A Conversation with an HR Leader

By Ai-Mei Zhu

Madelene is currently the Head of HR at AIP Publishing (not for profit), a trusted source of research journals, conference proceedings, and essential information for physical scientists everywhere.

She is a strategic HR Leader with 19 years of overall HR experience with 15+ years of experience in serving as a strategic thought partner to the executive leadership team. Her expertise is being able to create vision and strategy, build consensus, and align personnel around core revenue and profit growth initiatives.


Why and how did you start in HR? What made you continue pursuing HR?

I was a political science major in college and was planning on attending law school. However, while I was preparing to take the LSAT, I needed a job. A friend sent me an email letting me know a social service agency was looking for an HR Specialist.  I was skeptical at first because I did not have experience in HR, but my friend persuaded me to apply because I had substantial retail and customer service experience.  Shortly after applying for the position I was contacted for an interview, got the position, and loved it so much that I never went to law school.  One of the things that I really loved about the role was my ability to recruit talent and assist employees with any questions, issues, and challenges that they faced.  Over the years, as I took on roles with increasing levels of responsibility, the one thing that I looked for was to ensure that HR was making a difference with employees as well as at the organizational level. On an organizational level you can add value to the business by ensuring that the business is achieving objectives by putting programs and initiatives in place to engage and develop talent.


As you may know, many HR functions differ in the way they are set up, would you be able to provide some insight as to how yours is?

At AIP Publishing, I am responsible for creating and executing the strategic direction of the HR function. This encompasses company culture, employee engagement, compensation, and talent acquisition and management, including leadership development, training and career development, performance management and employee relations.  AIP Publishing is a subsidiary of the American Institute of Physics and they play an integral role in ensuring that we provide exceptional and cost-effective benefits for our staff.


As part of a not-for-profit, what’s your most successful program and why? Give me your best example of the way you’ve seen your organization’s work make a difference. What are areas of opportunity for your organization?

The mission of our organization is to ensure that all findings with the potential to advance the physical sciences are presented, promoted, and permanently available as the building blocks of future discoveries. Our organization has recently published research articles related to the coronavirus and made sure these are freely available for everyone to read.  A few of the publications are: “Tracking the flight trajectory of evaporating cough droplets,” “Valves on N95 Masks do not filter exhaled droplets,” and “Plasma Treatments that quickly, kill coronavirus on surfaces.”  I am proud to work for an organization that is advancing the discoverability of research, particularly during a pandemic.


What is the difference between working in a for profit environment vs. non-profit?

In my experience, when you work for a for profit organization, you are first and foremost working towards increasing the profitability of the organization and return on investment for the shareholders. People are often a secondary consideration. However, when you work for a non-profit, you are working towards a mission that has a direct impact on humanity. The opportunity to work for an organization that is accelerating scientific discovery is extraordinary, and I am a part of that.  That in itself is exciting and life changing!


Are compensation and benefits different?

Typically, non-profits have very rich and exceptional benefits; e.g. we have a great group benefits plans (medical, dental, vision, etc.).  Non-profits also tend to have very generous time off programs, anywhere from 4-6 weeks of vacation/PTO and 10 days for sick time.  On the compensation side, non-profits do not lead the market, and we don’t usually offer bonuses. Employees generally find this to be acceptable, as the trade-off is exceptional benefits and working towards a shared mission.


How big of a part does mission play in attracting talent?

Mission plays an integral part in the hiring process for all the reasons that I have mentioned. Additionally, the feedback that we have received from applicants as well as members of staff who have worked at for-profit organizations is that working for a small organization like ours gives you an opportunity to work directly with senior managers and executive leadership to implement exciting initiatives and see the fruits of your labor!


What prompted you to work across so many different industries in your career?

I have been very fortunate in that an opportunity would present itself and I would take on the challenge.  It has been very beneficial to work in multiple industries as HR is a skill set that is not industry specific.   Recruiting, developing, and retaining talent is critical to the success of any organization. Effective recruitment strategies include offering a stellar candidate experience and distinguishing your employer brand from other organizations – essentially showcasing what makes you a great place to work. Offering programs to build employees’ competencies and skill sets, mentoring programs, and providing opportunities to work on stretch projects are all good ways to engage and retain your staff.


Did you find it challenging to move from one industry to another?

It has been very beneficial to work in multiple industries as HR is a skill set that is not industry specific. Early in my career, I worked at organizations where I provided consultative HR services to small businesses and helped them to develop HR strategy for their organizations. This skill has been useful in every industry that I have worked in because I have been able to provide HR guidance at all levels of the organization. In my current role this has helped me to set the priorities of the HR function.


What advice would you give to the people reading the newsletter who aspire to be an HR leader like you? 

An organization’s greatest asset is their people. People are at the heart of an organization’s DNA and it is essential that you put them first. For an individual who is aspiring to be in HR, the first question that they must answer is why HR and why people? The second is from an organizational perspective, what values are important to them, and how can these values be reflected in the organization’s culture? Lastly, a critical component to success in the HR functions is to get to know your people – their accomplishments, success stories, challenges, pain points and individual needs.  By having this context, you are able to be much more proactive and anticipate the needs of your employees.


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