliment, and let's make sure we share that with you, because that's exciting to be able to say, hey, look how great you're doing. And everybody knows it always happens.

00:16:11 - Teri Schmidt I'm so glad that you called that out because I do think that I have the bias toward documentation being always something bad. Not that I didn't celebrate those that I led. But yeah, documentation should include those positive notes as well. And like you said, the pattern seeking that can be a really caring action to document those things. Because then, like you said, you do have the facts. You do have the data to see, okay, what pattern is here and what might be causing it? And how can I have an open and honest conversation with the employee, with the person you're leading in a way that will be supportive and will also help them to grow?

00:16:56 - Sara Skowronski Right.

00:16:57 - Teri Schmidt I love that a new spin on documentation is that it's not always something negative.

00:17:03 - Sara Skowronski That's not all about the bad stuff. It's about remembering what happened. Yes.

00:17:09 - Teri Schmidt And I know I don't know how everyone else is, but I can use a lot of help remembering with everything that we have going on every single minute of the day.

00:17:17 - Sara Skowronski Yes. This is why I usually have recorders on my calls, because I want to be present in the call on a zoom call. And the recorder allows me to hit a button and say, okay, I need to remember that. So there are tools out there that can help with this so that you can be very present in the conversation, follow up, and it's all tug out for you.

00:17:45 - Teri Schmidt That's such a great tool. I love that. Well, I guess we just kind of talked about one HR misconception and that documentation is always about kind of managing someone out. But what other HR misconceptions do you see, particularly those who are new to people leadership having?

00:18:07 - Sara Skowronski I think going back to the setting expectation that people just know their job, that they're going to hand somebody a job description and they're going to know it. When you have a new employee or an employee in a new position, you really need to set up a structure to make sure that that employee is trained and that they know what's expected of them and you're setting those parameters to give them feedback and to check in with them. And I think another big misconception is that performance reviews are atrocious annual event. That happens. Reviewing somebody or sitting down and having a conversation with your staff is not something that should happen once a year. It's happening regularly with my staff. I meet with them once a month and like, okay. And it's three simple questions like, what's working? What would you achieve this month? What are some things that you felt that you could have done better? And what can I help you with? It doesn't have to be this long, 50 question, long drawn out thing. It's just like, what's going on right now that we can make sure that you're still on the right track? I think that's another big misconception that leaders have.

00:19:30 - Teri Schmidt Yeah. I'm curious.

00:19:32 - Sara Skowronski Bring up performance reviews, everybody like, I.

00:19:35 - Teri Schmidt Know, I think maybe it may be one of the most underutilized tools out there in the spirit of performance review, having those same types of conversations on a much more frequent basis, it can be so powerful.

00:19:52 - Sara Skowronski Yeah. And then you don't necessarily need this long process of doing a review because you've done a review every month, every quarter, on a more regular cadence and the employee knows where they're at. I also would see people when they would do an annual review, one, you'd have recency bias, so you would only deal with whatever happened in the last month. So if they suddenly landed a great deal, or they suddenly finished a big project or they did something great, then you forget all of the things that you were having problems with. Or on the flip side of that, if they totally bombed on something, then now it's like you totally forgot that for the other eleven months they were this stellar employee, but they had a miss. There's that bias. And then there's also that you are not talking to them about issues as they're going on. So when you're doing an annual review, there should never be anything in the review. It's a review, so there should never be anything in the review that they don't already know about. You don't suddenly slam them with, okay, you're a horrible employee and you have all these issues and all of these things are going on when you've never told them. It makes it easier to do it on a more consistent cadence, more regular case than annually.

00:21:24 - Teri Schmidt Yeah, definitely. From a learning perspective, that's how we learn as well to get that feedback as close as possible to the actual event. I know when I was in corporate, just even right after the meeting, that someone had an opportunity to lead maybe for the first time. It's starting with the question of how do you think that went? Even if I didn't have any specific feedback, I was curious to hear how they felt it went because that's part of helping them to grow.

00:21:56 - Sara Skowronski Yeah, definitely. And that's a good practice. And it goes back to that setting up a program or a process for when somebody's taking on a new responsibility of making actually know what that is and what's expected of them.

00:22:14 - Teri Schmidt Yeah, exactly. And I think we've been talking a lot about kind of the one way from the leader to the employee in terms of expectations, but I think it's also important for the leader to understand what expectations the employee has of them and the team and of the job as well.

00:22:34 - Sara Skowronski Yeah, definitely. I think being open there is something to being vulnerable and being transparent as a leader so that people feel comfortable coming to you and speaking, letting you know that there's issues, and then being willing to address that one way or another. Whether you're saying, okay, I hear you, and this is why we're doing it this way, I hear you, and let me think about that, or I hear you, and that's a great idea. Let's incorporate that. But letting them know why if you're choosing not to do what they're saying, there's usually a reason behind it. And if the reason is because we've always done it that way, I would challenge you to go back and see.

00:23:18 - Teri Schmidt If there's a different way to nobody likes that answer. Nobody should like that answer.

00:23:24 - Sara Skowronski And life is moving way too fast. I mean, there's so many I just got off of a webinar about a program that I use that they have all these new things coming out about it. There are new things coming out about how we manage and how we deal with people and how we can do processes all the time. So to not be open to looking at something like that would be detrimental to the business and detrimental to the leaders.

00:23:49 - Teri Schmidt Definitely. And I love those three options, too, for responding, because I think in the end, we all just want to feel heard. And someone may be fine if you say, no, we can't do that right now, or this is why we're not doing that right now. But thank you for bringing that up. And please continue to bring ideas up because then you feel heard.

00:24:16 - Sara Skowronski Exactly. Yeah. And sometimes they just want to be heard when people start talking about something else and you're still like, wait, I was in the middle of a conversation. It may not have been important, but I was saying something.

00:24:34 - Teri Schmidt Did you hear me? Exactly. Well, kind of wrapping up our conversation on new leaders. I'm curious, since you work with so many different organizations, what would you say the top skills are that a new leader needs to be successful in their job, leading people?

00:24:52 - Sara Skowronski The top skills, I think being self reflective is probably the biggest ones. I think recognizing that you've been put in this role and you've been entrusted into this role to continue learning and to continue growing, I think is an important thing. I think empathy is really important. Trying to understand what's going on for the employees and recognize that we're not as much as any business owner or any leader would like us to be able to have an employee who comes in and just does their work. And some people are good at compartmentalizing, that we all have a life. Life always bleeds into work in some way, shape, or form.

00:25:42 - Teri Schmidt Definitely.

00:25:43 - Sara Skowronski And some people are good at like it only bleeds in a little bit. But just understand that it's really hard to leave your life at the door when you start to work to be curious. I think one of the things that is important for them is to be curious about, okay, why are you not if there's a problem, what is going on? Is this something that you need more training on? Is it something that wasn't explained right, or is there something going on that has nothing to do with work? And we just need to manage that and figure out how to make that work.

00:26:20 - Teri Schmidt Yeah, definitely.

00:26:23 - Sara Skowronski Don't be afraid of difficult conversations.

00:26:27 - Teri Schmidt Easier said than done.

00:26:28 - Sara Skowronski Easier said than done. And I know it takes a lot of prep and I can totally say that when I first started as a leader and I'd have to have those conversations, I'd go in and I'd be shaking and I'd be sweating and so that's okay. Just take a breath, know what you want to say, be prepared and then listen. I think that's the other part of difficult conversations that we get so wrapped up in, well, I have to say this. I have to say this and then you say it and then you're like, okay, I said it. And you're not actually listening to what the person responding. So there's more to the conversation than just saying it.

00:27:08 - Teri Schmidt Yeah, I agree. And I think if you are doing that, you're forgetting kind of the why for the difficult conversation as well. And I think remembering that purpose of the difficult conversation and what good you're hoping to accomplish out of that difficult conversation and why being clear is kind back to that. I think if you can keep that in mind, that can not only make the conversation easier, but it can also help you to not fall into that, just getting it out of your mouth and then forgetting about everything else because you're not going to accomplish that goal. If your goal is just to get it out of your mouth, then I guess you accomplished it. But if your goal is to actually drive change through the difficult conversation, then.

00:27:56 - Sara Skowronski You definitely need to listen exactly as much as talk.

00:28:01 - Teri Schmidt I know when I tried to remember the good that could come out of that potentially terrifying experience, particularly if you're conflict, avoidant that helped to get through those conversations.

00:28:13 - Sara Skowronski Yeah. And some of the things that I say to my clients when they're struggling with that, especially when they're struggling with an employee, is to also stop and think about how much time is taken for you internally, the mental time that's taken to manage your emotions, to manage this employee, to manage the situation, because it's not being addressed once you address it. At least now you're moving forward. Now you're taking that action and you can make decisions based on that action. But if you're just stuck in your head and you're too afraid to have that conversation, you're spinning your own wheels because you're taking up this mental space that should be leading your organization and not on this little problem.

00:29:08 - Teri Schmidt Right. That is such a great point and I'm glad you brought that up. We've had, I think, two or three other podcast episodes just on managing conflict and managing difficult conversations. And one of our core values as an organization is transforming conflict, taking it and transforming it into something that does energize the organization and help propel the organization forward. As opposed to being a drag on the organization, just like you were just talking about.

00:29:38 - Sara Skowronski Yeah. And it's always interesting to me when people are afraid to make the hardest decision, which is to let people go. But once they've made that decision because they've got their blinders on to what the problem is for them, they're not aware of the problem it's creating for the entire organization.

00:30:00 - Teri Schmidt Right.

00:30:00 - Sara Skowronski And so once they make that hard decision to let somebody go, it's like this breath comes through the entire organization of, oh, there was this weight, there was this conflict, and it wasn't just with the manager or the leader and the employee. It was with the whole organization. But they can't see it because they're so stuck in their fear of having that difficult conversation.

00:30:24 - Teri Schmidt Yeah, that's a really good point. And who knows? It could, down the road, be a good move for the person who was causing the issue as well, because clearly, if they weren't performing, maybe there's something that isn't aligned with their values or isn't aligned with their strengths, and another place would be a whole lot better place for them to achieve the potential they could.

00:30:50 - Sara Skowronski Exactly. It's always a sense of, okay, this just isn't the right place for you here. It doesn't make you a bad person. This isn't the right place for you here. And I've had to say that to my own employees where it's like, the work you do is good, but this isn't the right place for you. And that's a hard decision to make as an employer and as a leader.

00:31:20 - Teri Schmidt Yeah, definitely. Probably one of the hardest. So I appreciate your support with that. Well, if there are other individuals who would love to learn more about you, about your work, where is the best place for them to find you?

00:31:34 - Sara Skowronski Yeah, so they can find us. We have our website. It's Eoshr. And just so everybody knows, EOS is a name. It's the Greek goddess of the dawn and the hope of a brand new day. It's And that we do have a place where they can schedule a strategy call with us, a complimentary strategy call. I'm also on LinkedIn and Facebook under EOS, human Resources consulting, and I would love to connect with people. It would be great to meet some of your tribe.

00:32:06 - Teri Schmidt Excellent. Well, we'll make sure all those links get in the show notes. And I just want to thank you again for coming on, sharing your knowledge and making HR and compliance a little bit more fun and interesting than maybe some people think they might be because it really is of all about having those processes in place that can and develop people into their fullest potential.

00:32:33 - Sara Skowronski Exactly. Well, thank you so much for having me. I've really enjoyed our conversation.

Teri Schmidt: I hope you gleaned from that conversation the great value in having a strong relationship with your HR partner. If you're new to role, make sure you get to know that person right away. And if you're leading in a smaller business and looking for HR support, be sure to check out EOS HR at the link in the show notes. Next week. I'm really excited to kick off a series focusing on the different ways that you. As a leader. Even a new one. Can make your workplace more compassionate and just through your leadership. We have some amazing guests lined up.

And I'll kick it off next week, talking about how it all starts with you knowing yourself as a leader.

Until next time, lead with this quote by Robin Sharma in mind: "The best leaders blend courage with compassion."


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