COLUMN: Procter & Gamble's McDonald will bring P&G management style to the VA

He'll sharpen the focus on the customer - veterans

CINCINNATI -- If Bob McDonald is confirmed to lead the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, and indications are he will be, he'll be the latest P&G chief executive called on to turn around a sprawling organization that lost its way.

McDonald answered questions from U.S. senators Tuesday as the Senate’s Veterans Affairs Committee weighed in on President Barack Obama’s surprise appointment of the former P&G CEO to lead the scandalized agency.

The senators wanted to know how McDonald might deal with the VA’s patient-care backlog, with its shortage of doctors and nurses and with the inevitable budget battles that lie ahead.

Like a P&G marketer, McDonald stayed focused on the VA's customers -- veterans.

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"It's all about the mission, which is care for the veterans," he said.

He'll be following in the footsteps of other P&G leaders whom past presidents and corporate leaders have called upon in times of trouble.

President Eisenhower in 1957 asked then-P&G president Neil McElroy to be his secretary of defense, even though McElroy, like McDonald, had no previous government or political experience.

McElroy took over the defense department in the midst of the Cold War, as Russia launched Sputnik and the U.S. raced to catch up. He accelerated the U.S. missile effort to counter the perceived Soviet threat. After serving two years in Washington, McElroy returned to Cincinnati to chair P&G’s board of directors.

In the early ‘90s, General Motors was losing billions, so its board turned to P&G’s John Smale to stop the hemorrhaging and restore the nation’s No. 1 automaker to respectability. Smale was two years retired as Procter’s chief executive.

He was given free rein by GM’s board to delve as deeply as he wanted to rescue the company. He acted quickly and decisively, recommending that GM’s top management be fired. Smale actually took over the company, as the board named him chairman. Two years later, GM was posting record profits.

In 2004, Yale University was burdened with a huge budget deficit and a history of trouble with its employee unions. Its president turned to John Pepper, the retired chief of P&G, to bring P&G management principles to a sloppy university administrative culture. Pepper gave himself two years, and systematically but urgently cut costs and instilled a culture of service to one of the nation’s leading institutions of higher education.

Now McDonald is being called on to restore trust and integrity to our nation’s health care system for veterans.

He’ll undoubtedly bring P&G management philosophy to the job as he spoke Tuesday of “core values,” his training in Six Sigma management techniques and purpose-driven management, all principles he practiced during his 30-year-plus career at P&G.

He spoke of “putting in place systems that will work,” and of hiring medical professionals “who want to make a difference in other people’s lives,” management philosophies that P&G-ers surely have heard before.

McDonald is a student of history and of military history in particular. I traveled with him to Washington, D.C. a few years ago as he prepared to accept a prestigious State Department award on behalf of the company. As we flew over Chesapeake Bay, he imagined aloud the military ships that would have populated those strategic waters during the Revolutionary War.  

Once inside the State Department building, he pulled me aside to make sure I took time to visit the diplomatic reception rooms there that house American historical artifacts, including Thomas Jefferson's writing desk, silver work crafted by Paul Revere and dinnerware used by James Madison.

McDonald has a sense of history, and as secretary of the Veterans Administration, he'll have a chance to make history, along with the other P&G executives whose leadership extended beyond the Cincinnati-based soapmaker. 


David Holthaus is the Deputy Managing Editor at

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