When it comes to being noted for her achievements, you might think LaVerne Council has been there, done that. Case in point: she’s been identified as one of the top four CIOs in America.1 She’s a Forbes Technology Power Woman.
She’s currently one of the top 75 Black Women in Business.2 And according to the Global CIO Institute, Council is both a Top 10 Leader and Change Agent and a Top 10 Leader and Innovator.
But nothing could have prepared Council, a former Ernst & Young consulting partner, for the distinction she received this past spring. That’s when she went from Ms. LaVerne Council to Doctor LaVerne Council, upon receiving an honorary Doctorate of Business Administration from Drexel University.
“I was absolutely shocked,” says Council. “Things like that just don’t happen every day.” While she is humbled by the award and questions whether she is truly deserving of the honor, it’s obvious Drexel knew exactly what it was doing.
Consider this heritage: Council was asked to join Ernst & Young in 1997 to lead the firm’s supply chain strategy group (part of the firm’s former consulting practice). She fondly recalls working with former fellow partners Gene Tyndall, Chris Gopal and Phil Robers “to really create something different.”
In addition to developing leading-edge IT solutions for clients, she helped pioneer the concept of part-time partners, flexibility and other work/life balance options.
In fact, thinking back on her years at Ernst & Young, Council is most proud of her team’s efforts to create an organization where people could truly reach their professional and personal goals. “We wanted to challenge the notion that you can’t have it all,” she adds.
The Dell years
In 2000, Ernst & Young made a strategic decision to sell its consulting practice to Capgemini. About that same time, Council received an offer from Dell — at the height of the computer company’s growth — to become its global vice president for worldwide operations information technology. As she likes to say, she was “put in charge of the company’s crown jewels.” Translation: she was responsible for taking Dell’s supply chain global.
Council immediately got to work, implementing a sweeping array of supply chain, infrastructure engineering, networking and enterprise-application interface measures. Soon, every Dell factory around the globe was operating within a two-hour supply chain window, dramatically improving Dell’s free cash flow.
Life at fast-paced, supply chain-driven Dell suited Council well, and she thinks of her time there as some of the “most creative and productive” in her career. But in 2006, when pharmaceutical giant Johnson & Johnson, Inc., invited Council to join its management team, she just couldn’t say no.
Today, as the company’s Corporate Vice President and Chief Information Officer, Council is responsible for managing information technology and related systems for Johnson & Johnson’s nearly US$62 billion worldwide enterprise. Her organization includes more than 4,000 information technology employees supporting more than 250 operating companies.
She also serves as a member of Johnson & Johnson’s Corporate Global Operating Committee and as chief strategist for the company’s Innovation in Health Care Information Technology.
Lessons in respect — through the eyes of a child
Coming to Johnson & Johnson — a company with a credo to put the needs and well-being of others first — fits perfectly with Council’s definition of “respect.” And Council has a very unique view of respect: a perspective gained through the eyes of her 12-year-old son, Troy.
Troy was born prematurely. As an infant, he endured 20 surgeries, 15 of them neurosurgeries.
He cannot speak and faces other physical challenges. “Troy struggles but you’d never know it,” says Council with a confident smile.
“He has such joy, such excitement, he’s so in love with life even though he can’t do everything the other kids do. There’s nothing in his mind that says ‘I can’t.’ And he never complains. When you see that, it changes your life.”
Thinking back on her years at EY, she is most proud of her team’s efforts to create an organization where people could truly reach their professional and personal goals.
Troy has taught Council that respect isn’t about any one gender or race, but rather, it’s about helping people. “If you have the opportunity to help someone move from where they are to where they want to be, you do that out of respect,” she says.
Council thinks of the dozens of doctors, nurses and countless others who’ve helped her family over the years. “Most of them were complete strangers, but they wanted to help, they wanted to make a difference. To me, that’s respect.”
The doctor’s advice
When Council received news of her honorary doctorate last May, that wasn’t the only surprise she had coming. Drexel also wanted her to deliver the commencement address to its College of Information, Science and Technology and the Antoinette Westphal College of Media Arts and Design.
“That’s when I really got nervous,” Council laughs. In the end, she agreed to speak with two goals she set for herself: the address would be (1) short and (2) hopefully, memorable.
The theme of Council’s address was “Share Your Humanity Along the Way,” and it clearly echoed her ideas around the value of respect. “I wanted to stress that many of the things we benefit from come from people we’ll never know — perhaps a researcher or an inventor — people who strive to make a difference simply because they know it’s the right thing to do.”
And she reminded the grads that it’s not always about the big foundations or “winning the lottery,” pointing out that “even the smallest things we do can change someone’s day, maybe even their life.” And with that, Council challenged the graduates not to wait, but to “start sharing their humanity…now.”
Council has great memories of her time at Ernst & Young and of her coworkers. She particularly recalls her initial interview with then-firm chairman Phil Laskawy.
“He was so authentic,” she recalls. “When he talked about the organization, he talked as if it were a living, breathing being, and how lucky he was to be part of it.” She remembers going home that night and telling her husband, Bennie, “I like that guy…he was really ‘real.’”
Council still takes great pride whenever she sees the Ernst & Young sign towering above Times Square. “It’s nice when you’ve been someplace where people remember you fondly.”
“We really did talk a lot about respect during my Ernst & Young days,” she reflects. And the difference, according to Council, is in “those friendships and relationships that continue even today.”
More about Dr. LaVerne Council
- Vice chair and board member, National March of Dimes
- Chair emeritus, board of the Liberty Science Center
- Business Hall of Fame inductee, Illinois State University
- Member and former board member, Executive Leadership Council
- Member, Microsoft CIO Advisory Committee
- New Jersey Technology Council
- CIO Hall of Fame inductee
1 Business Trends Quarterly, 2010
2 Black Enterprise, 2010