Veterans Affairs Secretary Shares Leadership Values

Secretary of Veterans Affairs Robert McDonald emphasized the need for values-based leadership to find individual and team success to a crowd of about 150 in Gaston Hall on Friday. Former Secretary of Defense and Distinguished Executive in Residence at Georgetown Chuck Hagel introduced McDonald.

“To take the job that Bob McDonald has is not one for timid souls who are concerned about any aspect of themselves, other than they want to make a better world and do as much as they can to contribute to this world,” Hagel said. “I don’t know if he runs the VA but he leads. No one is big enough, smart enough to run any big institution, but you lead institutions.”

McDonald was confirmed by the United States Senate as the eighth Secretary of VA in 2014 following a nomination from President Barack Obama. Prior to becoming a part of the VA, McDonald graduated from the United States Military Academy in 1975 and earned an MBA from University of Utah in 1978.

He joined Procter & Gamble in 1980, a large manufacturer of home and hygiene products, and over the course of decades helped add an additional one billion people to its customer base. He became CEO of P&G in 2009 and retired in 2013 before being nominated to Secretary of VA.

McDonald’s leadership history and experience in the VA is centered on value-driven leadership. McDonald said leadership shapes his everyday work and the goals he strives to achieve.

“When I think about leadership, I think about character and values, and the importance of those values being able to animate what we do,” McDonald said.

To explain his thoughts on values-based leadership, McDonald started by introducing the importance of values and character in Veterans Affairs.

“If you want to understand an organization, you always start with the foundational purpose and values. Not just whether they’re on the wall of the conference room but are the people living that purpose and those values every single day,” McDonald said.

This purpose, he said, is shaped by the events in one’s life. McDonald said it is important for individuals and organizations to get in touch with their education, experiences, culture, family heritage and organizational memberships to develop their own set of beliefs.

McDonald shared his nine leadership beliefs centering on purpose, diversity and accountability in order to illustrate how his values have shaped his actions throughout his personal and professional life.

His first principle emphasized how living a life driven by purpose is more meaningful and rewarding than meandering through life without direction.

“When you’re dying and your loved ones ask if you accomplished your purpose in life, what would you say?” McDonald said.

At P&G, McDonald strove to lead the company with additional purpose by committing to save one life every hour, in any way possible. He also said institutions must do well to do good and must do good to do well.

Another principle emphasized how everyone wants to succeed and success is contagious.

“No one tries to fail, but because we’re time-starved, we end up managing by exception,” McDonald said.

McDonald also argued that putting people in the right jobs is one of the most important roles a leader has. He believes character and taking personal responsibility for the results are the most important traits of an effective leader.

“As a new cadet, you learn that ‘no excuse, sir’ is the most powerful answer in the world because you’re taking responsibility and implicitly taking steps to ensure it never happens again,” McDonald said.

His next principle states that diverse groups of people are more innovative than homogenous groups. However, the difficulty of running a diverse organization means that the Golden Rule, to treat others the way you would like to be treated, does not necessarily apply. Leaders have to follow the Platinum Rule instead, which is to treat others as they want to be treated.

Additionally, McDonald believed ineffective strategies, systems and culture are bigger barriers to achievement than a person’s talent.

“Organizations are perfectly designed to get the results they get,” McDonald said.

McDonald’s final principle of leadership stressed how the true test of a leader isn’t what happens while a leader is in charge but what happens after. He referenced author Jim Collins’ adage, that “leadership is about building a clock rather than telling time.”

In addition to these nine beliefs, McDonald said that he strives to follow a model created at P&G called the 5E’s of leadership: envision, engage, energize, enable and execute.

Attendee Julia Friedmann (SFS ’19) said she was motivated by McDonald’s remarks, noting how his rules for team success can be easily forgotten, but are essential in order to attain consistent achievement.

“I thought it was really inspiring, personally,” Friedmann said. “I think his ‘Platinum Rule’ is what we’re losing in everyday dialogue. I think that’s something I’m going to try and do in my daily life when I’m trying to be a leader with other people.”

Ricard Mondolfi (SFS ’19) said he appreciated the secretary’s honesty, but noted how McDonald did not fit into a stereotypical mold of a politician or a government official.

“First of all, I was extremely impressed by his resume, because I’d heard only negative things about the VA,” Mondolfi said. “It was kind of reassuring to know that we have a guy who is not only a veteran but also incredibly successful in a global company like P&G, of which he was CEO and President.”

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