If iron sharpens iron, then the iron will and work ethic Sherill Kirksey demonstrates were molded by her parents.
When she was growing up in Cambridge, Maryland, Kirksey’s mother and father held jobs at a book printing factory, where they took on extra shifts. They outperformed their colleagues, earning many promotions. But when it came to their daughter’s future, they encouraged her to forge a new path.
“I always remember my mother and father telling my brother and I that we were going to college,” Kirksey says, noting that her brother is a little older than her and would head to college first. “That we weren’t going to stay in this town, and we weren’t going to work in a factory.”
Make no mistake: Sherill Kirksey did follow in the footsteps of her parents. She pays homage to them by letting her actions speak louder than her words, just as they did. It’s also why she thrived on her journey to becoming a human resources and benefits leader.
How did Kirksey enter the world of benefits? Following her graduation from the University of Maryland at College Park, she started her career as an employment interviewer with the Maryland Department of Labor Licensing and Regulation. Because the government agency hired her as a contractor, however, she did not enjoy the same perks as full-time employees.
“I didn’t have any benefits,” Kirksey says. “I didn’t earn any leave. I didn’t have any health insurance, so I needed a job that would afford me those benefits.”
Paying for these expenses herself made Kirksey realize that benefits were more than just perks: Employees relied on them to survive. That’s when she joined the Catholic University of America as its benefits specialist, where she worked for seven years. She then built upon her expertise in advisor and supervisor roles at Children’s National Arlington County and the D.C. Department of Human Resources.
Two decades later, Sherill Kirksey geared up to take the next step in her career, pursuing benefits management opportunities. However, despite her experience in government departments and nonprofit organizations, she didn’t get so much as an interview.
Searching for other HR openings, she met with a VP at Howard University about an opening in retirement. What happened next seemed too good to be true.
“She said, ‘Why haven’t you ever been a director of benefits?’” Kirksey says. “I said, ‘Well, people look at me. They think that I’m a lot younger than what I am, and no one is willing to give me the opportunity to showcase my skill set and the knowledge that I’ve acquired over my career—because I most definitely can be a benefits director.’”
Sure enough, Kirksey secured her first leadership role when Howard University named her its director of benefits. She managed the overall design, implementation, communication, and administration of health and welfare programs for the iconic historically Black university. In addition, she streamlined the benefits it offers to employees. By ensuring that eligibility rules for benefits plans supported previous packages and implementing a conversion process for life insurance plans, Kirksey led Howard through a series of changes.
Since her team relied on outdated tools, Kirksey knew they were not operating at their best. While performing simple HR tasks—such as dependent verifications—they experienced complications. So when Howard decided to implement Workday she led Howard’s benefits work let implementation of Workday in just eighteen months, modernizing the university’s benefits digital infrastructure.
“Just ensuring that the best practices, the benefits plans, the actual language that’s in the system that links the data—we built all of it. I’m very proud of the work that we did with that actual module,” Kirksey says.
Beyond her successful Workday implementation, Kirksey also rolled out wellness initiatives for Howard’s faculty and staff. In collaboration with Cigna, she analyzed data from their health plans to build a wellness program. Not long after it was introduced, participation in other Howard lifestyle management programs skyrocketed by 47 percent.
Everything was running as planned for Kirksey. But once COVID-19 hit, the program she’d produced lost traction with its participants. Nevertheless, Kirksey and her team kept their calm and pivoted.
“We had to go back and restructure and rebrand the wellness program again,” Kirksey says. “We identified new Wellness Champions, incentives for them to help us boost awareness and participation, new vendors for specific outreach, and challenges based on our new data.”
Thanks to her rebranding efforts, the program is back.
“The last event that we put on—a virtual event—we had well over a hundred people attend the Building Resilience seminar through the new wellness program that we had put in place,” Kirksey says.
Sherill Kirksey recently moved on once again, and welcomes a new challenge ahead as the director of benefits and wellness at the New-York-based company National Debt Relief. “Eventually, I would like to become an executive,” she says. “It’s my ultimate goal. I just pray that the right path opens for me, and I am introduced to the right people to help that dream to come true for me in my next phase of my career.”