Since his confirmation in August, Secretary Bob McDonald has traveled the country to speak with Veterans and VA employees. He’s hit the ground running, and although his schedule is packed with VA facility visits and employee town halls, the eighth Secretary of the Department of Veterans Affairs took time for a one-on-one Q&A for VA News and VAnguard Magazine.
Reynaldo Leal, VA Public Affairs Specialist: Thank you. I guess we will start off with what does being Secretary of Veterans Affairs mean to you?
Secretary of Veterans Affairs Robert (Bob) McDonald: Well, as I said during my confirmation hearing, to me, being Secretary of Veteran’s Affairs, is the ultimate in the high calling to care for the veterans who have served this country, in a sense, the one percent who have worked and defended the 100 percent. To be in a leadership position to be able to make a difference, to accomplish our mission, to serve them is the ultimate in a high calling. It is, in many ways, the culmination of my life.
After 33 years at Procter and Gamble and nine years in the military, four years of West Point, five years as an officer in the Army, it is the opportunity to take everything I have learned in all the countries of the world I have lived in and apply it here to help the U.S. Government, to help America’s veterans. So, it is a great capstone to whatever career or life I have had to date.
Leal: How does your military experience from West Point, Rangers and Airborne training, how does that inform what you do at VA?
Secretary McDonald: I think the fact that four years of West Point, five years in the military, primarily in the 82nd Division, as an Airborne Ranger and Officer, gives me empathy for the customers, the veterans that we are trying to serve.
While I never did serve in combat, my service did involve going to the Arctic Circle, going to Jungle Warfare School in Panama, jumping all these different places, injuries from those jumps. And so, I hope it gives me empathy for the people that I am trying to serve and, hopefully, some credibility with that population that I have at least been part of the way there during my time.
Leal: You talk about having that empathy. Do you ever think about the soldiers that you served with and sort of now being charged with perhaps even taking care of them?
Secretary McDonald: Well, I think about the soldiers that I have served with every single day. And I thought about that before I was here at the Veterans Affairs Department. I thought about that when I was at Procter and Gamble. When you go through these cathartic experiences together, it changes your life. And one of the things I used to teach the leaders of Procter and Gamble, I would say I can teach you all of the behaviors which, when observed from afar, somebody would label them as leadership. The one behavior, the one need I can’t teach you as a leader, necessarily, is the need to love the people you work with.
One of the things you learn in the military like no other place, because of the in extreme situations you are in, is to love the people you are working with.
I think back to Sergeant Schraeder, who was with me in the Arctic and because of the cold weather, one of our 4.2-inch mortar tubes blew up and a piece of the base cap hit him in the abdomen. We had to medivac him out.
I think about PFC Light, who was my driver and radio/telephone operator in the 82nd Airborne Division and the number of jumps we would go on together. The bonds that you form just last a lifetime.
I think about Sergeant Cuff, who was a squad leader. I think about Sergeant Turner who ran the Fire Direction Center for our 4.2-inch mortar platoon.
I remember the day that I jumped into a drop zone in the 82nd Airborne Division at Fort Bragg and my battalion commander, Dave Harris, came and picked me up on the drop zone in a Jeep. He said, “Throw your parachute in the Jeep. We went to a firing range. We got to the firing range. He fired the platoon leader who was running the 4.2 inch mortar platoon. We had just finished last in the division on our readiness test. And he said, Lieutenant McDonald, a year from now I want this platoon to be one of the best in the division.
These are life-changing experiences. And I am happy to report that a year later we were the second best in the division. Unfortunately, we missed first best by a little bit.
Leal: We call you sir, we call you Secretary McDonald and you like being called by your first name. Why is that important?
Secretary McDonald: Well, I joke with folks that I was named Bob when I was born. I am Bob, now as Secretary. And I will be Bob after I am done being Secretary. But while that sounds more of a joke or a little bit trite, there is a really a serious purpose behind it.
I think one of the things that we have got to do as an organization is we have got to get better communications from the top to the bottom of the organization. We have got to engage everyone in the organization, whether they are union member employees, GS employees, SEC employees, Title 38 employees. Everybody is on the same team. Everybody’s got the same dream. And we have got to work together like a family. We have got to be able to tell each other when things are going wrong and when things are going right. We have to be able to admit ourselves when things are going wrong and not have a fear of reprisal or some other thing.
I want everybody to be a whistleblower. I don’t think you need to fit the legal definition of a whistle blower but I want everybody every day to feel responsibility for improving the way we serve veterans. We should look at everything we do from the lens of the veteran. And if something is not going right, we should change it.
I often tell employees of Veterans Affairs that my organization model is different than others. Typically, an organization model is thought to be hierarchical. It is thought to be a pyramid. And typically, the CEO or the Secretary, in this case, would be on top and the lower ranking employees would be the ones that interface with the veteran. Well, in a service organization like ours where we are serving veterans every single day, that is our only reason for being, we really should invert that pyramid. And the pyramid should be inverted where the broad part is at the top and the apex is at the bottom. And the person at the bottom is me, the Secretary, trying to help those people who are facing the veteran.
So, it is the people facing the veteran every single day providing services to those veterans that are the most critically important people in the organization. And that is why I think being on a first name basis makes us more like family, gives us empathy for that veteran and would allow us to work together with one dream as one team and one family.
Leal: As former CEO of Procter and Gamble, you have extensive experience in the private sector when it comes to workforce management and customer service. How does that translate to veterans?
Secretary McDonald: Well at the Procter and Gamble Company, we are about an 84 billion dollar company. We operate in about 200 countries around the world. And every day, somewhere in the world, about five billion people use at least one Procter and Gamble product. Now, obviously, we would like it to be more. But there is an immense, immense laser-like focus on the customer, every single customer. If you go around the Procter and Gamble headquarters around the world, you will see nothing on the walls but pictures of consumers using our products. We revere those consumers. We focus on what they need and we work hard to meet their needs. Tremendous empathy.
The purpose of the company is to improve the lives of the world’s consumers. And we like to say that the consumer is boss. That is who we serve.
Well, the analogy is very clear here at Veterans Affairs. Our boss is the veteran. Our customer is the veteran. We should look at everything we do through the lens of that veteran and make sure we are doing everything we can to help that veteran and do nothing more. In other words, strip out all the unnecessary work that we are doing that doesn’t focus on helping the veteran.
It is a tremendous calling to be able to make a difference in the life of another person. And to be able to do that with a veteran I think is even a higher calling because of what that have done for all of us.
So that laser-like focus on customer satisfaction on providing the veteran the care they need is really what is critically important, from my experience.
Leal: Media reports have highlighted several instances where VA employees weren’t serving the veteran well in the past. Why do you think that happens and how do we get everyone on the same page when it comes to seeing things through, like you say, “the lens of the veteran?”
Secretary McDonald: I think the reason some employees fail to live up to our high care values is that oftentimes in large organizations the measures within the organization, the inertia within the organization tends to blind people from the ultimate goal of the organization. Here, at Veterans Affairs, our ultimate goal is to serve the veteran. That is the only reason we exist. But there are times where a metric may be set like 14 days and that metric becomes an outcome, rather than a means to an outcome. The outcome has got to be quality care for veterans in a timely way. That has got to be the outcome. Fourteen days was supposed to be a means to that outcomes but it ended up becoming an outcome.
That is not unusual in large organizations. Sometimes large organizations take on a life of their own and they forget about their customer. It happened with the Procter and Gamble Company around 1999. We recommitted ourselves to the consumer is boss. It has happened here. That is why I have asked everyone to recommit themselves to our mission of caring for the veteran and to our values of I CARE. It is time to renew that and we should renew that every year so that this doesn’t happen again.
Leal: Some veterans who might not have had the best experience with VA, may look at I CARE as just an acronym. How do you see VA employees changing those veterans’ minds and delivering the core values of the Department?
Secretary McDonald: Right. The only way to change a veteran’s mind and to regain the trust that we may have lost is really to do it one veteran at a time and one VA employee at a time.
It reminds me of the story of the two men on the beach and beach is loaded with starfish who are stranded, as the tide receded. And this old man is walking around the beach picking up starfish and throwing them back in the water so they could live. And the young man says to the old man, you know, why are you doing this? You can’t possibly make a difference for all these starfish. We have nine million veterans who are part of the Veterans Affairs activity. How do I get to all nine million at one time? And the old man said well, it may not make a difference. I may not be able to throw all of them back in the sea but it does make a difference to this one, as he throws it back in the sea. And that is what we have got to do. We have got to make a difference to every single veteran we interface with, one at a time, not necessarily worrying about the big picture of trust but earning it back one by one by one by one. It is all of our responsibilities and I hope all of the 340,000 employees of Veterans Affairs will work hard to do that for the nine million veterans that we are now serving.
Leal: You brought up the topic of accountability in your speeches to VSOs. What does accountability at VA look like and how does it line up with I CARE?
Secretary McDonald: Accountability is really about responsibility. It is about doing the right thing every single day. I remember my first day at West Point. As a new cadet, even before you become a cadet, you are thought to be the lowest form of life on earth. And as that lowest form of life on earth, to any situation, you are only allowed four answers. Those four answers are: yes, sir; no, sir; sir, I do not understand; and no excuse, sir. No excuse is perhaps the most powerful answer in the world. Implicit in that is no excuse and it won’t happen again, which is a very important part of it, but it shows that you take responsibility. You take responsibility for the action and you will correct it and make sure it doesn’t happen again. Once you do that, the debate is over.
And I think in our particular case, we need to say no excuse more often. We need to take responsibility and we need to fix what went wrong and make sure it doesn’t happen again. That is an important part of a learning organization. Organizations do make mistakes. It is going to happen. Do we have a culture where people can stand up and admit they made a mistake without fear of some kind of retribution and then make sure everybody in the organization learns from that mistake?
Leal: Recently you went to North Carolina to recruit to get the best and the brightest. How important is it, though, to reassure good current employees and also those potential employees that VA is a great place to work at and they should be proud to serve at VA?
Secretary McDonald: Well, the need to regain the trust of employees is as important as regaining the trust of the public. So, one of the reasons I have been going out to Phoenix, Las Vegas, Reno, Memphis, Philadelphia tomorrow, North Carolina, Durham, North Carolina, Charlotte, North Carolina, the reason I have been going out to meet with employees is to listen to their concerns but also to reinforce in their mind that we do serve a high calling, that we know that the majority of employees have not violated our I CARE values or our mission, and to, hopefully, inspire them that I appreciate what they are doing and so do the myriad of veterans who may not be public in the newspaper and the press, but tell them, on a daily basis.
I have met with so many veterans in so many different facilities and I have to tell you the vast majority of them are thrilled with the care they get. They love the caregivers at the VA. And they are thankful for what we do. So, going out and meeting with people, trying to thank them for what they are doing and inspiring them is part of regaining the employee trust.
Look, we are going to win. Everybody wants to be on a winning team. Every employee I have talked to wants to be on a winning team. This is a winning team. We had a little bit of a setback but think of that as an inning or a quarter of the game and we are going to win the game. And my job is to help employees realize that, to give them the leadership, to give them the strategies, to give them the systems and the culture, the high performance organization to do that. And I think we are well on our way.
Leal: I really found it interesting when you talked about I CARE and how you sort of stumbled upon it and how that would have been the first thing you would have come up with but it was already in place. Walk me through that a little bit. Like how important was it to find that there was already that seed there for I CARE?
Secretary McDonald: Well, the fact that I CARE already existed and a sound, strategic plan already existed is what makes me confident that we can get this thing turned around quickly and headed in the right direction.
When I was preparing for my Senate confirmation hearings, I was doing my due diligence on the organization. While we have doctors that diagnose patients, as a leader of larger organizations over many decades, I tend to be a doctor of organizational science, I guess. So, I used the model I use for high performance organization to understand what was going wrong.
So, I studied our leadership. I studied our strategies. I studied our systems. I studied our culture. I studied our purpose, values, and principles. And what I discovered was we had a great mission and it was all around the organization. We had great values and we had a very sound strategic plan. It needs to be renewed but it is a very sound strategic plan.
And what befuddled me was how did we have those things, yet something went wrong?
So, when I saw those and I was testifying in front of the Senate, I actually held up the strategic plan, the I CARE, and so forth and I said this is very sound.
We just need to implement it. The issue was it was developed in the right way. Employees all over the country were involved in developing I CARE and the strategic plan. But once we developed it, we didn’t deploy it.
What do I mean by that? What I mean is cascading levels of the organization do not have strategies or action plans that tie back to that strategic plan. Every employee doesn’t have an action plan in their personnel review that ties back to that strategic action plan.
So, what we are going to be doing is renewing that strategic plan and then going in and making sure we deploy it throughout the organization by level, by layer, until we get to the lowest level employee, the one on top of the pyramid, who has an action plan that ties back to that strategic plan.
It is great to have an inspiring mission but people have to have line of sight from their behavior every single day back to that mission. What happened in our organization is we have a lot of behavior every single day where the employee says I don’t understand why I am doing this because it has nothing to do with serving veterans. We have got to get rid of that stuff and focus only on serving the veterans.