Bob McDonald, West Point class of 1975, has opened his tenure as the new secretary of Veterans Affairs with an uncommon modesty for someone who has been a corporate CEO of Procter & Gamble and sits on the boards of huge companies.
“Call me Bob” was his catch phrase, insisting that he didn’t want to be addressed as “Mr. Secretary,” and McDonald gave out his cell phone number on television during his roll-out as the new VA chief. He replaced Eric Shinseki, who resigned after a national furor erupted over long wait times at VA facilities and a report that said workers had falsified data on wait lists.
President Obama initially defended Shinseki, himself a decorated veteran, but ultimately the president decided new leadership was vital.
McDonald, a captain in the 82nd Airborne Division during his post-West Point days, has come to the job upbeat and direct. He will, he says, change the culture of the VA, where he thinks the mission perhaps got lost in the bureaucracy.
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“We need to open up the culture,” he said. “I got the impression that employees thought the secretary, like a CEO of a company, was at the apex of the pyramid and that the veterans were on the bottom of the pyramid, and I don’t like that idea. So one of the things I’m trying to do is create a nonhierarchical organization where the veteran is on top.”
Noting that the VA has multiple websites with different passwords and was hard for veterans to navigate, the new secretary said he would simplify things. Veterans, he said, must be “at the center of everything we do.”
McDonald’s candor and his promises are viewed with some skepticism by critics who have seen the VA get mired in problems its leaders didn’t seem to want to know about. But he deserves a chance to make good on his words. And so far, anyway, he seems determined to do so.