On paper, he’s almost perfect.
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Seasoned CEO, West Point graduate, former U.S. Army captain. You name it, it seems 61-year-old Robert McDonald has done it. It doesn’t hurt that the company he ran, Procter & Gamble (NYSE:PG), is all about consumer products and all about keeping consumers happy. What better assets to bring to the Department of Veterans Affairs, assuming McDonald becomes its next chief?
I’m assuming nothing, because I think McDonald does get the job. Short of some stunning development, it’s his for the asking. House Speaker John Boehner likes him, probably because McDonald helped raise money for him. In fact, what makes McDonald’s choice so curious is that he’s so Republican, or certainly has a history of giving to Republican candidates – as recently as 2012, when he gave to Mitt Romney. So it says something about President Obama going out on a limb and beyond his own party to find the right guy to fix the VA.
The problem is whether McDonald will have the authority to do in the public sector what he had free rein to do in the private sector. At Procter & Gamble, he could fire under-performing executives, and did, many times. That’s not so easy at the VA, and while both the Senate and House have approved their own fixes to address this personnel issue, neither goes quite far enough. What’s worse, for now it’s a moot point anyway, because neither chamber has yet to reconcile their differences and send along the finished product to the president.
That’s a huge problem. Left unaddressed, that would mean McDonald would arrive at an agency that needs changing, but he can’t technically change it, or at least change it to the degree he should. McDonald could speed this process, and by sheer force of will (we’re told he has plenty of that), press for quicker results. But again, the VA isn’t P&G. It’s a $158 billion bureaucracy that seems to have lost its mission as much as it has cash.
That’s where McDonald’s consumer products expertise matters more than some Washingtonians seem to be appreciating. If you think about it, who better than a guy who gets customers, to get the VA back to focusing on its customers – veterans? Let me say that again – veterans. It’s the Veterans Agency, not the Bureaucrats for Veterans Agency. If those veterans are being served, the agency is doing its job. If they’re not being served, the agency has forgotten its job.
It’s safe to say over the last few years, the VA hasn’t only forgotten its job, it’s as if some at the agency don’t give a damn about that job or for that matter, the folks who define that job – veterans. It’s a mind-set that must be reset. Veterans matter. Keeping them healthy matters. Making sure they don’t have to wait for years for a simple MRI matters. Fussing over them matters. Caring for them matters. Giving them not just the time of day but even a salute for their service every day, matters. It all matters, because they all matter.
McDonald apparently was famous for telling his subordinates at P&G to pay constant heed to consumer feedback – things they liked about the company’s products, and things they did not, as well as things P&G might do to make those products even better. Yet as meticulous as McDonald was on this issue, in his later years at P&G, he was criticized for not eating his own pudding. Critics faulted the time he devoted to serving on other corporate boards – a distraction that by one account, gobbled up 20% of his time (McDonald contradicts this). Some P&G shareholders started arguing McDonald owed them 100% of his time, not 80%.
Obviously anyone heading up the VA these days cannot afford ANY distractions ANY time. McDonald must give unequivocal assurances he’s all-VA, all-the-time. Anything less would make his candidacy a non-starter, and so it should.
But the real problems facing any VA head is what he’s empowered and allowed to do once he arrives. It’s fair to say that McDonald brings impressive credentials to the post, but he must be allowed to put those credentials to work. He must be able to treat the VA as he would a bloated and poorly performing conglomerate. He must be free to shut down divisions and departments that don’t work, and strengthen the ones that do. And this famous metrics man must be able to chart the agency’s turnaround by the numerical benchmarks to which a VA CEO should aspire – sharply curtailed treatment wait times and improved responses to that treatment.
A $158 billion institution can’t afford to screw up, and a P&G veteran can’t afford to simply pay to play. He’s got to pay to pounce, and rip this lethargic bureaucracy to its core. He has the gravitas and credentials. Now it’s up to Washington to put them to work, and let Robert McDonald…loose.