Thank you, Pat, for that kind introduction, and thank you all for your warm reception and for your leadership of the Veterans Benefits Administration (VBA).
I’m honored to be here and I welcome this opportunity to discuss VBA’s achievements and its challenges. There’s work to be done, but as they are quick to say in central Texas, “you can’t roll your sleeves up and wring your hands at the same time.” You must do one or the other.
Just here a month, but I’ve already encountered your commitment, individually and collectively, to the men and women to whom we, and this country, owe so much.
My mandate is to fulfill President Obama’s vision to transform VA into a 21st century organization—a transformation demanded by new times, new technologies, new demographic realities, and by Veterans who have earned the best possible care, benefits, and services we can provide. From the oldest member of our ‘greatest generation,’ to the youngest warrior of our ‘latest generation,’ they deserve nothing less.
Plato said, ‘the most important stage of any enterprise is the beginning.’ I am inviting VA to reposition itself for a new beginning—one that leverages the power of 21st century technology and know-how, while honoring the tradition of its 19th century heritage. We need a new beginning.
Although we do many things well, there are things we can and must do better. We have raised the high bar in many fields and functions—research, polytrauma, and electronic medical records, to name a few.
But what about the rest of our system? Have we adapted? Are our 21st century Veterans being welcomed into a 21st century VA?
These young men and women are Veterans of the new millennium, different from all who came before them. Think about the world in which they grew up. Most of them were born a decade after the last shots were fired in Vietnam.
They learned some of their first words not from watching Captain Kangaroo, but from watching MTV. They learned to draw, not on Etch-a-Sketch, but on desktop computers.
They’ve never used a dial phone, never watched black-and-white TV, and listen to music on CDs, MP3s and I-Pods, not on records or tapes. They have never known a world without cell phones or the internet, and can’t live without instant messaging.
They are different because they grew up in a world different than ours. They think fast, talk fast, act fast. They expect instant results, because that is the norm in their world. The military in which they served is different too, because it employs all of the technology they grew up with—and more.
In many ways, the only things they have in common with previous generations of Veterans is their patriotism, their willingness to serve their country, their pride in that service, and the esprit de corps that coalesced them into a cohesive force on the battlefield, and now as a cadre of honored Veterans in civilian life.
Where VA leads, we must continue; where it does not, we must seize opportunities to attain leadership; and where it now lags, we must regain our leadership edge. Change is the operative word. We must foster it. We must embrace it. And we must leverage good leadership to bring about the change we envision.
I offer a simple maxim to keep in mind. It comes from field manual 22-100, Army Leadership, the title of which consists of only three words: ‘Be-Know-Do.’ Yet, those three, small words capture a time-tested approach to larger-than-life leadership. They encompass basic management principles that apply equally to the public and private sectors—because all good organizations share the same need for strong leaders. They speak to tenets that improve forward-thinking organizations, whether it’s the Department of the Army or the Salvation Army.
First and foremost, leadership begins with what a leader must ‘be,’ core values that shape character, whether that character is of a person or an organization. Today, for example, VA’s values are exactly the same values that have guided it for more than 75 years—for more than 140 years if we go back to President Lincoln’s charter.
They can be summed up in one word—Veterans, and the services we provide them.
Today, there are two important additions to that service—speed and agility. In the 21st century, both matter. They matter to Veterans who look for quick access to services; timely claims processing; swift application of research advances; rapid, cutting-edge medical treatment; and responsive customer service.
The second word of the leadership trilogy is ‘know.’ People follow leaders who know what they are doing, and who demonstrate competence in their field—conceptually, technically, and interpersonally. Does that mean that you must have all the answers, all the time? Far from it. Leaders know that decision-making isn’t always a choice between ‘good’ and ‘bad,’ or ‘right’ and ‘wrong.’
The decisions I make almost always force me to choose between two-or more imperfect solutions; if they were easy decisions, they wouldn’t reach my desk. And as VBA leaders, I’m certain the easy decisions don’t reach your desks, either.
If character and competence are the ‘be’ and the ‘know’ of leadership, they are not enough. Good leaders, everywhere, act; they ‘do’. They make things happen.
Much of VA’s transformation will be about building our capabilities—so that we can do more for Veterans in an age that is digital, mobile, and virtual.
As we prepare to undertake change at VA, I ask you to do one key thing: Challenge your assumptions. Ladies and gentlemen, I repeat: Challenge your assumptions. As leaders, ours is not to be caretakers of the status quo, but couriers of progress.
Collaborations are increasingly important in the 21st century. For VA, that means partnerships across government at all levels—with industry, business, academia, the Veterans’ community, and stakeholders, large and small.
Nowhere more so than with DoD. It is mission-critical for our departments to develop a common data lexicon and access that supports transparency in services—a seamless transition from military to civilian life, especially for our wounded.
As we move forward with plans to streamline claims processing, I see your job as not simply to forecast VBA’a future, but to fire, forge, and shape it. I am talking about the fundamental, comprehensive changes all VA must quickly undergo if our department is to be responsive and relevant to the evolving needs of Veterans.
Leadership jobs come with leadership-sized problems. We face them in VBA, where our disability claims process is outdated and replete with complex problems. My predecessor, Secretary Peake, used to say: ‘VA is still using 1945 processes and procedures designed to serve the 1945 family.’ We’ve all seen the results when bad processes stymie good employees from achieving optimal performance. Unacceptable! That is why we must change our whole approach to VA operations.
First and foremost, we must aggressively use information technology (IT) to our advantage. IT is the bedrock of our service delivery. We must leverage its power, if we are to, among other things, successfully implement the new GI Bill and streamline the disability claims system.
I see this leadership workshop as a springboard—a new beginning, if you will—for transforming our department. As we go forward, I look to each of you for insights as we reset VA’s vectors and maximize opportunities for meaningful change.
Yes, I said ‘VA’s vectors.’ The challenges of the Veterans Benefits Administration are not just VBA issues, they are VA issues. The big and the small, the public ones that make the nightly news as well as the private ones that profoundly affect the life of a single American Veteran. Individually and collectively, we must all covenant in their solution.
Toward that end, VA’s vectors will be re-set based on three fundamental principles: First, Veterans are the centerpiece of our organization. They are clients, not merely customers.
The bottom-line questions we need to ask ourselves at every juncture are: ‘Are we solving a Veteran’s problem? Are we contributing toward a solution? Are we changing a Veteran’s life for the better? Are we supporting that Veteran’s family? If the answer is an unqualified ‘yes,’ then we will be serving our clients as we should.
Second, results. At the end of each day, the true measure of our success is the timeliness, the quality, and the consistency of services and support we provide. I intend to set objectives in each of these performance areas because I am convinced, if we are to achieve the goals we set for ourselves, we must establish clear objectives, create even clearer metrics, and follow-up relentlessly.
Our Veterans are concerned about service, and rightfully so. I venture to say that they really don’t care if VA transforms itself. They care about results. Like all of us, they care about outcomes. They want solutions to their problems. It all comes down to the personal, the immediate, and the host of interactions that define responsive, respectful client services. It is at that individual, human level where all in the department need to set our operational sights.
At the same time, we must assure the American people that their system of Veterans’ benefits is run effectively in accordance with the strictures of law and the lessons of compassion.
Finally, VA must be forward-looking. We must be attuned to evolving needs and seek out opportunities for delivering best services with available resources. We must challenge ourselves to work smarter and not leave one dollar on the table. We must leverage the world’s best practices, our own knowledge base, and emerging technologies to increase our capabilities, VA-wide.
We have our work cut out for us.
VA’s challenges demand bold and innovative thinking. They call for strategic change and common-sense solutions. And they will not be overcome without a full-court press, hands-on commitment from all of us.
Our cause is a noble one. The Veterans we serve are living symbols of what America values and honors. Time and again, in war and in peace, they proved themselves the lifeblood of democracy. As one Veteran Service Organization proclaims, “to honor the dead by caring for the living.”
Thank you for what you do every day for Veterans. Let’s honor them while they are still with us by providing them their entitlements with dignity. Let’s all become their advocates.