Remarks by Deputy Secretary Sloan Gibson - Office of Public and Intergovernmental Affairs
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Office of Public and Intergovernmental Affairs

Remarks by Deputy Secretary Sloan Gibson

LVA Graduation
Arlington, Virginia
September 18, 2015

LVA Nearly two and a half centuries ago, a man in civilian clothes rode past a small detachment of soldiers who were feverishly digging a defensive position for an impending attack.

The section leader was standing above them, shouting orders, threatening punishment if the work was not completed within the hour.

The stranger asked the section leader, "Why aren’t you helping?"

The section leader replied, “I’m in charge. The men do as I tell them."

The stranger dismounted and helped the tired Soldiers until the job was finished.

Earlier this year, an elderly Veteran drove four hours to a VAMC with a broken foot. He parked his car and called the VAMC to ask for help getting from his car to the emergency room. Instead of sending someone out with a wheelchair to help the Veteran, our VA employee told the Veteran to call 911 for help, which he did. The local fire department came and helped the Veteran into the hospital. Leadership is the difference.

Think about this story and then think about the difference between principles versus rules.

I want to talk about the most fundamental principles of leadership–mission and values, and ownership and accountability.

First, let’s think about mission, our mission, the mission of the Department of Veterans Affairs and what it means. To care for those who have “borne the battle,” and for their families and survivors. VA’s mission is etched in the stone at the Lincoln Memorial – if you haven’t gotten by there, you should go.

But rather than think about Lincoln’s charge in the abstract, let’s put it in context – let’s think about those people we serve, think about what Veterans have given to the Nation.

They’ve sacrificed personally for the greater good.

They demonstrated remarkable perseverance in the face of adversity to protect the freedoms we, as Americans, enjoy daily.

They volunteered for duty on faraway battlefields, willingly putting their lives on the line to fight, and if necessary, to die for their country.

They display tremendous strength and courage.

Particularly, our current generation has worked with others, often very different than themselves, to accomplish great things. We also know that many of them showed care and compassion for those in need, sometimes at the risk of their own lives.

The men and women who volunteer to protect and defend the values and ideals of this great Nation are the same men and women we take care of here at VA.

We all owe them and their families a debt of gratitude.

But VA owes them a down payment on that debt and so much much– and that is the best customer service in the Nation, especially when we talk about the benefits and healthcare they’ve earned and deserve.

That’s our mission. What then guides our behavior?

To succeed in fulfilling that obligation, we must live by values that match our mission, and these values focus our minds on our mission of caring. They guide our actions in the service of other. They define our culture and strengthen our dedication to those we serve.

More importantly, they provide a baseline for the standards of behavior expected of all VA employees. And that is to do right for Veterans and be good stewards of taxpayer resources. It’s not one or the other–it’s both.

It’s that mission and those values that demand we transform VA. We’re changing VA’s culture—making Veterans the center of all we do.

As you know, we call this transformation MyVA.


Imagine what MyVA can mean to America’s Veterans.

Imagine Veterans talking about timely access to great care, customer service that matches anything in the private sector, thoughtful and caring employees, and state-of-the-art technology making it easy for Veterans to use VA services.

Imagine our 350,000 staff directly engaged in improving the customer experience in their own area—a dedicated workforce committed to the mission of serving Americas’ Veterans.

Imagine support services like Human Resources, Information Technology, supply chain, and construction as critical enablers to our frontline staff, all delivered at better value for taxpayers.

Imagine a vital network of collaborative relationships across the federal government, across state and local government, and with both non-profit and for-profit organizations, much like the excellent work we’ve seen on Veteran homelessness.

That’s where we’re going.

So your opportunity to lead people at VA – to help lead VA – is happening at an historic moment for Veterans and VA.

I’ve been at VA for about 19 months today, coming from the private sector. In the private sector, overhauling a large healthcare system, transforming business processes, and implementing organization-wide cultural change would be imposing.

Now, think about getting all that done in the Federal Government.

I can’t think of any organization in America facing greater leadership and management challenges than VA.

And I can’t think of any organization that has a greater opportunity.

Last summer I met Dr. Harvey Fineberg. He had just stepped down after 12 years as the president of the Institute of Medicine. I told him that because of the healthcare crisis, VA could accomplish more in two-to-three years than we could otherwise have done in two-to-three decades.

Dr. Fineberg immediately corrected me. “No!” he said, “VA can accomplish things now it never could have accomplished!”

Dr. Fineberg was right when he stated that VA has an extraordinary opportunity and we’re seizing it. We’re seizing the opportunity to make this a better organization that consistently delivers what we need to improve desired outcomes.

Which brings us to ownership.

There isn’t any way to change VA’s culture without ownership and accountability.

But you can’t motivate good people to do a good job under the threat of punishment. At the same time, we can’t transform if our people can’t perform.

But in all my years of experience in the private sector, I never encountered any organization where the measure of leadership and management excellence was based on how many people you fire or discipline.

The accountability that matters most for VA or any large organization is sustainable accountability – it’s the kind of accountability that shapes Veterans’ outcomes over the long-term.

Here’s what I mean. Success has too often been defined by following the rules. What sustainable accountability does is make sure your people understand the organization’s mission, values, and strategy. It is setting realistic performance goals, and providing them the resources to meet them.

It is listening to their complaints and helping them solve their problems, and it is rewarding employees for good work, and when all else fails, calling them to account for their poor performance.

That’s the kind of leadership the Veterans we serve deserve.

And it’s that kind of leadership that will transform VA into the number one agency in the Federal government – the model for all the rest. How all that turns out depends on you – each one of you individually and all of us as a collective group. We do have an extraordinary opportunity. I hope you seize it.

Dr. Tanner, Mike Barnett, Terri Cinnamon – thanks for your extraordinary efforts educating, developing, and preparing this group of future leaders for the challenges ahead.

And to all the faculty and staff of LVA, thanks for your commitment to high standards, rigorous education, and making VA a world class institution.

Graduates – congratulations. Good luck in your new assignment.