Leadership is a Relationship Highlights VA Transformation

So far, we’ve seen that little interventions and intentional language can build trust in the high-stress world of management consulting, the life-and-death world of the military, and the constantly changing world of technology.  They also work at the highest level of government.

In June 2014, Bob McDonald had been retired from Procter & Gamble for less than a year.  He’d enjoyed 34 successful years at the firm, where he’d risen all the way to chairman of the board and then CEO.  For the past 11 months, he’d been working on a number of projects, from charitable work with the Cincinnati Museum Center to serving on several companies’ boards.  Then he got a call from the White House.  Would he be interested in becoming the new Secretary of Veterans Affairs?

Heading up the VA, as it’s often referred to, meant joining the Cabinet.  If he were selected and passed the rigorous vetting process, Bob would assume leadership over an agency tarred by scandal.  The previous secretary, a decorated former Army general, had resigned after a flurry of media reports that veterans had died waiting for long-awaited medical appointments and that VA staffers had falsified data to cover up the extent of the dysfunction.  An internal audit, FBI probe, and White House investigation were all underway.  The VA remained America’s largest provider of healthcare, but it needed an energetic boost.

Bob interviewed with a slate of government officials.  Then he had a long, final interview with President Barack Obama.  “I told the president that I couldn’t take the job without my wife being involved in the decision,” Bob says.  That Sunday, Second Lady Jill Biden hosted an event for Bob and his wife Diane at the Naval Observatory, the official residents of the vice president.  Bob traveled from the White House to the event.  As he walked through the property and toward the house, he tripped.  He looked down and saw two outstretched legs.  Their owner lounged outside in a simple T-shirt, baseball hat, and sunglasses.  “I apologized right away”, Bob says.  “I didn’t know who he was.  I thought he was the pool boy.”  The man looked up and realized it wasn’t the pool boy.  It was Joe Biden.

“So you’re the guy people want for this job,” Biden said.

“What do I need to do to convince you?”

“You don’t have to convince me.  You have to convince my wife.”

The two of them walked into the house together and Biden went right up to Diane.  He told the McDonalds that he wasn’t going to let them go until they accepted the job.  Then the Bidens gave them a tour of the house.  Bob took note of how that tour included not just the grand living spaces, but also the bedrooms set aside or the Bidens’ grandchildren.  “In those few minutes,’ Bob recalls, “I knew that I could work with Joe Biden because of the way he valued family, and that he valued the same things that I valued.  That was important to me.”

Learn more about what happened in the first 90 days of Bob’s tenure as Secretary of Veterans Affairs and the ways he led transformational change at VA to help make Veterans lives better in the book Leadership is a Relationship.

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