Last fall, at a leadership event at Abilene Christian University, former Procter & Gamble CEO Bob McDonald talked about how a West Point cadet prayer has influenced most of his business career.
“It goes: ‘Help me to choose the harder right than the easier wrong,’ ” he said in an interview with college officials. “I always thought that was a powerful idea, the idea that if you’re doing something, and it feels too easy to do, it might be the wrong thing.
“In business, maybe you’re not making the volume estimate, or the revenue estimate, so you ship in a little extra at the end of the month. That’s the easier wrong. The right thing is to resist that kind of thing, and get the fundamentals right.”
Eight months later, as the nominee to become the next Veterans Affairs secretary, McDonald’s first order of business after confirmation will be to fix a host of departmental problems caused mainly by middle managers making those easier wrong decisions rather than the hard right ones.
The 61-year-old veteran, with five years of Army service and 33 years of corporate experience, was introduced June 30 by President Obama as one of “our nation’s most accomplished business leaders and managers” and “an expert at making organizations better.”
Obama also acknowledged that if confirmed, McDonald’s path ahead would not be easy.
“He understands that grand plans are not enough,” Obama said. “What matters is the operations that you put in place and getting the job done.”
In his introduction at VA headquarters the same day, McDonald said his priority in leading the department will be to create “a VA that is more effective, more efficient, and that truly puts our veterans first.”
“At the VA, the veteran is our customer, and we must all focus — all day, every day — on getting them the benefits and the care that they’ve so earned,” he told a crowd of VA employees and veterans advocates. “That’s the only reason we’re here.”
More than 340,000 employees
McDonald’s nomination came exactly a month after former VA Secretary Eric Shinseki was forced to resign in the wake of allegations of systemic medical appointment problems at VA hospitals.
The VA inspector general is still investigating those reports and how many hospital officials may have covered up access problems to protect performance bonuses.
In his final public remarks before resigning, Shinseki took responsibility for the widespread care delays but also expressed his own dismay and shock that numerous high-level VA employees would put their own interests before that of veterans.
As CEO for Procter & Gamble for four years, McDonald oversaw more than 120,000 employees around the globe. At VA, he’ll face a bureaucracy of more than 340,000 employees that oversees health care, education benefits, home loans and burial services for a population of roughly 22 million veterans.
McDonald is the son of an Army Air Corps veteran and is a 1975 graduate of West Point, where he was a classmate of acting VA Secretary Sloan Gibson. He has remained active in the West Point Alumni Association, establishing a biennial cadet leadership conference. He’s also a life member of the U.S. Army Ranger Association and the 75th Ranger Regiment Association.
While health care issues sit at the heart of the recent VA scandals, McDonald has little background in that area. Instead, White House officials have trumpeted his management skills at nearly every level of leadership at Procter & Gamble and his ability to innovate even at a corporate giant.
But McDonald did call the VA health care issues “very personal,” noting that his wife’s uncle was exposed to Agent Orange in Vietnam and still receives treatment from department physicians.
McDonald wasn’t among the small group of names initially circulating on Capitol Hill and in the veterans community as a replacement for Shinseki. So far, most reaction to his selection has been polite, focused more on what he needs to fix than on whether he’s qualified for the work.
AMVETS National Executive Director Stewart Hickey offered some of the strongest praise, calling McDonald’s résumé “promising” and noting that “his business experience suggests McDonald will step into the federal government crucible fully aware and less tainted by its bureaucracies and influences.”
Paul Rieckhoff, founder and CEO of Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America, said his group is looking forward to working with McDonald, but he also expressed concerns that the nominee doesn’t have many ties to younger veterans.
“There needs to be a youth surge at VA,” Rieckhoff said. “We hope that one of the first things he does is to reach out to our community, to help move ahead on fixing the department.”
The Senate has only 28 legislative days left before its August break, which is expected to drag on until after the November midterm elections. That means if lawmakers can’t finalize McDonald’s confirmation in the next few weeks, he might be left waiting until December to assume the new role.
But Senate officials said they are hopeful the process won’t take that long. Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee staffers already have reached out to McDonald with standard background questionnaire materials.
On June 30, Obama said he hoped Senate leaders would also take McDonald’s confirmation process as an opportunity to finish work on several other high-level VA nominees.
With Shinseki’s departure and other recent resignations, VA has interim replacements in five of its seven assistant secretary posts and two of its three undersecretary posts, and its No. 2 leader — Gibson — in the role of acting VA secretary.
Two open department assistant secretary posts have been waiting almost a year for Senate confirmation: Linda Schwartz, the pick to take over as assistant secretary for policy, and Helen Tierney, nominated for chief financial officer.
Obama said he hopes to have all the new personnel in place as soon as possible, to help right the department and “regain the trust of our veterans.”