One of the most difficult moments in Donna Hughes’s career came toward the end of her eight-year tenure as the in-house counsel on labor and employment for Circuit City, when the electronics giant closed down amid financial difficulties during the recession. As part of the leadership team winding down the employment of thirty thousand team members, the emotional impact for Hughes was twofold: first, in being charged with terminating plans and contracts for the company’s employees, aware of the consequences the closure would have for them, and second, in knowing that her own position at the company was also coming to an end.
After having joined Circuit City during some of its boom years and building her department steadily since then, this could have been a devastating moment for Hughes. Instead, she chose to embrace the changes and turn them into a learning experience. Her next organization was a growing pharmaceutical company, and the knowledge she gained while Circuit City wound down was beneficial in helping that growth. “The skill sets you learn during a difficult time can help an organization tremendously,” Hughes says. “You can add value when an organization is on the upturn, as well.”
Her experience with finding new opportunities during periods of change is what led her to her current role at Impax Laboratories, where, after her twenty-three-year career as a lawyer largely focused on employment law, Hughes joined as the senior vice president of human resources in mid-2015. And it’s also what has helped her thrive, having joined at a time when the pharmaceutical company needed someone to align the organization’s HR department with major growth.
Though Hughes had been asked previously by other organizations to move into HR, she hadn’t seriously considered it until she was approached by Impax’s then-CEO. Hughes was attracted both by the opportunity and by the company’s interest in her leadership style and focus on business strategy. “I was ready for a challenge, but I didn’t want to completely leave my legal background behind,” she says. “Not only did I not have to leave it behind, I lean on it every day to drive dialogue and the right solutions for the organization, as well as in the investment and development of our people.”
Impax had been a growing small-cap company, and though the organization had built infrastructure in many departments to support growth, its HR department had remained static. Hughes immediately set about making changes—investing in functions that had been overlooked, helping to capitalize on a newly installed human capital management system, and developing a total rewards function and philosophy. She and her team worked on streamlining a number of processes to make them more simple for management, ranging from approval processes to enhancing performance management using capabilities in the system.
Hughes also focused on promoting engagement throughout the organization and incentivizing management to focus on that goal. One of her primary goals was to make sure that investment in people was at the forefront of decisions, rather than something that was managed separately from a business end. “It’s important to focus on what attracts people in a competitive market,” Hughes says. Working closely alongside management, she and co-leaders in compliance and corporate communications created a new values set for Impax titled CARE: collaboration, accountability, respect, and excellence. The initiative was rolled out in 2015, alongside plans to drive those values throughout the organization. That cross-functional endeavor helped it take a foothold, immersed throughout the company’s culture. “Building relationships across the organization is very significant to successful collaboration,” she says. “Our products change patients’ lives. That’s meaningful, and employees take that to heart.”
“If there are opportunities that we’re looking at and there are due diligence efforts, that’s a development opportunity for my team.”
As part of the executive team, Hughes participates in all business strategies. Her previous experience has been an asset in enabling her to think through strategies from a business perspective while also knowing to promote best HR practices and manage risk. In addition to being able to add value and perspective to the company in this way, she’s focused on making sure that her own team members are seen as strategic partners rather than support. To raise the HR department’s profile, HR business partners are involved in strategic business initiatives. “If there are opportunities that we’re looking at and there are due diligence efforts, that’s a development opportunity for my team,” Hughes says. This has even helped team members move into different or more senior roles where their talents can be better leveraged.
That capability for cross-functionality and collaboration is something that Hughes sees as particularly relevant for the organization currently. Impax recently announced a consolidation program, and Hughes has focused on making sure that the changes at the company can help lead into new growth opportunities for employees by allowing them to lead projects, work under new leaders, or take on an acting head role. Since starting with Impax, she’s focused on looking for ways that her team can be developed and where their talents can add value. She’s also worked on building opportunities for her team to teach and develop one another, in part through a training series called “Education Begins at Home.”
Hughes has also taken over leadership of the internal communications function, and her primary objective is to drive transparency and break down organizational silos. Her future goals, she says, are to continue to build cross-functional dialogues and to help promote networking, something that has been an asset to her throughout her career and that she’s passionate about doing for others. Most importantly, Hughes is looking forward to seeing where Impax goes next. “We manufacture and deliver products that positively impact the lives of patients every day,” she says. “It’s rewarding to be part of an organization where the work you do adds value and makes an impact, and at Impax, HR is a valued part of the team.”