How Donna Hughes Guides Teams along the ‘Curve of Change’

EmblemHealth CHRO Donna Hughes spent years as an attorney and puts her varied background to use as the CHRO at a healthcare legacy

Donna Hughes found her passion for the field of human resources by way of law. In her years as an attorney, Hughes focused on employment and labor issues as in-house counsel at Circuit City Stores before later working on fast-paced mergers and acquisitions in the pharmaceutical industry.

Donna Hughes EmblemHealth
Donna Hughes, EmblemHealthPhoto: Kyle J. Lowinski/AdvantageCare Physicians

She then rerouted her path, taking a job as senior vice president of HR at a pharmaceutical company in 2015 before leaving in 2018 and taking time off from her career to care for her ailing parents. They passed away within five months of one another, an experience that drastically transformed her perspective on how to advocate for people dealing with health problems.

That was her mind-set when the opportunity to become EmblemHealth’s chief human resources officer came along. Nothing else resonated with her like that role did.

“And not just because of what I had just gone through,” she says today. “But also because EmblemHealth has an eighty-year-old legacy, but it has an entrepreneurial spirit.”

Hughes joined the company—one of the largest not-for-profit health plans in the US—in March 2019. During her time, she has worked to break down communication silos, led an initiative to improve the onboarding experience for new employees, and more.

Hughes grew up in New Jersey in a family with strong Caribbean roots. She studied economics at Rutgers University before attending Rutgers School of Law, where she graduated in 1992. She worked at law firms for a few years before becoming an in-house attorney for Circuit City in 2001. She led the labor and employment section of the legal team there for eight years, up to and including the company’s bankruptcy.

“Colleagues experience different feelings along the curve of change. A good leader has to be in tune to that, to help folks along the way.”

“I was part of a leadership team that had to tell thirty thousand people they would be out of a job. It was earth-shattering,” she says. Her time there during the bankruptcy also required Hughes to serve multiple functions at once—an HR partner one day, an executive coach on other days, and an attorney handling employee benefits issues on others, until the company closed in 2009.

After that experience, Hughes left the world of retail. She took a position as an attorney with Watson Pharmaceuticals, which eventually became pharmaceutical giant Allergan. During her time there, the company underwent massive growth, completing acquisition after acquisition.

Much of her time at Watson is still a blur, Hughes says. Days were full of fast-moving deals, post-merger integrations, and time spent developing and leading HR workstreams. All of that upheaval meant she was one of the leaders who had to determine how company culture functioned as it absorbed those other businesses.

“I learned to be a better listener, because when you’re moving that fast it’s easy to just be quick, hit, and move,” she says. “And you can’t do that without knowing when to stop and listen and really hear other voices that are participating in the process.”

In 2015, Hughes received a call from the CEO of pharmaceutical company Impax Laboratories. He asked her to join his executive leadership team—but not as an attorney. Impax sought someone with a nontraditional strategic background to become its senior vice president of HR. Her law background gave her that edge, allowing her to approach problems in a more multidimensional context.

Hughes worked at Impax until late 2018. After the passing of her parents, Hughes made her way back into the full-time job market, but this time as someone who understood the work it takes to be a caregiver and patient advocate.

“As a leader, I’ve always told my teams, family first,” she says. “It will all work out in the end if you do what’s important for your personal values.”

“Colleagues experience different feelings along the curve of change. A good leader has to be in tune to that, to help folks along the way.”

It wasn’t long after joining EmblemHealth in early 2019 that Hughes knew she had made the right career decision. She visited one of AdvantageCare Physicans’primary and specialty care offices and EmblemHealth Neighborhood Care, which offers free health and wellness support in New York City. Hughes spoke with a patient who shared how EmblemHealth services helped that patient to lose weight and eat healthier, in large part by taking into account the socioeconomic barriers that had made those goals difficult in the past. Hughes got to see firsthand the impact her organization has on people’s lives.

“In pharmaceuticals, I felt that because we were helping people to become healthier and get the medications that they so badly needed,” Hughes says. “But this is different. EmblemHealth’s mission is to create healthier futures for our members and the communities it serves. This is personal and hands-on.”

In her short time at EmblemHealth, her team has overhauled what the first one hundred days of work look like for new employees joining the company. She’s also cut communication inefficiencies across the company to support the agility needed in an evolving organization.

It is an exciting time for EmblemHealth as it focuses on innovation, building customized offerings for its members and ensuring members have access to high-quality, affordable healthcare, Hughes explains. And in 2020, Hughes will further focus on strengthening the employee experience.

Her background as an attorney hugely shaped her approach to leadership today. The profession of law is often one of “command and control,” as she describes it. Over time, Hughes came to believe that she can win more hearts and minds as a servant leader, rather than by being overly prescriptive—especially when an organization is navigating significant change.

“Because it’s not easy,” she says, “and colleagues experience different feelings along the curve of change. A good leader has to be in tune to that, to help folks along the way.”