Meet Sarah Szeflinski: Partner & Executive Director, People & Operations

Partner & Executive Director, People & Operations

Sarah brings expertise in HR, recruitment, and people operations that keeps Smart Design teams happy and productive.

She brings a creative and empathetic approach to building and developing people operations programs and processes. We sat down with Sarah to discuss what it takes to build a thriving work culture, how to ace an interview at Smart Design, and how working at a design and innovation consultancy helps in her own creative pursuits.

How do you help build the culture at Smart Design?

We believe in a dynamic approach to culture-building at Smart Design. With my teams’ help, we create and experiment with new people programs and events, seek feedback through surveys or polls, and pay attention to attendance so we can repeat what is successful. We also foster an environment where employees are encouraged to bring their ideas forward. We actively support and implement those ideas to ensure our culture grows organically, reflecting the interests of our team. For example, we’ve had Smarties organize a company soccer team and another team cook tacos for everyone at work – we want to ensure Smart Design supports and encourages that. You also have to be strategic and adapt to differing needs and wants. In the past, we had a lot of after-hours events, but in our new hybrid work environment, we’ve introduced lunchtime activities that are more effective at bringing people together.

We see a lot of beautiful portfolios, but it’s essential to have an understanding of how you got there, including how you collaborated with others along the way.

How would you define a Smartie?

Smarties are empathetic and curious. Our employees are genuinely interested in improving the world through design regardless of their project – whether it has a social impact aspect or provides a better cooking or cleaning experience, their work improves lives in some way. When you have that perspective, it translates to empathy and humility – it’s not an award-driven, ego or portfolio centric atmosphere. Everyone is on the same team with a similar perspective – it’s not about us – we want to do amazing work for the end users and for our clients.

Culturally, many of us might be described as social introverts. They are great observers, like meeting new people (the curiosity in us!), prefer some time to digest and process information, but are also comfortable with silence. Smart is welcoming without being loud – a place where everyone can be themselves. You may be in the kitchen getting a coffee next to a colleague and exchange no words or you can have the most fascinating conversation of your day because the coffee beans reminded them of a research project they did.

What advice might you have for someone interviewing at Smart Design?

Think about the story you want to tell – about who you are, what you are looking for, and your past professional experience. For designers, engineers, and strategists alike, when we review portfolios, we’re hoping to learn something about how you think. We see a lot of beautiful portfolios, but it’s essential to have an understanding of how you got there including how you collaborated with others along the way. Strong applicants can articulate where they pulled inspiration from and show their journey across an entire project from brainstorming, user research, and prototypes to a final design or research insights. For non-design roles, we want to hear “why Smart?” There are so many types of companies out there, it’s great to understand what piqued interest in Smart Design specifically.

How have you helped to evolve the HR and people programs?

Smart Design has defined core values, which I helped articulate a few years back: be empathetic, work collaboratively, test and learn, and lead by example. I also introduced and evolved the performance management process to foster those behaviors and ensure employees are continually growing and learning. Additionally, there have been other recent formal changes from the new hybrid work policy, donation matching program, etc. I’m particularly proud of the better paid parental leave that I’ve implemented since joining which offers stronger support for new parents.

At Smart Design, leadership isn’t just about titles; one of our core values is “Lead by Example” and we encourage all Smarties to model behaviors regularly.

Talk about the leadership at Smart Design

At Smart Design, leadership isn’t just about titles; one of our core values is “Lead by Example” and we encourage all Smarties to model this behavior regularly. We value taking initiative, owning responsibilities, and staying open to new ideas whether on projects or making key business decisions. We bring impressive collective experience to client challenges, but our leadership team may be unique in that even Executive Directors and Partners never presume to know everything. Curiosity and humility drive all areas of leadership, shaping our path to innovation and growth.

On a personal note, tell us about what you’re reading, learning, and creating.

I started refinishing furniture at the end of 2021. It has become a creative outlet to help me unwind and an opportunity to learn new skills – what is the most effective way to strip the old finish, how to cut a desk into nightstands, etc. I love giving discarded and outdated furniture a second chance instead of ending up in a landfill, and it is very convenient to have talented engineers at Smart Design who can help me with any technical questions! Some project work can be seen on my Instagram.

About Sarah Szeflinski

Sarah is a Partner and Executive Director, People and Operations. She brings expertise in HR, recruitment, resource management, and people operations from start-ups to established companies. Whether bringing on top talent, lending an empathetic ear, developing robust employee onboarding, or helping to standardize project processes, she works to ensure teams can deliver great work for clients and solve complex problems through design. She holds a Master’s degree from New York University in Human Resources and an undergraduate degree in Business Management from Binghamton University.

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