The sales pitch always starts the same way: "My name is Bob. Good to meet you."
Robert McDonald was the CEO of a Fortune 50 company with $80 billion-plus in annual sales. He speaks four languages. He's a sought-after expert on the corporate leadership circuit, with multiple lectures at Ivy League schools.
But since McDonald took over his latest job — Veterans Affairs secretary — he has pressed the "ordinary guy" routine, insisting that staff, patients, reporters and even lawmakers call him Bob.
"I was Bob before I got this job, and I'll still be Bob after I'm done," he often quips.
Bob wants the focus on VA's résumé, not his own. Did you know that the department has had three Nobel Prize winners in medicine and physiology? Or that most hospital patient tracking technology originated at VA? Or that 70 percent of all U.S. doctors have received some training at a VA facility?
He has delivered those talking points to students at a dozen medical colleges in the last four months, with hiring managers in tow. Bringing in new talent is critical to VA's survival, he said. There are 340,000 employees already, but officials estimate up to 30,000 more are needed in coming years to meet new demand on the system.
But those points of department pride also have slipped into congressional testimony and press conferences too, appearances only tangentially related to the recruiting tour.
They often get a little extra emphasis and a smile. VA is a great place to work, he says — despite what you may have heard recently.
Bob is just another guy, one charged with reforming and rebuilding the fourth-largest government bureaucracy in the midst of a yearlong crisis.
And he really wants you to buy what he's selling.
If VA was a stock, the hedge fund managers would have dumped it months ago.
The department entered 2014 with some positive trends on its stubborn, decades-old disability benefits backlog and a steady improvement in veterans hiring numbers. Former VA Secretary Eric Shinseki was touting a major drop in veterans homelessness, down by one-third since 2010, and major investments in digital technologies.
Then ... April. Reports seeped out of the West about problems with long wait times for medical care at the Phoenix VA system. That swiftly ignited into a nationwide scandal of records manipulation and bureaucratic indifference that some charge may have cost some veterans their lives.
Shinseki was forced to step down. A half-dozen other top executives left shortly before and after. Congress held near-weekly hearings through the summer berating those who remained.
The White House announced McDonald as its pick to fix the mess in July, touting his years of business experience as the solution to the "significant and chronic systemic failures" facing VA.
The Indiana native and 1975 West Point graduate boasts 30 years of management experience at Procter & Gamble, rising from a low-level post to brand manager for Tide detergent, to president of Japan operations, to head of European operations, to CEO of the $200 billion household products firm (with several other stops in between).
He still peppers his speeches with references to the company's sales, encouraging listeners to keep spending money on Crest and Pampers.
If he had any illusions that his résumé would buy him a lengthy congressional honeymoon, the first question of his nomination hearing in July dashed them: "In the midst of all (VA's) problems, in the midst of a dysfunctional U.S. Congress, in the midst of bitter partisanship, why do you want this job?"
His direct answer: "There's no higher calling. And this is an opportunity for me to make a difference in the lives of the veterans who I care so deeply about.
"If not me, who?"
It's an answer that speaks to both his sense of responsibility and his sense of confidence. In an exclusive Military Times interview after his first 100 days in office, McDonald said he's confident VA can be reformed not in a matter of years but rather months. He noted that in the mid-1990s, he steered Procter & Gamble Japan from a 5 percent yearly operating loss to a steady profit in about two years.
"We're going to get this done," he said. "We're going to use our talents to bring in the best talent globally, and we'll get this done."
When Obama introduced McDonald in July, he called the 61-year-old "no-nonsense … pragmatic ... he does not seek the limelight."
But he hasn't shied away from it either, at least in comparison to his predecessor.
The notoriously camera-shy Shinseki preferred to build his coalitions mostly behind closed doors. He held only a handful of press conferences and faced frequent criticism for not being enough of a cheerleader for VA initiatives.
McDonald has publicized all of his recent travel and regularly meets with reporters on those trips, in the belief that getting word out about VA advances is important.
He stopped by the traditional veterans conventions in August but also the glitzy Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America gala in November; it was the first time the young vets group has scored such a visit from a VA secretary. He also appeared before Game 1 of the World Series as part of Major League Baseball's veterans outreach efforts.
Advocates and lawmakers have offered plenty of praise for McDonald for those aggressive outreach efforts, and his efforts to gather both internal and external criticism.
He has proposed a major reorganization of department operations, adding a customer service branch and simplifying the dozens of information lines and online logins for veterans seeking information.
He pushed the agency to undergo certification for whistleblower protection and mandated town hall meetings at every local VA facility. He updated the department's strategic plan and announced his personal cell number at a national press conference, saying that all employees need to similarly think about ways to improve their outreach efforts.
Everything is billed as customer-focused. McDonald refers to the inverted pyramid of priorities — veterans at the top, leadership at the bottom — so frequently that his staff now carries a black marker in preparation for him drawing upside-down triangles on poster presentations.
"From what I've seen, he has a very business-minded, responsible approach to fixing these problems," said Garry Augustine, executive director of Disabled American Veterans. "That's what the department needs now."
But at the same time, advocacy groups express doubt that VA can ever truly change.
"He might be able to make a difference, if he doesn't get caught in the DC Beltway scene," said Mike Helm, national commander of the American Legion. "But we've seen that eat up people before. He knows fresh people and can get some fresh ideas from outside Washington. But if he still has the same [bureaucrats] around him that the VA has always had, God help him."
In a recent statement, IAVA leaders praised McDonald's initiatives, then added: "Making big announcements from Washington is easy. Delivering on them is hard."
House Veterans' Affairs Committee Chairman Rep. Jeff Miller, R-Fla., who toured VA facilities in his home state with McDonald earlier this fall, said he like the business-minded approach but "it's very difficult for one individual to change a bureaucracy this size."
McDonald called that skepticism understandable and justified, given the problems of the past.
But he added: "They don't see what I do."
VA Deputy Secretary Sloan Gibson has an inside view. He served as Shinseki's top deputy for four months before his resignation, then worked as interim VA secretary for three months before McDonald's appointment.
The two are friends of four decades, former classmates at West Point. Gibson says McDonald has "the strongest moral compass of anyone I've ever met" to go along with "extraordinary executive skills" and "a motor that just won't quit."
But that's not why he's bullish on VA's future, he insists. Rather, it's the sense of urgency he sees throughout the department now.
"Everybody recognizes that we need to change," he said. "So they're listening more, and [McDonald] is helping to bring that sense of purpose. We had a culture of hopelessness and helplessness, and people had given up fighting the bureaucracy. That's changing."
He points to visit a few months ago to an Alabama VA hospital, where physicians complained that two of three X-ray machines were down in need of repairs. Gibson ordered an immediate fix, and was told the problem was that the computers attached to them needed some basic software upgrades.
"It was so simple to fix, but no one had taken ownership of the problem," he said.
When Gibson revisited that hospital this month, he saw marked improvement. Hiring managers were finding ways to bring in new staff instead of wallowing in red tape. Doctors were more active in all aspects of patient care.
"We still have a long way, but those small improvements are the start," Gibson said.
"Fixing VA will never be up to one or two people. But people want to be part of a winner, and they want to succeed. That's what [McDonald] is helping to bring."
That's actually point No. 3 of McDonald's leadership beliefs presentation: "Everyone wants to succeed, and success is contagious."
McDonald's 10-point leadership lesson is the culmination of not just his decades of corporate experience but also a lifetime of efficiency and effectiveness study.
His speeches are peppered with references to revered business books like "Seven Habits of Highly Effective People" and "Good to Great." He has promised Lean Six Sigma studies for a handful of VA processes.
He dismisses suggestions that those practices are more practical for manufacturing than for government health care bureaucracy.
"People want to have a purpose," he said. "That's belief No. 1."
McDonald — and thousands of other VA employees — wear those beliefs on the sleeve everyday now, in the form of "I CARE" pins he commissioned in August. The acronym stands for VA's core values (integrity, commitment, advocacy, respect and excellence).
Privately, some in the veterans' community have scoffed at the concept, but they provide a daily visual reminder to staff and patients of the expectations laid out by leadership. McDonald's is visible in every major speech he has given, along with his gold watch and West Point class ring.
Behind the scenes, he has brought numerous corporate leaders and business academics to consult on VA processes, reinforcing those leadership lessons.
Some of those consultants are on the short list for open VA spots. Along with publicly recruiting at top medical schools around the country, McDonald has quietly been recruiting at Fortune 500 companies and top business schools, looking to instill a successful corporate culture throughout the bureaucracy's management.
Belief No. 4 — "putting people in the right jobs is one of the most important jobs of a leader."
At a McDonald leadership lecture at Duke University in August, a twenty-something student asked the former CEO how he handles firing underperforming employees. McDonald called it "the toughest decision a leader has to face."
So far, at VA as well.
The one constant drumbeat of criticism facing McDonald since taking over the job is that he hasn't dismissed enough employees connected to VA's past problems, particularly executives connected to the wait time scandals that brought down Shinseki.
On Nov. 24, McDonald fired former Phoenix VA health system director Sharon Helman after she spent 207 days on administrative leave. McDonald cited lack of oversight of gamed patient appointment records that left thousands of veterans waiting long stretches for medical visits.
Helman was the most prominent example of VA bureaucracy gone awry for many department critics, and the fifth senior VA executive to face dismissal or forced resignation since McDonald took over. But that's still a relatively small figure given the widespread problems found by the VA inspector general and other investigators.
VA officials repeatedly have insisted that the new chief is moving as fast as possible on more personnel action, saying that reform and accountability go hand in hand. But that hasn't quelled accusations from Capitol Hill that VA hasn't fundamentally changed.
Miller said the continued questions surrounding employee accountability threaten to undermine McDonald's promises of culture change.
"Too many people at VA wanted to control or conceal facts, and that's what ultimately caused Secretary Shinseki's departure," he said. "And many of them are still there. There's so much that needs to be done. VA did not become a broken system overnight. So this is going to be a long process, but one that needs to start right."
McDonald said he hopes Helman's firing in Phoenix — the most visible dismissal yet — will calm concerns that the department hasn't handled the issue properly.
"Ultimately, getting these personnel actions to stick will reinforce that we're working in the right way," he said. "Obviously, the most important message is the outcome of these cases."
McDonald refers to the inverted pyramid of priorities — veterans at the top, leadership at the bottom — in many of his appearances.
Photo Credit: REYNALDO LEAL/Veterans Affairs Department
McDonald has carried those messages to more than 40 stops in 26 cities in his first 16 weeks in office. More recruiting and morale visits will take place in weeks to come.
After a recruiting stop at Howard University in the District of Columbia in October, McDonald told reporters he has been enthused by the reaction he's gotten on his stops, noting that the Washington political view of VA tends to be darker than the American public's view.
"We have recruits who are interested in open jobs. We have doctors who want to build partnerships," he said. "People want to hear about us."
That recruiting visit featured a long discussion about new research on the long-term health threats facing wheelchair-bound patients and new exoskeleton technology helping disabled veterans to walk again for the first time.
The program is still in its introductory stages, but is the type of cutting-edge research that new employees can get involved in, McDonald said, leaving out the "if you act now!" closing sale line.
"Nobody knows about some of the great things that VA is doing," he said. "I was surprised when I heard about it. But the American public doesn't know about a lot of this."