From Grand Rapids to Grand Change
Engineering Welfare Reform in Cuyahoga County
Ralph Johnson was born and raised in Grand Rapids, Michigan, "the best place in
the world to grow up," he says proudly. Johnson developed an interest in
engineering in high school, and after graduation enrolled in what was then
General Motors Institute in Flint. "When I finished GMI with a BSIE, I started
full-time as an engineer at General Motors," says Johnson, "but I soon realized
engineering was not as interesting as management. It was a good path, however,
so I remained an engineer for one year, then became a supervisor for the next four
years. Before long, I realized I'd never done anything else and didn't even have
a résumé. I ended up getting a BS in business administration at Aquinas College
while working full-time."
Johnson¿s sister was at the University of Michigan then, and both he and his
wife Lisa decided this was the right time for him to get his MBA and her to
finish her bachelor's degree. His professional life really started during his
second year of business school, when he
was president of the student government and also parliamentarian of the Black
Business Students Association.
"The guy sitting next to me at a luncheon said,
"I'm Chuck Farr, senior partner at McKinsey and Company." He convinced me to
interview at this prestigious international consulting firm, so I did and got
the job." Johnson stayed at McKinsey from 1992 to 1997.
When new Ohio welfare legislation put a three-year time limit on welfare
benefits for 28,000 people. Cuyahoga County asked if McKinsey could help them.
¿The partner who took the call asked me to help get a study going. We met the next day with county commissioners. At the first
meeting, one commissioner said, "It makes complete sense, but we don't know
anyone, we need a leader." We started doing the work, and after about eight
weeks I asked them to mention I might be interested, and it was done."
Johnson started on January 5, 1998, and for the next six weeks was the entire organization. "When I left that position, there were 750 employees, 11 neighborhood facilities
and 30,000 families moved from welfare to work. No matter how long I live or
what professional success I have, I will always look back at Cuyahoga County as
the pinnacle of my career. We had a huge challenge and met it. People said you
couldn¿t do this in a public structure, but we did. I believe if it's done well,
welfare reform has the potential to be the biggest structural change in the
country," emphasizes Johnson. When Ralph Johnson was getting ready to leave his
position, he walked up to a staff person and client at one neighborhood center
and the staffer gave him a big hug and said, "Ms. Smith has been a client for
eight years, but two years ago she got a job. She's had three different better
jobs since and now is not getting welfare, has health care, doesn¿t get food
stamps and earns enough that she doesn't need our help with daycare." Johnson
adds, "The case worker turned to Ms. Smith and said Mr. Johnson has been the director
of our agency, and this lady stood up and hugged me. It doesn't get any more
rewarding than that."
Johnson came back to the University for the spring 2000 board meeting, which
included a senior partner from McKinsey. "Jeff St. Clair wanted me to come back
as director of professional development and administration in the North American
operational effectiveness practice."
He interviewed for and landed the job.
"There are about 75 consultants dedicated to this practice at McKinsey and about
30 support people," explains Johnson.
"Basically, I'm sort of a COO for human resources, recruiting, finance, practice
management functions, budgets and the like. Professional development is my
thing. We're committed to operational development work. We are helping new
consultants think about their careers and new assignments and how they can
become a partner."
In 2003, Johnson received the Charles H. Ihling Memorial Service Award for extraordinary service to the Alumni Society Board of Governors at the Business School's annual Scholarship Dinner.
For more information, contact:
Phone: 734.936.1015 or 734.647.1847