Women Of The C-Suite: “Find sponsors, not just mentors, and then become both for others” with LaVerne H. Council and Fotis Georgiadis

Find sponsors, not just mentors, and then become both for others. There is a difference between the two, and you need both. Mentors provide a sounding board based on similar or relatable experiences, and sponsors provide opportunity for you to grow and take an active role in pushing your career forward. I have had many male sponsors over the years — starting with my husband. It is possible to have women sponsors, but in my experience men still had most of the senior roles and access, and you need the opportunity for them to know you well enough and see what you are capable of, to put you forward. My first boss believed in me, and really saw me, which helped me see myself. In creating an opening for me and trusting that I could do it, he propelled my career and inspired me to do the same for others.

As a part of my series about strong female leaders, I had the pleasure of interviewing LaVerne H. Council. Laverne is the national managing principal for Enterprise Technology Strategy and Innovation at Grant Thornton LLP, where she leads the practice responsible for helping CIOs solve their most challenging issues through the firm’s innovative enterprise technology offerings. She has more than 30 years of experience in both the public and private sector, implementing global technology solutions and supply chain strategies that drive growth and innovation in industries, including healthcare, consumer products and telecommunications. Council previously served as Assistant Secretary for the Office of Information and Technology and chief information officer (CIO) at the Department of Veterans Affairs; Corporate Vice President and first global CIO for Johnson & Johnson; Global Vice President for information technology, global business solutions, and development services at Dell Inc; and, as the global partner for supply chain at Ernst & Young LLP. Council was twice named one of the Top 50 Women in Information Technology by FedScoop, which also gave her the Golden Gov: Federal Executive of the Year Award. She is listed among Healthcare Data Management’s Most Powerful Women in Healthcare Information Technology. Business Trends Quarterly named her one of the top four CIOs in America. The New Jersey Technology Council inducted her into its CIO Hall of Fame, and the Global CIO Executive Summit awarded her the Top 10 Leaders & Change Agents Award and the Top 10 Leaders & Innovators Award.

Thank you so much for doing this with us, LaVerne! Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?

I always enjoyed solving difficult problems and dealing with complexity to figure out how to make things better. The way big ideas come to life is through the creation of the vision and strategy and the ability to execute against it. I have seen it throughout my career. From the beginning of my career as a programmer analyst, through my time as a consultant, and during my corporate executive roles at Dell and Johnson & Johnson, as well as my tenure as a member of President Obama’s cabinet, I have enjoyed working with teams to create strategic visions and execute against them to improve the way things are done. I leveraged my intellectual curiosity and willingness to take on difficult and complex issues, and paired it with the enjoyment I get when a team comes together to enable an organization to thrive and grow. In turn, this has created new capabilities to drive my career path over the years.

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company?

One of the most interesting things I found in creating the Enterprise Technology Strategy and Innovation practice at Grant Thornton is that what is required to really enable technology can be boiled down to a number of tradeoffs that have to be made. Organizations have similar problems, with varying levels of complexity based on size. In talking with CIOs, we are finding that the number one problem they are facing is the need for a vision and strategy. They also need their strategies to be much more deployable and aspirational. Now more than ever, people have technology at their fingertips and it is driving the need for shared environments in which business and IT can live harmoniously, in a way that does not compromise the safety and security of the organization or the stability of their operations. There is a growing need for advanced digital technology and analytics — not just AI or migration to the cloud, but understanding the operational strengths and tradeoffs you make to arrive at the best decision for your organization. Many organizations are returning to dev ops and development capabilities needed to drive the next level of technology enablement, and moving away from IT as a back office function. Ultimately, every organization has a need for better communications. This is not just about change management, but providing a roadmap of understanding of where the organization is headed so that people understand their role and are able to make aligned decisions in real time. It is not just a story; it is a key component to every organization’s success when facing digital disruption.

Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?

It is funny now, but it was not funny at the time. It was embarrassing and scary, but I learned a lot. When I started out working as a programmer analyst, I had made changes to some code, tested it, and the code went into production. I got a call at 2:30 in the morning that the code was not working properly and I needed to come in. I immediately got up, got dressed, and got to work to find my supervisor and everyone else there because we need to get a critical part of the business back up and running. I was panicking because I thought I did everything I was supposed to do, but I realized I must have missed something. I was devastated, but I immediately fixed it, tested it, and got it back in to fix the problem. While I was licking my wounds, one of the supervisors came over and said “kid, it happens to everyone. The key is, what did you learn?” I told him, “You know, I learned that even though I thought I had it all covered, it is beneficial to have others on the team look at your work and ask them to make sure you have not missed anything.” I had done a peer review on the initial code, but I did not want to bother someone to look at the last step — though in hindsight, I definitely should have. It was not the end of the world, nor the end of my career, but I learned a valuable lesson. There is a benefit to including other’s viewpoints and insights, and I have always felt that you get better outcomes and solutions through collaboration.

What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?

I can talk about Grant Thornton and our culture, and I do think that helps us stand out, but I also think the Enterprise Technology Strategy and Innovation practice stands out because of the diversity of our people. Not only do we have a high representation of women and minorities, but also we have a diversity of thought that comes together to create a truly innovative way of addressing problems and needs of technology executives. It is one of the few times in my career that I have been able to mount a leadership team of some of the most amazing and capable women who present the full suite of technology capabilities to deliver true change. I am proud to stand with these leaders, and with the great men on this team, to challenge the status quo and present a new idea about what a great consulting team looks like.

Are you working on any exciting new projects now? How do you think that will help people?

We recently released a first of its kind CIO survey within the firm, driven by the need to understand what is driving the CIO, and not just what is driving technology. We wanted to understand the areas in which technology leaders are struggling, their areas of focus over the next several years, and how they see their role evolving. One of the most interesting findings was that CIOs want to be measured by successful execution against strategy and plans and improved ability to innovate, but feel that the business measures them on the ability to deliver more projects and services at a lower cost. Once this disconnect is recognized, CIOs are able to take control of the narrative and develop strategies to take their IT organization from a cost center to a trust center by focusing on those areas that will provide the most value to their organization. In shifting their perception to one of a true business partner, CIOs gain a seat at the table to drive innovation and growth through technology.

What advice would you give to other female leaders to help their team to thrive?

Whether you are male or female, the needs of the team are the same. I believe great teams have four core characteristics, and I have always focused on these to help my teams become the best they can be: transparency, teamwork, accountability and innovation. As a leader, you must communicate the direction you envision for the team, what it means for them, and how they contribute to the team’s success in an individual capacity. This transparency provides people with the insights they need to excel in their role, so they are not guessing at what success looks like. Teamwork means that leaders demonstrate that they are part of the team and value the ability to work as part of the team. Individual success is wonderful, but it is even greater to see a team grow and all members benefit from learning and working in the environment the team has created. Accountability means doing what needs to be done because you see the need, not simply because it is your job. When leaders create an environment of accountability to the team and the organization, the team begins to thrive and people are more willing to help each other and engage beyond what is immediately beneficial to them. Innovation is often overused, but creating innovation in a team means that as a leader you foster an environment of critical thinking and thinking differently about problems. You have an end goal in mind, but you are open to different ways of achieving it, and you nurture and support your team to learn throughout the process — whether or not they ultimately achieve the goal. Often, you learn more when things do not work out the first time. Thomas Edison famously said when he was creating the light bulb, “I have not failed. I have just found 10,000 ways that do not work.” As a leader, you can instill that innovative spirit that drives your team to consistently aim for improvement and higher goals.

What advice would you give to other female leaders about the best way to manage a large team?

I believe that as a leader, you lead the team; you do not manage the team. It is important that you empower the people around you to manage the team, and create a series of leaders within your organization that drive efficiency and effectiveness in your organization. I think the core characteristics of great leadership include empathy, the ability to drive toward a strong vision, focus, integrity, and accountability. If you can demonstrate these characteristics, you have the best chance of managing a team — large or small — because you show people what is valued and they will emulate these characteristics.

None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?

It is very important that people understand that we all need each other. We need people to believe in us and support our dreams. We need people to motivate us through difficult times when we are tired or disillusioned. I have been very blessed to have a wonderful sponsor in my husband. People do not always mention their spouses, significant others or family members, but those people have to be your number one supporters to allow you to muster the energy you need to be an effective leader as you navigate the road to success and career growth. It is very lonely and difficult if you try to do it on your own. I have been fortunate to always have strong family support, and also to start my career with a boss who championed me. He was my first real sponsor, and the first person outside my family and friends who really saw me. He told me I was bigger and better than what I was doing at my first job, and he saw potential in me and gave me an opportunity. That was a propelling force for me and gave me a sense that I could do better. He created an opportunity, pushed me into a new sphere of capabilities and leadership at a young age, and taught me that I am only limited by the limits I place on myself. The rest of my career has been shaped by what I learned from taking the opportunity he gave me. I learned to understand people better as I became a manager — to look at them and see them the way he saw me.

How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?

I try to bring a little goodness to the world every day by giving back and caring about other people. I leverage what I have learned in working for many wonderful organizations guide me to drive change in the world. One of the organizations I am proud to support is March of Dimes, a nonprofit organization that leads the fight for the health of mothers and babies. I was on the board for 10 years, and served as chair for another four years. I brought what I learned in corporate America to drive real change and created a set of transdisciplinary centers around the country to help solve the issue of prematurity and help the organization thrive as a non-profit. It is difficult when there are so many wonderful organizations that serve so many great needs, and so few dollars to go around. One of the best things I can do is support organizations I believe in to enable great thinking and research, and provide grants that allow people to come up with new and innovative ways to save lives.

What are your “5 Leadership Lessons I Learned From My Experience” and why. (Please share a story or example for each.)

1. Prepare for the future by staying open to new leadership opportunities. The best role I ever had was the one I never wanted. I was asked to take over a group of teams that were struggling. The teams were not in my area of focus but the work they performed was critical to the organization’s operations. It required me to leverage all the key leadership qualities that I mentioned earlier to turn them into a strong team, and I learned what I needed to do to be credible in the trenches. I still leverage what I learned in that role every day.

2. Find sponsors, not just mentors, and then become both for others. There is a difference between the two, and you need both. Mentors provide a sounding board based on similar or relatable experiences, and sponsors provide opportunity for you to grow and take an active role in pushing your career forward. I have had many male sponsors over the years — starting with my husband. It is possible to have women sponsors, but in my experience men still had most of the senior roles and access, and you need the opportunity for them to know you well enough and see what you are capable of, to put you forward. My first boss believed in me, and really saw me, which helped me see myself. In creating an opening for me and trusting that I could do it, he propelled my career and inspired me to do the same for others.

3. What got you here will not get you there. Subject matter expertise and knowledge is foundational, but leadership skills are aspirational. It is not enough to have an opinion; you need the ability to change the moment. Acting with empathy, vision, focus, integrity and accountability will set you apart. I had the technical skills and expertise to serve as CIO for US Department of Veterans Affairs , but if I continued to operate as if I was still part of corporate America I would not have been able to build a strong, mission-focused team who achieved in 18 months what it takes most organizations 3 years to achieve.

4. Believe in yourself and create the change you want to see. No one is going to believe in you more than you are. It is critical to focus on what you do better than anyone else, execute with excellence and strive for continuous improvement. Early in my career, I became the first African American female partner at Ernst and Young outside of the Tax and Audit practice. I got there because I believed in myself, found my niche, and stayed the course to create the change I wanted to see.

5. Lead with heart, listen to your gut, and decide with your head. Change is hard. This was most clear to me when I centralized the CIO function at Johnson & Johnson to reduce complexity in the organization. People did not want to change, but I learned that if you show them the light at the end of the tunnel, they will ultimately let you lead them if you do it authentically. My team knew I cared, they trusted my instincts and they knew they could have open, rational discussions with me and they would be heard. This led to world-class performance and successful change.

You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂

All children ages 2–5 would qualify for early education programs that instill a love for life-long learning, a foundation for creative thinking, and a respect for difference. In order for children to qualify, their parents would need to attend courses that focus on parenting skills needed to raise positive, engaged and innovative people.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

“Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.”

I try to treat people how I would like to be treated, not how I have been treated. I have not always been treated with respect, or embraced by cultures that saw me as different. This could have made me bitter, resentful and isolated, but that would have stalled my spiritual and emotional growth and could easily have made me believe that I could not be successful without being a certain “type.” Instead, I knew the only thing I truly controlled was myself and my reactions, and I determined that I would not allow outside forces the opportunity to destroy my potential to live a full and joyful life. I prioritized the creation of a supportive and meritorious environment that I always wanted when I reached leadership roles, and strive to give what I seldom received.

Some of the biggest names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this if we tag them 🙂

Marian Wright Edelman, President of the Children’s Defense Fund. She has always held steadfast to those things that mattered to those that did not have a vote.

Thank you for all of these great insights!

Women Of The C-Suite: “Find sponsors, not just mentors, and then become both for others” with… was originally published in Authority Magazine on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.

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