Not long before Eric Shinseki, then secretary of the Department of Veterans Affairs, resigned last year over a mismanagement scandal rocking the VA, Sloan D. Gibson had come into the agency as its new deputy secretary. In the two months following Shinseki's resignation last spring, Gibson served as the VA's acting administrator—attempting to quickly institute accountability measures and begin the massive challenge of repairing the organization.
Gibson is since back in the role of deputy secretary for the department, where he's responsible for a nationwide system of health-care services for veterans, benefits programs and national cemeteries. Prior to joining the VA, Gibson was head of the United Services Organizations, spent time in the banking industry and served in the Army.
In an interview with Tom Fox, Gibson spoke about the challenges still facing the VA, his motivation for service, his leadership approach—and his personal desire to become a better musician. Fox is a guest writer for On Leadership and the vice president for leadership and innovation at the nonprofit, nonpartisan Partnership for Public Service. The conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
Q. How has your family’s history of military service and your own personal experience shaped your work at the VA?
A. My grandfather was an infantryman in World War I. My dad was a tail gunner during World War II and went back into the Air Force after he got his college degree. That framed my view early in life, and then I went to West Point where values of duty, honor and country were instilled in me, and where the first leadership lesson I learned was about taking care of your troops. That’s a lesson that resonates at VA.
The other experience that shaped what I do is my years at the USO, where I visited hospitals in Iraq and Afghanistan and medical facilities in Germany and here in the U.S., meeting with wounded, ill and injured troops. I’ve stood on the tarmac at Dover Air Force Base as part of the official party showing our respects to the remains of servicemen and women coming home. All of this is a very strong and powerful experience that has shaped my views toward what we do at the VA.
Q. How are you approaching the task of improving the VA’s performance?
A. I spend a lot of time in the field talking to frontline staff and to leaders at all levels in the organization to get feedback and insights. My job at the end of the day is to create the conditions where they can be successful.
There also are programmatic issues and solutions that have to be implemented so we can create the conditions for success. This may be delivering needed IT solutions, building an integrated supply chain or streamlining human-resources processes so that we have the staff that we need, where we need it and when we need it.
Q. I imagine you face morale issues given all the scrutiny the department has received. What are you doing to improve employee job satisfaction?
A. Employees care about the mission, they want to do the right thing and they work hard to help our veterans. I try to make the system work for them. When I visit facilities around the country, I let it be known that I will own the problems. I outline the things that we need to do better both broadly and at the particular medical centers.
I also spend a significant amount of time talking about all the great things they do. The folks really appreciate the positive feedback. But a lot of the negative stuff makes it harder for us to do our job, and makes it harder for us to attract and retain the people we need to care for veterans.
Q. What is one of your biggest management challenges?
A. It’s a lack of ownership. People get so tired of banging their heads against the bureaucracy that at some point they give up. One of the most powerful things that we can do is empower our frontline staff to effect change in their own work.
I was at the health eligibility center in Atlanta and a dozen groups reported what they had done to improve their work processes. When you empower people to take ownership, you listen to what they have to say and you implement the things that they have proposed, it’s a game changer.
Q. What is the biggest mistake you ever made as a manager that taught you an important lesson?
A. You have to be willing to make a change when you have leaders who are simply not on board with the direction that you want to take the organization. In the past, I have been willing to try to fix it, and I’ve learned with all the clarity of hindsight that you rarely have the ability to do that. You still try. But after having tried, you have to be willing to make a change.
Q. Is there anything that you keep on your desk as motivation?
A. I have a bust of a West Point cadet that sits on a granite block, and etched into the granite are the words: duty, honor, country. Those values are the hallmark not just of West Point graduates, but of all veterans. I think about these guys and gals that are leaving the military, their experiences and sacrifices. That tells me who I am and why I’m here.
Q. What is something people would be surprised to know about you?
A. One of the ambitions I have not fulfilled is to be a musician. I can play the piano, the classic guitar and the regular guitar. But that’s not being a musician. I aspire to a level of proficiency that would allow me to dub myself a musician. After I finish my tour of duty here, I’m confident I’m going to be spending a fair amount of time on my music to see if I can fulfill that life ambition.