Elaine Ubakanma – H. J. Russell & Company
When Elaine Ubakanma immigrated from Jamaica to the U.S., she was a little over 16, and her father abandoned her less than three months after she arrived. Years later, in 1989, she got a job with H. J. Russell & Company as a secretary.
“I wanted to receive higher education, of course, but the cost was simply out of the question for my family,” Ubakanma recalls. “I was lucky that H. J. Russell has a long history of giving its people the skills to improve their lives and to make a difference not only at work, but also to impact the world.”
Based in Georgia, the minority-owned business provides construction services, property management and real estate development. Participating in the company’s tuition reimbursement program, Ubakanma became the first in her family to attend a university, graduating summa cum laude in 2008 from Walden University with a bachelor of human resources.
Now, she’s the vice president of human resources and payroll, and she’s helping others achieve similar outcomes in their careers and lives.
“For over 30 years, I’ve learned the ins-and-outs of the firm,” Ubakanma says. “I’m uniquely positioned to help it grow while developing and implementing initiatives that help employees navigate their careers and even life goals.”
First steps to success
A particular case stands out to her. Ubakanma was in the process of studying quarterly and annual employee reviews to ensure that each employee was being compensated—salary and benefits—based on fair market value. She noticed one employee hadn’t received one of his paychecks. When she looked closer, she noticed for that paycheck, the employee’s entire salary had gone toward benefits.
When she spoke to him about the issue, she made another discovery. The employee in maintenance said he eventually wanted to be a supervisor but didn’t know how to achieve that. In addition, he didn’t see the point in pursuing his career goals. Because his superior wasn’t leaving, he believed that he’d have the skills to be in a higher position without a chance of a promotion.
Determined to change things, Ubakanma sat down with managers and executives in early 2020. With their input, she helped develop career paths so employees could envision their future at the firm.
Ubakanma also helped implement H. J. Russell’s performance management system. Employees can now set goals around the company’s Four Pillars: Profitability, Focus on Expansion, Customer Satisfaction, and Employee Engagement—and they can do it digitally.
She adds that this process now allows employees to have a more active say and role in developing their careers. That includes the firm providing resources such as certifications, training and volunteering.
“Prior to this shift, employees said they didn’t feel they had a hand in designing their future,” she says. “Today, the process begins and ends with the employee.”
Recruiting technology and talent
And with better technology. As Ubakanma recalls, the old human resources information was system clunky, as a lot of the information wasn’t cloud-based or connected. So, she upgraded to a new system, starting the process of moving to a cloud-based software system in 2017. She overhauled the system in seven months instead of the estimated two years.
Now, managers and employees have full access to information like their benefits and pay; and they can access it from anywhere. Annual increases and bonuses are done electronically through the system’s compensation module, too. “When I started at H. J. Russell, everything was paper processes,” Ubakanma says. “I’ve worked hard to move everything online.”
The new cloud-based system has made recruiting easier, too. Through it, a hiring manager can review resumes and schedule interviews. Once candidates accept a job offer, they can easily file paperwork online. The system will autofill information, like their address, so they don’t have to retype it.
The hope, she says, is as the company evolves, hiring managers will consider candidates who are often overlooked or have a different academic path, like she did, and help them succeed.
“H. J. Russell is an amazing place to work,” Ubakanma says. “I’m constantly working hard to ensure people have a wonderful experience with us from the moment they’re recruited to the moment they retire.”
Paying it forward
Part of that experience is about creating a company culture. So, in 2020, H. J. Russell partnered with CultureWise, a Philadelphia-based firm that helps companies define behaviors, known as fundamentals, as well as deploy training and other teaching content through a mobile app, weekly insights, eMinders, a coaching guide and videos.
To formulate H. J. Russell’s 25 fundamentals, which include “doing the right thing” “being a lifelong learner” and “keeping things fun,” Ubakanma worked with the chief operating officer and leadership team. The feedback, she says, has been so positive that managers and employees now constantly say they don’t want to leave H. J. Russell.
“I wanted everyone to have as supportive and positive an experience as I had,” she adds.
Outside of H. J. Russell, Ubakanma volunteers with the Atlanta chapter of Worldwide Employee Benefits Network, which helps further the development and education of benefits professionals. Joining the organization a year after her college graduation in 2008, she started as the social chair on the steering committee. She later served as the chapter Treasurer and currently is the National Treasurer. She’s also a member of the Society for Human Resource Management and the National Association of African Americans in Human Resources.
“I’m very passionate about my work and serving others,” Ubakanma says. “I strive to withhold no good things from those who I can help. My journey at H. J. Russell is a result of being faithful to the responsibilities entrusted to me. I can’t wait to see what I and H. J. Russell do next.”
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