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Ardrell Mannings

Mannings’ Life Comes Full Circle

If not for a chance encounter with Michelle Obama’s brother, Ardrell Mannings might have happily attended the College of the Holy Cross, where he had already been accepted.

But when Craig Robinson spoke with students at Mount Carmel Catholic High School in Chicago, the Princeton University graduate encouraged the high school senior to dream bigger and consider an Ivy League education.

Mannings ’91, now senior manager and human resources business partner for CVS Health, grew up on Chicago’s South Side. His grandparents were laborers for the Campbell Soup Co.; his grandfather, who helped to raise him, was a union foreman. It was their union jobs, Mannings said, that made it possible for him to attend a Catholic school.

While at Mount Carmel, Mannings had another telling encounter. Through LINK Unlimited Scholars, which connects academically talented high school students in need of support with mentors and benefactors, he met billionaire insurance magnate Patrick Ryan. Ryan, too, encouraged him to aim for the Ivy League.

Given his interest in unions and in attending law school, Mannings applied to ILR. When he wasn’t admitted, Ryan sponsored him for a post-graduate year at Choate Rosemary Hall, an exclusive prep school in Connecticut. That, Mannings said, “made all the difference.” He reapplied to ILR and was accepted.

At Cornell, Mannings was a starter on the football team all four years, a period in which the team won two Ivy League Championships. He excelled off the field, too, receiving second team All-Ivy honors as a sophomore and honorable mention All-Ivy honors as a senior. He also was active in the Minority Industrial and Labor Relations Student Organization.

Ardrell Mannings playing football at Cornell
Ardrell Mannings (#92) won a pair of Ivy League championships with the Big Red football team. 

Mannings says collective bargaining and labor union administration courses inspired him. They also gave him a better understanding of his grandparents’ experience.

“The ILR School gave me practical insight into the world of labor.”

Early in his career, he represented a Chicago hospital in negotiations with nurses interested in becoming part of the SEIU, which had the support of civil rights icon Jesse Jackson, U.S Rep. Luis Gutiérrez and Bobby Rush, a Chicago alderman. Lessons learned from collective bargaining, Mannings said, allowed him to not just gain respect, but win the election.

“Because I had grown up in a union home, I felt I was betraying my grandparents,” he said. “But I represented the company.” Later, he represented management in labor negotiations at Universal Health Service’s Friends Hospital in Philadelphia.

Mannings said his ILR internships were “key pivotal experiences.” As a PepsiCo intern, he worked at the then-corporate headquarters in Somers, New York (where he helped develop a training pamphlet for the company’s HR professionals), and at a bottling facility in Wichita, Kansas. The latter experience, he said, “set a good tone for my career from a DEI perspective” and introduced him to talent review and succession planning, “which I’ve done at almost every organization I’ve been a part of.”

Ardrell Mannings
Ardrell Mannings poses with several former classmates in fall 2022.

Much of his career one that started in Chicago and took him to Missouri, Maryland, Virginia, Georgia, Pennsylvania and back to Chicago has been spent in health care. “It’s an area that speaks to my heart,” he said. Today, at CVS Health, he manages leadership development efforts, succession planning and talent review for the company’s Digital Technology Organization.

There, he is driven to “make sure our environment is one in which our leaders and employees can thrive.” To create a colleague-centric environment, he focuses on colleague engagement, culture transformation and DEI work.

“When we get DEI right, when we get culture transformation right, there are so many benefits,” he said. “It leads to better productivity and greater customer loyalty.

“My 32 years’ experience have taught me that if you take care of people, it will take care of your organization. Some people think that’s just a cliche, but it’s really true. I’ve seen that approach keep unions out of an organization. I’ve seen it help leaders soar, and people come out of the closet who are part of the LGBTQIA community. I’ve seen so many examples.”

Bringing his story full circle, Mannings is now a mentor and sponsor for LINK Unlimited Scholars, the organization that introduced him to Ryan, with whom he’s still in contact. “That’s the work I’m most proud of,” he said. “That’s how I made it out [of the South Side]. Now, I’m helping others do the same.”