Federal Coach: Making improvements at the Department of Veterans Affairs

Tom Fox speaks with LaVerne H. Council, the assistant secretary for information and technology and the chief information officer at the Department of Veterans Affairs, about her government experiences and her leadership philosophy.

(Fox's Federal Coach column was originally published on The Washington Post On Leadership site.)

LaVerne H. Council is the assistant secretary for information and technology and the chief information officer at the Department of Veterans Affairs. There she oversees the VA’s $4 billion IT budget and more than 8,000 employees and 8,000 contractors.

Council, who spent years in the private sector, including serving as the first Global CIO at Johnson & Johnson, joined the administration in 2015 to help upgrade the VA’s internal systems and improve services for veterans. She talked about her government experiences and her leadership philosophy with Tom Fox, a guest writer for On Leadership and the vice president for leadership and innovation at the nonprofit, nonpartisan Partnership for Public Service. The conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

What motivated you to come to work for the federal government—and the VA in particular—after many years in the private sector?

I got a call from the White House saying: You've probably read about the VA’s problems in the news, would you be interested in a presidential appointment to address some of these issues?

My husband’s dad and stepdad and my dad were all in the military. In fact, my great nephew is a new Navy recruit. So it’s in my family’s DNA to support and serve this country. My husband and I had a real long conversation about it and we felt that, through me, we could serve and support those who serve.

Based on your experience so far, what are some of the biggest differences between the private sector and the public sector?

The biggest difference is how we hire. In the private sector, it’s about your experience, your resume and your ability to stand up on your feet. People are looking at what you delivered and what change you drove.

Here, it takes a lot longer and the resume carries no weight. There also are hurdles that have been created, especially for the IT role. People who are really driven and want to make a difference can get worn out. It’s a harder sell to get people to change processes and understand best practices in government than in the private sector.

Where have you made some progress in your IT work?

I’m really excited with our enterprise cybersecurity strategy, which was the first of its kind. I had a mandate from the Senate to get it done in 90 days. We actually got it to them early, and we enabled eight new domains for cybersecurity. We are implementing that strategy in real time to eliminate the material weaknesses by the end of 2017 to better safeguard veteran information.

What is your leadership style or philosophy? How you motivate and manage your team?

My leadership philosophy is to be a coach. I admire a number of football coaches because of their ability to get people to perform better than they thought they could, but also to get them to perform as a team, not as individuals. My objective is to help employees understand the vision, to bring the opportunity to life, to let them know that they really can be a part of that opportunity and that they can drive it and own parts of it.

Was there a management mistake that you made during your career that taught you an important lesson?

An executive I worked with told me to never accept meetings that I didn’t have time for. When you do, it comes across to people that you don’t value them—because you are rushing, you are not in the moment and your mind is on the next thing. My biggest leadership mistake was trying to please everyone, and, in doing so, not being at my best. Now I’d rather schedule meetings with employees when I have time and can make sure that the quality is there and that people know I value their time as well as my own.

What would people be surprised to know about you?

I do rap songs. I also think I have much more of a sense of humor than most people think; I'm a little goofier than most people think. People say I’m funny. I don’t think I’m funny, but I think I’m situationally funny. I can put a spin on it.

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