Derek Sarsfield understands that “engineer-turned-HR-professional” seems almost like a complete about-face both in profession and approach. He illustrates this through the universal medium of the Sunday comics.
When Sarsfield informs people that he was once an engineer, their first reaction tends to be bewilderment, as in “how could that be?” There is Dilbert, the engineer who always goes up against his boss, and Catbert, “the evil HR director,” Sarsfield says with a laugh. “I think that comic went a long way in creating this perception of what seems like two very different worlds. People think they should be diametrically opposed.”
The current chief human resources officer at Deflecto’s global headquarters in Indianapolis provides a fascinating glimpse into just how far one can grow into an entirely different field. Sarsfield has been bolstered by skills that may not have initially seemed applicable but have proven invaluable as the definition of “effective HR professional” has grown and evolved over time.
The CHRO says his journey may be more unique than most, but his evolution into the HR space coincided perfectly with the growing body of work by University of Michigan professor Dave Ulrich, who was named BusinessWeek’s “#1 Management Educator & Guru.” Ulrich championed HR leaders as more than what they were traditionally seen as—business partners and business enablers—during the 1990s and into the present.
“There was a growing movement that business acumen and a fundamental understanding of financial data was imperative to being an HR leader,” Sarsfield remembers. “Whereas some people who were already in the space may have found that uncomfortable, I felt like those were skills and abilities that I already possessed.”
It motivated Sarsfield to secure his MBA in management and leadership and set him down the HR path. He amassed progressively more senior roles in the HR space and in joining Deflecto in 2019, he was charged with helping build out company culture and modernizing the organization’s HR employee programs and initiatives, driven by data, metrics and analysis.
Deflecto is a sixty-year-old company, and the new CHRO knew he had his work cut out for him. While the company boasts many long-tenured employees—a sign of both culture and commitment—Sarsfield needed to bring Deflecto’s infrastructure, processes and policies into the twenty-first century and help it compete in one of the tightest job markets.
Organizational design has been fundamental with several leadership roles to fill, and Sarsfield recognized the need to get a pulse on the organization through employee feedback to better understand how to address change management. The insights for the leadership team were invaluable and subsequently it introduced an annual employee engagement survey, along with recognition programs including its quarterly Core Values Awards.
“Understanding people is crucial and the first step to managing change. The company can’t tackle process or systematic change if we don’t first understand our employees and where they are in this journey,” Sarsfield explains. The team went beyond the survey and recognition programs by creating an online learning program. “Our digital learning platform has been expanded beyond the basics with content for skill development as well as tracks for those with aspirations into higher leadership levels.”
The tight job market is also an ongoing challenge. Deflecto has increased both its wages and benefits to stay competitive, but Sarsfield says there’s a groundswell with human capital today and it is not a one-size-fits-all model. It has to be personalized for the company, location, and the employees.
“Retention is the most significant aspect a company has to control,” Sarsfield explains. “We do this proactively by taking action on feedback, training our people leaders, having fun employee events, and connecting with our employees while considering the whole person. Post-COVID, we have all established a new level of empathy and flexibility.
“Ultimately,” he continues, “my mission is to make Deflecto a great place to work, with an actively engaged workforce who have the tools and capabilities to do great things.”
The CHRO says he is always mindful that most employees quit their manager, not their job or company. A reflection of that reality is Deflecto’s investment in developing its leaders. Once the company has spent the time, effort, and money on a quality candidate, it only makes sense to do everything to keep them.
In the coming year, Sarsfield says Deflecto may engage in some significant M&A activities, which can be incredibly time-consuming both on the due diligence side as well as all of the activities during the post-acquisition period.
“There are so many considerations, especially when you’re talking about integrating culture,” Sarsfield says. “And doing it right matters.” The idea of concurrently working to integrate a new company may seem daunting, but Sarsfield’s experience allows him a disposition much more attuned to a mantra of “all in good time.”
It’s yet another interesting component of the walking contradiction that is Derek Sarsfield. The engineer-turned-CHRO is as comfortable sorting through financials and data as he is on the softer side of employee interaction. He’s a culture builder whose knowledge of the ones and zeros can back him up every step of the way.
While Derek Sarsfield spends three to four days a week in the gym, his real passion is found on the pickleball court. If you’re not sure what pickleball is, then think of a sport somewhere between tennis, badminton, and ping-pong.
Called the fastest-growing sport in the country by NPR, pickleball is an activity that can be enjoyed by all ages, with no discernible youth advantage for those skilled enough to pick their shots carefully.
Sarsfield recounts visiting his mother-in-law in Florida and seeing actual stadiums with dozens of courts filled with players. He is now a full convert, and his enthusiasm is infectious. “A year ago, I had never heard of it,” Sarsfield says. “I’ll warn you, though, it’s addicting.”