5 minutes with...Jen Menke, VP of HR, Scholarship America

We talk with Jen about working in the nonprofit world, and find out a genius interview question you'll want to steal, too

5 minutes with...Jen Menke, VP of HR, Scholarship America

Jen Menke
Having worked with companies as diverse as Target, Ceridian, and GE Commercial Finance, Jen Menke has now moved to the nonprofit world with Scholarship America in Minneapolis, which helps students get into college.

How did you know you’d be good at HR?
I actually really fell into the HR world. My original career aspiration was to be a sports psychologist. I grew up around sports and I loved the idea of how the mental aspect of a game could really hold you back from being the best you could be. As I started to get closer to graduation, I started to get a little nervous about the career opportunities for a sports psychologist. I had a professor in college that said ‘You should consider HR - I think you’d love the business side of it” – so that’s what I did. It has always been working with people, and loving to see people flourish in their environment, and doing  things that they didn’t believe they were capable of doing.

You got a Master’s of Science in Human Resource Management from Purdue. What did that add to your career?
I did that actually straight after my undergrad. I think what it really did for me was twofold. One, it really confirmed that HR was something I could do and enjoy, and that it would provide me with great career opportunities. And two, it accelerated me down that learning curve. I had great classmates that had just come out of the work world and brought a lot of perspective around real world application of concepts.

Can you offer any career advice for those in the early stages of their HR careers?
The biggest thing I see with professionals who are early in an HR career is one of two things. One, they want the world to be black and white. They have to find a way to be comfortable in that gray area, how to find the balance between legal requirements, business requirements and people. The other one is confidence. A lot of times you see someone very young in their career asked to coach and lead an manager who is far senior to them from an experience perspective, so I see a lot of young professionals struggle with trusting their gut, pushing back and bringing solutions focused on root cause issues. So building that confidence early on and thinking about things from both a business perspective and a people perspective is important.

You’ve gone from public companies to private ones, and now you’re at a nonprofit. What’s the difference like?
It’s been very interesting to me. I’ve had the opportunity to work for some amazing organizations and it isn’t really, from my perspective, all that different from one to the next. The challenges around creating a culture where people can thrive and be successful and bring their whole heart and soul to their work are relatively similar. The benefit that the nonprofit world can bring is when you have somebody who is working and aligned to their passion for the mission they’re fighting for every day, it allows them to shine exponentially. The mission of a nonprofit is a true differentiator for me.

What makes you a good boss?
I’m a true believer in ‘work hard, play hard’. I like to make work fun. I’m very interested in people’s development, where they want to go from a career perspective and giving them opportunities to spread their wings and try new things; and if something doesn’t go exactly right, how can we learn from that and move forward?  I love to be part of that process with people.

Tell me about a daily habit of yours.
I really try to think every day about how our work aligns to our mission – we call them ‘mission moments’. How do you find those things that really underline that what you’re doing is paying off.  I try to focus on ways to stay connected to those things, and keep our whole employee population connected to those things so they don’t lose sight of what they’re working toward?

What’s your best interview question?
My favorite interview question I think is incredibly telling. I ask them to tell me about something in their professional career that they would do differently if they could do it again. You get a lot of insight about whether a person’s self-aware, and whether they’re introspective and a continuous learner. The ones that always stick with me are the ones where they have something that makes you go, ‘wow, that was really bad’, or when they say ‘nothing’, which is very telling.

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