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Episode 74: Transforming Service to Vets with Dr. Paul R. Lawrence

Episode 74: Transforming Service to Vets with Dr. Paul R. Lawrence


In this insightful episode of the Veteran Led podcast, Dr. Paul R. Lawrence, former Under Secretary for Benefits of the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, shares his transformational leadership journey at the Veterans Benefits Administration. As a former Airborne Finance Officer turned business leader, Lawrence brought a fresh perspective to overhaul VA bureaucracy and pursue excellence in serving Veterans.

Tune in as Dr. Lawrence provides an inside look at implementing major initiatives like the Appeals Modernization Act, reducing the claims backlog, and achieving the VBA’s best year ever in 2020 despite the pandemic. This episode is packed with valuable advice as Dr. Lawrences discusses his three tenets of communication, financial stewardship, and honoring Veterans’ service through improved client experience to reform the Veterans Benefits Administration.

To connect with Dr. Paul Lawrence, visit his LinkedIn page or check out his website by clicking the links.

To get your copy of Dr. Lawrence’s books, click on the links below:


Dr. Paul R. Lawrence: In that book, I talk about regular meetings with leaders, holding them accountable, reminding them of the goals, measuring all the time, and letting them know how far away they are from the goals and the expectations of when things are going to be done, and then just constantly reminding them, you know, veterans deserve better. When you turn to the VA, you should get world class service, right? You should get your benefits fast. You should get them right and fast. And that’s what veterans deserve.

John Berry: Welcome to the Veteran Led podcast, where we talk with leaders who use their military experiences to develop great organizations and continue to serve their communities. Today’s guest is Paul R Lawrence, who is probably the most transformational Under Secretary of Benefits for the US Department of Veterans Affairs ever. And when I talk about that, I talk about a businessman and author, a passionate veterans advocate who also is a former Airborne Finance Officer. So welcome to the show, Paul.

Dr. Paul R. Lawrence: Hey, thank you very much. This is great to be with you. I appreciate the invitation.

John Berry: Now, you had an amazing career before coming to the VA. You were partners at two of the big four accounting firms. You were Vice President of two fortune 500 companies, and you decide to apply to become the Under Secretary of the Veterans Benefits Administration. Why?

Dr. Paul R. Lawrence: Well, it was kind of it was kind of a weird set of circumstances. I had a buddy who had gone to the VA and as you know, the Under Secretaries at the VA, you go through a commission process. It’s written into the law. When VA became a department in 1988 and ‘89, they said to make it less political, let’s kind of go out and interview people. It won’t just be a traditional appointee. A buddy says, hey, there’s this chance to do this job. Would you apply? And I thought he was just running around getting resumes. So, I said, sure, happy to apply. Figured I’d never hear the end of it. About six weeks later, I got a call and said, hey, would you come over and interview? And that’s when it got real serious. And I said, you know, sit on the sideline a lot. I complain about people as a veteran who service veterans, you know, I’m going to really go over there and I’m going to talk about what I would do, you know, tell them the truth, tell them this is what I would do if you made me Under Secretary. And I’m really going to focus on serving veterans. So I went through that interview, did really well, got invited to meet the Secretary, then got invited by the white House to apply and officially join the administration. So, it was really one of these things where you sit there and say, you know, you can sit there or you can complain or you can go do something. And that’s kind of what motivated me to want to be involved.

John Berry: And so, you take on this large bureaucracy that has 25,000 employees with a payroll of about. When I say payroll, I guess the budget is $4 billion to administer $120 billion in benefits to veterans. Now coming from large private financial institutions, was that was that something that was bigger than what you’d handled before, or was that in line with what you’d been doing?

Dr. Paul R. Lawrence: It was slightly bigger because, as you know, everything in government is bigger. So, at any one moment I’d probably manage a couple thousand people, but there’s not much scale beyond that. But what I really benefited from was in my consulting experience, I had touched a lot of the different things that the VBA did. So, for example, I did a lot of work for the Postal Service, so I understood processing stuff, right. I had done a lot of work for, uh, student loans. So, I understand the GI Bill. I had even done a lot of work in the housing industry, so I understood the Home Loan Guarantee. So, I was dangerously knowledgeable about everything. But I obviously knew nothing about the special language and the special rules and the regulations. So, the learning, the learning curve wasn’t that large, but there was a learning curve.

John Berry: And you wrote a book about your experience called “Transforming Service to Veterans: How I Pursued Performance Excellence at the VBA.” It’s right before Covid. The, uh, Appeals Modernization Act has passed, and now someone’s got to implement it, but also figure out what’s happened with all of the legacy claims. And so, the best year ever was 2020, the year of the pandemic, when everything was going wrong. And the VA, you specifically, were holding town halls to keep veterans informed, to solve problems. And so, it’s in chaos that the VA has this. The VBA has its best year ever. And I want you to walk us through that, the implementation of the AMA and then the plan to get all legacy claims. A first look by July 4th, 2020. Uh, this is a huge order. How did you handle that?

Dr. Paul R. Lawrence: Well, right. As you point out, the Appeals Modernization Law, I think was signed in August of 2017. So, I got there in May of 2018. And so, a lot of it was already underway. And it was required that you get ready by I think it was February or January, February of 2019. But remember, government shut down for three weeks. So, we got kind of a mulligan to be ready. So, there’s a tremendous amount of work behind the scenes to do; the law required VBA hire something like 602 employees and really reorganize the organization to focus on that. That was a huge undertaking. I had to go look at all the places and realize hiring wasn’t happening as fast as it should, so you had to get personally involved with that in the training and the like. But once it got up and going, you realize that the wisdom of it, you know, the two VBA lanes, higher level review and supplemental claims were actually pretty clever, but there were a whole lot of things, right? The legacy appeals that had to be dealt with. Right? So, you couldn’t really feel good about the new stuff until you got this old stuff through the machine. So that’s when you realized, and again, this is kind of an inside baseball production thing. Inventory is your worst enemy; stuff sitting around waiting to be worked. So, you really had to go and attack that and get that done. And that started the process of July 4th of 2020, all those would be gone. So, all the leaders got constant meetings, constantly being evaluated. Let’s get these things done. And the thing I always reminded everybody, and this goes back to your question about taking the job, is these are veterans. They really don’t care much about how VBA works. They want their benefits. They want these things resolved. Let’s kind of get these done as fast as possible, as accurately as possible too. But let’s get them done. Because, you know, having veterans wait and get frustrated and angry and disappointed doesn’t do anybody any good.

John Berry: Yeah. And to go back, I probably didn’t do a good job of setting the stage. Uh, for those that don’t understand or don’t know, the Appeals Modernization Act was for all the claims going forward, but you had claims that were sitting in the pipeline for years on appeal that had not gotten a first look, and we were totally failing our veterans. And you stepped in and fixed that problem. And it’s one of those things that, like I said, being a lawyer in the system and seeing things start to move, we were blown away. It was like, wait a minute, things are actually moving. And we were worried that because you would come up with the AMA, the new the Modernization Act that was going to help all the veterans who were filing appeals going forward? Well, what about the people whose claims were left behind? And we were worried that they were going to be left behind, and we were trying to find out. And then all of a sudden, we heard about the directive, the July 4th directive, and we were skeptical, uh, for good reason. I mean, just historically that that had not happened. And, and your team came in and made it happen. And so, I asked you this and a large bureaucracy, how were you able to pursue excellence?

Dr. Paul R. Lawrence: Um, well, I was one of focus, to be honest with you. And you raise a really good point, John, because I observed this from afar. A lot of leaders come in and promise. Uh, the former president had an expression, right? Politicians make promise, businesspeople make plans. We just had to make plans to do it. And you had to let everybody know you’re really serious. In that book, I talk about regular meetings with leaders, holding them accountable, reminding them of the goals, measuring all the time, and letting them know how far away they are from the goals and the expectations of when things are going to be done, and then just constantly reminding them, you know, veterans deserve better. I mean, you know, I still have this naive, naive view that when you turn to the VA, you should get world class service, right? You should get your benefits fast. You should get them right and fast. And that’s what veterans deserve. So, it was a constant repetition of that. And contrary to popular belief, there are so many good employees there who wanted to do this. They wanted to be known they were having their best year ever because we underneath all that was, of course, was the most significant raises they had previously ever gotten. Right. So, you know, great employees deserve to be paid well. So that was also in there too.

John Berry: Yeah. And you brought out a great point, too, that you were really trying to create collaboration with stakeholders as opposed to this concept that we’re fighting the VA. It’s like, no, no, no, we’re all in this together. Let’s work together. And I thought that that that was a pretty, that was that was a sea change in thought because before it was always, well, these, these are these groups over here. This is us over here. But you got ahold of the service organizations and try to work together. What was that like?

Dr. Paul R. Lawrence: Well, it was it was really funny you mention that because in the book I describe this right before my consulting life, I used to get off the metro, the subway in Washington, DC, and walk down the street, and I would walk by Paralyzed Veterans of America. Their headquarters was right there, and they had a big sign out in front, which says like, you know, they fought for us. We’re fighting from that for them. And I always used to think, well, who are they fighting? And then I realized when I got to VA, they’re fighting with us. And so, I said, well, this is this is like really disappointing. What can we do together? We won’t always agree, but certainly we should agree on the outcomes and the things we want. So I said, wait a minute, we’ve got to channel this energy. You know, again, never perfect alignment. But let’s, you know, figure out what they can do to help us, how we can get out of this fighting mentality. Because as you know, John, the first time a veteran might interact with VA, it’s through the Veterans Benefits Administration. If you have a bad experience there, it clouds your whole perception of VA, so it really needs to be better. And we really need to stop the language of fighting. It really needs to be working together though I understand why people feel that way. So yeah, that was one of the three tenets I had, which is we’re going to collaborate with each other, with others in the ecosystem as well.

John Berry: Well, let’s talk about the two other tenets because one of them is financial stewardship. And this is something I couldn’t wrap my brain around. How does an agency not be able to account for $200 million?

Dr. Paul R. Lawrence: It’s a lot more than that. It was like about $500 million. Yeah. But see, again, in Washington, the rule of large numbers. So, $500 million on $120 billion is like, you know, like less than 1%. So, they were getting awards in high fives from the people that mattered about what a great job you’re doing. But at some point, you go, that’s real money. And kind of behind it is, of course, if you if you can’t find $500 million, then you got to spend time figuring out where it, is getting it back, so I estimated we probably spent another $250 million trying to deal with the $500 million. So suddenly you realize this is almost three quarters of $1 billion. If we had that money, we could do so much more for veterans in terms of improving the technology and the way we do business. So, it was just one of those things. And again, it’s government. You go, well, you know, we didn’t lose that much. I’m not as bad as say, Social Security or Medicare. So again, they look pretty well. They look pretty good. So, when I brought in like how about that number be zero? Everyone was like, what are you talking about? It’s never been this low. And yet to me it was enormous.

John Berry: Well, and then your third area of focus, which ties into this, is getting veterans the benefits that they earned in a way that honors their service. So, it’s not just about being financially responsible with the with the money, but making veterans feel good about their not only their service, but that the VA cares almost a client experience overhaul for veterans.

Dr. Paul R. Lawrence: Right. And I chose that language carefully because I just didn’t want it to be like 99% of the time. I wanted people to understand, like every time you interact with VBA, whether you called, whether you mailed something, you dealt with it. I wanted each one of those to be great experiences, right. That’s what I’m honor their service. There’s none of this kind of like, okay, this doesn’t work, or this works. It really wanted it to be great. So that’s what that language was meant to do. It was customer, uh, customer service on steroids. Everywhere. All the time. You know, how fast can you answer the phone? How quickly can you resolve their problem? Are we polite? Are we empathetic? And do we understand how hard it is to work in this system that you barely understand when you first apply for benefits?

John Berry: And you brought up a great point about whether these three focus areas are working. You say, you know, I knew it was working when they started making fun of me about it. And when I saw the posters everywhere. And as a leader, sometimes we’re sensitive to those comments. But it is once you become a caricature of your message. People are listening and they’re processing and they’re thinking about it. So, at what point did you know that, hey, they’re starting to make fun of me. I’m starting to hear it. This is working.

Dr. Paul R. Lawrence: Yeah. About after probably 6 or 8 months or so. And I realized this because when I’ve been a consultant to government, I had seen other leaders come in with their, you know, three things or whatever. And inevitably, after about 3 or 4 months, they would stop saying it, right. They would just lose the focus and they would lose the ability to do it. And I knew myself. I said, I have to keep saying this every time I spoke. Everywhere I went before the pandemic, I’d go visit regional offices. I’d hold town halls with the staff there. I would, I would say, and let me once again remind you of these three priorities. And I just kept after it. I think there was a feeling of, okay, he’ll eventually forget, but I stopped. They didn’t. And then I began to measure. I began to measure how much money was lost. I began to measure how fast people were getting benefits and answering phones. And then I think there was an element of, okay, this is not going away. We might as well embrace it and do it. So, it was rewarding. I will tell you, sometimes when I would look at the notes before I’d go speak, I go, okay, I got to say these again and again. So, at some point, you know, but it did seem to sort of capture the moment.

John Berry: And that’s also, I believe, true in the private sector. Correct me if I’m wrong, but when you’re consulting with a fortune 500 companies and running these, you know, the Vice President of two, two large firms, are you saying the same issue where communication is always the issue? And as a leader, you just have to overcommunicate until you sense the message has been received and you just keep over communicating it.

Dr. Paul R. Lawrence: Yeah, definitely. In the private sector, however, what I noticed was the reason why communication was so important in government. A lot of the systems don’t align like in the private sector. I’m sure this is true in your organization. The goals you have, the compensation system, many of your other, you know, procedures and processes align. Sometimes in government they wouldn’t align, hence the need to communicate directly and often. So, folks would understand, given a choice of what to do, think about the things that matter.

John Berry: Well, I know as you did that I want to point out that really, in my eyes, where you achieved hero status, not just in getting the AMA and the legacy claims, but you did other things with this. It wasn’t. These three focus areas helped you do other things. The Blue Water Navy Act, right. So, all of a sudden, um, you’ve got a huge issue with our with our Blue Water Vietnam veterans. Uh, that was that was something that you took care of during your administration, but also the Forever GI Bill. So it wasn’t just about, you know, the modernizing the system and digitizing the papers. It was actually, uh, some other very substantive changes that that you had to implement.

Dr. Paul R. Lawrence: Right. And to build on that, I’m happy to talk about those to build on that. Two other things happened there. We introduced the Solid Start Program, right, where veterans get phone calls out, uh, three times in their first year out. So, we implemented that the same year. And then we also implemented something for unbanked veterans. A lot of veterans were not getting their benefits in a bank. They’re getting on a debit card. So, we introduced the Veterans Benefits Banking program to give veterans free checking account, uh, some major banks and credit unions so they could, you know, be in the banking system. So, there were some things we even introduced in addition to the laws. But you’re right, the laws are really important. The the Blue Water Navy. That was just exactly what you said. Nobody believed that could be done. And so, when the law was stayed as it was allowed, we really did a lot of prep. And one of the most things I’m proud of, the things I’m most proud of, is the law was supposed to be, the claims were supposed to start to be paid on January 1st of 2020.

So, the law goes into effect in like May or June of 2019. You have six months to prepare. The VSOs were holding like, you know, press conferences on the Hill. It’ll never happen. They’re screwing the Blue Water Navy veterans. And I remember calling the first Blue Water Navy veteran like before January 1st. It was actually like, you know, the morning of, uh, the day, the day before, because in Manila, you’re 13 hours ahead and there’s a, there’s a VBA office in Manila. Who knew? Right? The Philippines. So, the claims were getting approved in Manila on January 1st, which was actually December 31st in Washington, D.C. so it was like on January 1st. And so, I ended up calling the first Blue Water Navy veteran to get a check under this law and telling him personally, we are awarding you benefits exactly as we said we would. And that’s when it started. So, it was done on time, and it was a whole lot less of a, you know, fiasco surprise than than many people thought. So that was really a fulfilling moment.

John Berry: And as we look at some of the things that have happened now, I know you implemented the position of a Chief Production Officer, and I want to get into some stuff that’s going on now, but let’s let’s go back to that. You knew that production was not happening at the rate that it should. And so, you find someone and say, these are your duties.

Dr. Paul R. Lawrence: Well, what I noticed was in a big organization and VBA, the way to think about it is this enormous factory, right? People are processing all day long, processing GI Bill claims, processing disability compensation claims. They are in a job that is basically processes and procedures. There was no real brainpower, nor, quite frankly, any DNA to stop and make changes. Right? Because all they’re doing is this process and they’re very, very good at it. Right? I needed somebody who could step back and say, wait a minute, I understand what’s going on. And I see some points in all these processes that if they get fixed or improved, everything will be better. So that’s when I created this position. The chief production officer, found someone who knew how the whole system worked. Say, listen. Find the points that if you fix them, if you make the technology better, if you think about a way, a process differently, this will improve how all the work is done. And so that was the thinking. And that really made a difference because people now began to realize, oh, if they make these changes, I can see what will happen. More claims get processed, they’re faster. You know, things move through the system quicker.

Dr. Paul R. Lawrence: It’s very hard to predict the future, but it is easy to understand what the customers expect. Veterans, right? I want my claims fast. Right. So, at some point you really have to sit back and say, well, what can be done? How do we make it work faster? And the other thing is like, how about we stop just hiring people because people make mistakes, right? What can be done with technology? What can help make this go faster? Because again, I mean, just think about this and you understand this, right? We send folks off and say, give us the world’s best military. And then we come back, we’ll give you an okay, VA, we’ll give you a so-so VA. No, it should be a world’s best VA to help our veterans. Right. And so that was kind of the metric I had in my mind is like, should be really, really good at this. Not just kind of okay, really, really good. And so that was the that was like kind of the thing I just had, which is let’s get really good at this. And, you know, there were people who good they were good. Right. And there’s real pride in doing well. There’s real pride in having somebody say, you know, thanks to you, like you point out my my claim came it was approved in 30 days, you know, thank you. Thank people like that. They want to know their work matters. So I don’t think it’s impossible to imagine it should be the standard, not an exception. Right. And it pains me now to watch it slipping back. But it can be done. That’s kind of what why the book? I wanted to let people know it can be done for those folks who want to come to government or want to make a difference, especially at the VA, it can be done.

John Berry: And in fact, now we have the PACT Act. And now, once again, a lot of claims that need to get through the system and need to get through efficiently, efficiently. And we’re hearing that that’s not happening.

Dr. Paul R. Lawrence: The great thing about Blue Water Navy was the law got stayed right. They put it on pause for six months while people could go and figure that one out. That’s probably something they should have done. The other thing too, is and I told folks this when they were preparing for the PACT Act, right. It’s all well and good to think about the benefits a law will bring to veterans. But if you don’t think about what it will cost to implement that law, you’re really doing folks a disservice. So, the rule of thumb, I told people from organizations like the IAVA and whatever, it’s a 10 to 1 rule. For every $10 billion in benefits, you need $1 billion of administrative things at the VBA. And I don’t think they ever really got that. Okay. And so my perspective on this is that benefits promised that are not delivered is a lie, okay. And we should not lie to our veterans. If we promise them benefits, we should be able to deliver them. Now, of course, two years later, they’re just at the cusp of figuring it out. And that’s just a real shame for people who are promised all these things. Um, you know, that that that the PACT Act had.

John Berry: Well, one thing that you point out is that this is much different today than it was in World War II. So so take us back through that chronology.

Dr. Paul R. Lawrence: That’s right. If you think about what went on, you know, in the wars before, you know, if you got wounded, chances are you were going to die or really be in a difficult place. Right? Or the wounds would be so horrific that it’d be pretty easy to understand. I lost my leg. I lost my arm. I mean, it’s terrible for the people. But you understood that. Now, of course, is, you know, over time, our understanding of the science has gotten much better. First, you know, what was the thing in Iraq, as you understand, within an hour. Chances are we can save your life. If you weren’t hit in the head. Right. So, we can you continue to. And of course, our understanding of mental illness and toxic exposure and the like. So, we now have folks who come back and say, hey, I’m here, but there’s still a lot wrong with me. So, as you point out, it used to be a claim had 1 or 2 contentions, a couple of things wrong. Now it’s not unusual to see, you know, a dozen, 18 something. And so, these claims are harder to process. So, it’s just, you know, sort of an unintended consequences of the system we’re in. And as you and as you point out, these never ending wars have to stop. It’s just not good all the way around. And so, you know, we need to figure that one out. But we’re playing through it. And I do think the PACT Act is, you know, needed legislation if Congress decides they want to pass that again, it’ll take a little while to figure out. But it hopefully it’ll lead to a better understanding of, you know, how you implement these laws and deal with these very difficult medical conditions.

John Berry: And you had done some of this in the private sector and done it well, and that’s probably why you got the position. But how did you apply those proven techniques to the public sector?

Dr. Paul R. Lawrence: Well, it was hard. So, you had to spend a lot of time talking to people and explaining to them why this was going to be better. You had to spend a lot of time seeing if folks were, as Jim Collins would say, on the bus versus not. They want to be there. They had to make some personnel changes of folks who just couldn’t imagine it, how to deal with the system that promoted people on tenure. They had been there forever. Therefore, they got this job versus people who were incredibly well qualified, who were being ignored. So, I had to elevate those folks and get them into the right positions. So, it was a really full court kind of management challenge. And then, of course, rewarding and talking about the people who were doing really, really well. So, hey, look, it is possible, right? Like, you know, getting rid of the legacy appeals, getting these projects implemented on time. VBA had always been sort of this, this organization that it was well understood. They weren’t going to perform well. Well, of course we won’t get things done on time. Well, of course was going to be problems. And so, once you could demonstrate, it doesn’t have to be that way. You can implement laws on time like appeals, modernization, like Blue Water navy. You can fix problems like the GI Bill. You can have it be better for veterans. Once you can kind of see that, then all of a sudden it does get sort of contagious. People say, we could be really good. Like this could be really fun. We could be seen as the people who, you know, like you point out, the whole Best Year Ever campaign was to let people know this organization is working at a level never before seen. Let’s talk about that and let everyone know how proud people are about what they’re doing for veterans.

John Berry: Are there challenges unique to the public sector where because as we know, there are a lot of veterans and people who work for the VA because they want to help veterans, but there’s this huge bureaucracy and it feels like things aren’t moving. How do you how do you mobilize the team in a way that, like you said, I understand you want to get the right make sure you have the right people on the bus. But from that point, to really get them to believe, right. I’ve been here for 20 years, and here comes another Under Secretary telling me that things are going to change. Rah rah. How do you how do you say, look, no, it really is going to be different this time?

Dr. Paul R. Lawrence: Yeah. Well, yeah, yeah, I had to figure out some little wins quick. So, in the book I write about this. So, one of the problems this is going to sound silly, but you can see how important this is. There were two problems I quickly figured out when I went and saw the offices. If you were a VBA employee and you joined, you might not have a computer for two months, which means you got this exciting new job. You’d come into an office, and you wouldn’t have a computer for two months, so you’d sit around just being unhappy and mad. Go, what did I join this organization for? So, I figured, okay, how about we get people computers on the day they show up? So, it seems like an easy thing to do. I’m sure this probably happens in your firm, but it was impossibly hard when a thousand people don’t have computers. So full court press. Let’s go get everybody on computers then. Of course, all these offices, the regional offices all around the country, are hooked up to the Washington, D.C. office. They didn’t have enough bandwidth. The purchase of technology from the telephone companies meant that it’s entirely likely the office in Lincoln, Nebraska, could not reach into the mainframe to do the work because the phone lines weren’t large enough. Right. So, you said, okay, let’s fix all those. Let’s get those folks into the 21st century. So now suddenly their computers are working, and they can actually log on and do their work. And people go, you know, maybe it is going to be different because now, for the first time ever, someone’s actually fixed the problem we’re all complaining about. So, once you can start to do stuff like that, listen to what people are telling you. Now all of a sudden, they took you seriously and said, hey, let’s process more claims every day. Let’s, you know, answer the phones far faster. Let’s do these things. Now all of a sudden, I said, you know, it could happen.

John Berry: Yeah, well, and there were some other things that probably, I think from a morale perspective, probably helped quite a bit, which was eliminating the overpayments. There’s nothing more soul crushing for the veteran who gets his benefits. And things are going well. And all of a sudden, he receives notice that there’s been overpayment, and now the VA is going to claw back or recoup some of that money. And the veteran’s distraught. And you said, no, no, no, we’re going to stop this. So how did that affect the morale of your team at VBA?

Dr. Paul R. Lawrence: Well, I think there was a little bit of, um, surprise to do these kind of things, right? Because, you know, as you point out, like, you make an overpayment, like everybody now is unhappy, right? The veterans got to give it back if he or she hasn’t spent it. Right. Employees have to go deal with them. They get yelled at or snarked at or something. Right. It’s just extra work. So, if you can do your work well, you don’t have to do it again. So, there was a sense of, oh, if we do it well, we don’t have to go back and do this rework. And so, it was a sense of, you know, one less mad person, we have to go get money back from you. Employees now doing things that they probably said, this isn’t much fun. I didn’t come to work to do this. I wanted a more heady problem, more exciting problems. Right. So, and also, it’s sort of just like, you know, hey, being good with money is something, you know, an organization that much money should be. So as a matter of just being focused.

John Berry: And were you able to 100% eliminate it or just reduce it?

Dr. Paul R. Lawrence: No, just reduce it. Just reduce it. It’s a huge number. The biggest the biggest problem is in pensions, which is, you know, is a very hard benefit to administer because you require all kinds of information from often elderly people or often their caregivers. So, you often have real problems getting the financial information. That’s the next big nut that really has to be cracked. That’s where the biggest improper payment and overpayment thing actually happens. And I think they’re working on it. But who?

John Berry: And just to clarify, for our veterans, there’s a difference between pension and VA disability benefits. If you could just quickly give us that.

Dr. Paul R. Lawrence: Sure. A pension is a means based benefit for folks who are either a certain age or a certain level of service connection, but it’s means tested, right? So this is often how you get folks off homelessness, right? Say, hey, what are your assets? If your assets are less than $150,000 and you served during certain periods of time, and as you know, they, uh, they don’t count some of the things in your asset, like a home, like your car, like some other valuables. Right. You may qualify for a pension. Pension from the private sector is retirement. This is more like a safety net. Right. And so this helps elderly, primarily folks who are down on their luck, you know, and it keeps them out of like a social safety net for veterans and survivors. So, but again it requires you can see one of the description a lot of financial information about your assets, your expenses and the like. So, there’s so much information to sort of get right that it often results in over improper payments generally overpayments.

John Berry: And another problem that you solved was the call center issue, right? Veterans would call nobody. I can’t get Ahold of anybody. I can’t talk to anybody. How did you solve that? Because that seemed to me to be one of those big, uh, public black eyes, right? Where publicly people could see like, this is this is a problem at the VA. If phone calls aren’t happening and you were able to overhaul the call center. So. So tell us about that.

Dr. Paul R. Lawrence: Yeah, so I could not understand. I could not understand anybody being satisfied, waiting at 1 point, 13 minutes to get someone to talk to you on the phone. Right. I mean, 13 minutes isn’t that long, except when you’re waiting on the phone. Right. And so, the standard they had was somebody would answer your phone in two minutes, but that wasn’t happening. Right. So, I had to change out a bunch of the leaders. And then I asked my deputy to just concentrate on this. We have to figure out what’s going on. It was something with the technology. It was something with a whole bunch of different things. But it was a full court press. And towards the end there, when I was doing the town halls in 2020, it was less than 30s and I got a report every morning at 8:00 in my desk. How fast was it last night? How many phone calls got answered? What was it called? The average speed to answer, how long was it taking? And even the folks who ran the call center, they were so proud like they would come bring the report and say, look, it’s less than 30s. So, it really took a lot of effort, a little bit more hiring of call center agents. But those folks quickly figured out that if you could be a call center agent, you could apply for other jobs at VBA because you knew the language and the and the, the work that went on. So, it was sort of a challenge, but it was one again, that was manageable, right? People wanted to answer the phones and get things resolved. So, it was it was down low when we left. I think it’s gone up since. But you know, that’s kind of how things go.

John Berry: How did you deal with the challenges of communication between the benefit side of the VA and the healthcare side of VA? And perhaps some veterans aren’t familiar. I deal with veterans all the time and say, well, wait a minute, I went to my C&P exam. I talked to my doctor, why is this not in my record? Why doesn’t the VA know about this? Uh, how did you deal with those issues?

Dr. Paul R. Lawrence: You sort of have to understand, if you think about this, it was only just a short period of time ago that multiple organizations that serve veterans got put together in the VA. Right? There were the hospitals that start out. Then there’s benefits and the cemeteries. I think it’s a 1933, President Hoover puts them together. Right. And of course, then they become a department. So, I sort of went in understanding it is a siloed organization. So, you spend a lot of time communicating to the other administrations. It was easy to work with the National Cemeteries. They were smaller and the burial benefits work together. So we had a good synergy there. It’s much harder to work with the Veterans Health Administration, VHA. It’s much, much bigger, like when I was there, it was like 300,000 325,000 of the 400,000 people, right? And they’re all doctors and we love them to death. But they’ve been the smartest people in the room their whole life, and they can’t imagine anybody else could have anything smart to say. So sometimes the intellect, you know, the institutional arrogance is really hard, but it is frustrating. We would collaborate on some things and those would work well. Other things. It was just very, very difficult. And you’re right. I mean, how many times does a veteran enter their DD214 in the system? How many times do they say how comes you don’t have my health record? So, there are just some structural things that you still take a lot of time to overcome. And so sometimes it was pounding heads on the wall and just trying to figure out how I was going to work.

John Berry: And, you know, for a lot of people, especially with your experience and everything that you’ve done to get give back, they could just say, you know, you could you could hang it up at this point and say, you know what? I’ve had a successful private sector career. I’ve had a successful public sector career. And yet you’re on several boards still giving back. And you wrote a book recently called “Veterans Benefits for You.” And I know you continue to write to help not only professionals going into the public sector, but also to help veterans. So, I’m just curious as to why your latest book, to help veterans. Uh, why that specific into the individual veteran to help them? Why not? Why not keep going global with the big the big picture stuff that you’ve been doing?

Dr. Paul R. Lawrence: Sure. Well, you made reference to the town halls, right, that I conducted in 2020. So, if you go back and think about that, for those who weren’t there, right. I started conducting town halls when the pandemic took place, sort of get information out. Hey, these facilities are closed. What are we going to do? And then I realized I could also, once I got veterans on the phone, answer questions so they’d say, hey, you know, how does this work? How does that work? So over time, I did 110 of these in 2020. Uh, you know, between call outs and getting people to listen in, I think I can safely say I talked to, or I had people listen to about 5.7 million veterans, but I answered questions. So, at 100 town halls, about an hour long, if I’d answered 15 questions each, about 1600 questions. And so, I had the chance to hear the questions veterans had. And often it was like, I don’t understand this benefit. Can someone explain it to me? How comes I can’t apply for. I heard the same questions over and over again about just the disconnect between understanding the benefits and how to apply for them.

Dr. Paul R. Lawrence: So when I got out of office, or as they say, when we all were invited to resign. When I got out of office. I said, well, there must be a book out there, someone must have written a book. And I looked around and there really wasn’t. There were old books. They were written by lawyers. They were incomprehensible to the average person. And they were only a subset of the benefits. So, I said, oh, there’s a chance here to write a book, answer all the questions I heard, provide the information in an easy to read kind of way, okay. And get all the benefits in one book. So that’s what I set out to do. So that came out like in July 4th of last year. Um, and it’s available on Amazon if folks are interested. And it really helps people understand what’s out there. And the biggest compliment I get from people is, hey, it’s easy to read. I’m surprised. And I gave it to an older veteran in my ecosystem, an uncle, a neighbor down the street, and remind him or her, you know, here’s some things. And here you might want to look at.

John Berry: Yeah. And sometimes it can be intimidating. You look at oh it says Doctor Paul Lawrence. Oh great. Right. This is going to be this is going to be difficult. But actually, because you listened to the veterans, you were able to answer questions in a way that that makes sense and is actionable. And I think that, you know, for a lot of leaders, we get so caught up in the minutia or in, you know, in the, in the bigger problem that we forget that we’re just helping people. And if we can’t really, as we would say, KISS or keep it at the level where a private can understand it, we’re doing the entire team a disservice. And similarly, the entire public if we’re writing to our public, to to our veterans. And so when you, uh, so you write that you, you wrote the book, you’re continuing to help veterans. But I want to go back to your to your military service. And even in the private sector and perhaps the VA. And I want to go to the After Action Review; your three examples of great leadership that you observed and the three examples of horrible leadership.

Dr. Paul R. Lawrence: Sure. The great leadership I observed had a lot to do about some of the stuff we talked about. I mean, I was always taken by good leaders who could articulate what everybody was doing here. Why are we doing this before Simon Sinek? Like, what’s the why behind it? Right? Why are we all doing this? And they knew a way to take this at a high-level and communicate like, well, what does this mean to me? Okay. So, it was articulation, communication, and then the thing that I really was, they would then measure how people were doing that. They really understood the linkage between all those things and performance. Right. And so, you could see okay, I get where we’re going, I see what I need to do, and you understand how I’m doing it. So, it reflects positively on me. So, they are articulate, communicate and measure. Those were things I never forgot. And I used a lot at the Veterans Benefits Administration. I guess the worst leaders I saw, and I actually worked for a person who I think, you know, you think like, who goes to hell, Osama bin laden, Adolf Hitler. I actually work for a person who I actually think I met somebody who will go to hell, who was a regular person, was the world’s worst boss and I think about him all the time. He was very self-oriented. I don’t think the word “we” had ever come out of his mouth; it was “I” this “I” that “I” whatever incredibly unprofessional call people names if they didn’t achieve, you know, really embarrass them personally. And really the thing that I always thought about coming from consulting is I couldn’t find anybody he had nurtured along, you know, they say, oh, where did you know? What about John Smith? Oh, he trained under John Berry. That’s why he’s a great lawyer. He’s an acolyte. I could never find anybody that this person trained and brought along. So there really it really kind of formed my thinking in terms of what not to do and how to think about, you know, the positive attributes of what you should be doing.

John Berry: So that being said, how did you pick your leaders when you moved into the VBA? You’re the Under Secretary now. You’ve got to build your winning team. You’re going to effectuate change throughout the organization. How are you picking those leaders that can help you do that?

Dr. Paul R. Lawrence: Well, I had some perceptions from afar because a lot, uh, the Veterans Benefits Administration, there’s only one political appointee. So, I knew sort of them from afar. Right. How well they were doing, how well they were not doing. Then I had interactions like my very first day when I show up there, I said, here’s what I’m going to do. I’m going to meet with you, each one of you, for 30 minutes, and you’re going to tell me three things like what you do, who you do it with, and what help you need from me. So, all the leaders came in and met with me within the first week and 30 minutes, and you’d be surprised. Um, you know, some of them had the meetings really well. They knew what they were doing. They could explain what they were doing. Some of them the middle tier, the middle tranche, recycled old presentations. You could tell they hadn’t really paid attention, and some of them just had no clue how to answer the questions. And when I probed, I had no understanding of what I was working on. So the initial interviews kind of were eye opening as to like, you know, who, who’s going to stick around and be really good, who’s probably going to get another position and who’s just going to leave altogether. And then, of course, word of mouth. It was pretty quick to find out, well, who’s really good. And you can see it in the meetings. You could see it from people talking about it. You could read their evaluations. And so, folks like that needed to be elevated into positions of more responsibility. And so, it really didn’t have to go outside the organization hardly at all. I hired some specialist, some senior advisors from my private sector experience, but they were more focused on specific things. But most of the folks who I worked with there were simply changing in jobs and getting people into probably more appropriate and better positions.

John Berry: So let me take you back now to the young finance officer before you. At 35 years of service in the private and public sector, what did you learn as a young officer that helped you lead large organizations?

Dr. Paul R. Lawrence: Um, I think the thing you made, you made fun of, like going to Airborne School, right? So, I was a finance officer. And so, I said, well, I got to do some real Army stuff. And I think going to Airborne School really kind of imagine, you imagine, can I do things that I can’t possibly imagine? Can I, like, stand at the door of the airplane and will I jump out like what will happen? Right. And doing like military training, you just realize how good it is; the repetition, the preparation and the like. And suddenly you realize, I’m doing something, and others with me, that I never imagined could possibly be done. So, it gives you the sense of confidence that it really can be done if you just kind of put your mind to it. And so big goals broken apart into little goals can really be achieved. So, is this the sense of like, you know, nothing’s really impossible if you set your mind to it. And that’s probably what my biggest takeaway from military experience is. And that’s what I tell people, you know, you’ll have the most unbelievable experiences in the military that will prepare you for so much. You won’t really know how they’re going to happen. There’s no places. Oh, here, sign up here for confidence building, whatever it’s. But you will learn so much. And later, and especially in the business world, it’s just invaluable stuff.

John Berry: Yeah, absolutely. And I did not mean that as a dig. It was just it’s just a funny thing. It is a funny. Well and but you were in the 82nd so you had to be Airborne.

Dr. Paul R. Lawrence: But actually, I wasn’t, I wasn’t I just did that as a finance officer because when I joined, when I finally served on active duty, because they saw all the degrees I have, I worked primarily in an office. But when my time there was up, though I eventually ended up getting out, I knew I had to go to the 82nd. So, I was get back into the real army and do real things. I think in the time I was there, there was maybe one general and a thousand finance officers. So, I said, I’ve got to get into a bigger playing field. So had I continued on, I probably would have, you know, transferred to the Infantry.

John Berry: And that’s a great point that for a lot of. Veterans. Uh, we see that the light at the end of the tunnel, if there’s only one finance general and you’re in the Finance Corps, what are the odds of me getting there? And it’s probably not great. On the other hand, what were the odds of you becoming, uh, the Under Secretary of the VBA? I mean.

Dr. Paul R. Lawrence: Yeah. No. Who knows? And in fact, it’s funny, you mentioned when I did send in my resume, I thought, oh, they’ll get thousands of resumes. I probably will never hear anything ever again. And then I got a phone call. And the rest is history, as they say. Yeah. So, you just sometimes thing happens in ways you can’t really forecast.

John Berry: And so, Doctor Paul Lawrence, I want to thank you for coming on Veteran Led. And there are a lot of books and a lot of organizations that you’re involved in. Um, in the show notes, we’ll have all your information, but how can people learn more about you, find your books and find the nonprofits that you’re that you’re involved in?

Dr. Paul R. Lawrence: Sure. Probably the best place is on I’m on LinkedIn. It’s my name Paul Lawrence. I spent a lot of time there trying to get right good information out to veterans about their benefits and about some of the programs and the like. So, I would say, look me up on LinkedIn. That’s probably the easiest way.

John Berry: And I want to close this with, so often people talk about, well, the veterans, you know, the difficulty transitioning. I know you’ve talked about there really wasn’t any transition program when you got out, but it’s the skills that veterans have that a lot of times provide us great opportunities in large organizations. And you certainly have proven that your post military service to the community is so much greater because you have so much more influence and I think skill now. But it was that willingness to, hey, I’m going to go Airborne, I’m going to do the tough thing. And then, hey, I’m going to after being, like I said, highly successful in the private sector, you go in and try something new in the public sector. Was there ever any fear that, hey, these skills might not transfer? I might not be good in the public sector?

Dr. Paul R. Lawrence: Well, no. Well, yes and no. But I had this I had this conversation with myself that says I might fail, but it won’t be because I won’t spend all my energy and try as hard as I can to do the right thing. So, I figured, I’m going to go down. I’m going to go down trying as hard as I can, because that was something I felt really hadn’t been done before. And so really that was kind of the perception. But I was careful. I mean, I don’t think I would have been a match in a lot of places, but my experience is really matched well at the Veterans Benefits Administration. So, there was some there was some foresight to it.

John Berry: What advice would you have for veterans wanting to go into the finance world after leaving service? Where are the best opportunities for veterans now?

Dr. Paul R. Lawrence: Oh, tell them, please do. There’s a shortage in the finance world. There’s a shortage of accountants, uh, everywhere. So, if you have a bookkeeping skills, accounting skills, you’ll be employed for the rest of your life. Please pay attention to finance. Um, please do it. Um, the accounting firms are hiring any accounting firm. The big four, as they say, are hiring the ones you know about JP Morgan Chase, all those. They need finance people. A lot of them have internship programs where you come out, you’ll travel around the organization and then choose after a year or two where you want to be. I strongly encourage anybody with finance in their military experience to pursue that if they’re interested after they get out. It’s definitely a growth industry and there are a shortage of capable people.

John Berry: Thank you for joining us today on Veteran Led, where we pursue our mission of promoting veteran leadership in business, strengthening the veteran community, and getting veterans all of the benefits that they earned. If you know a leader who should be on the Veteran Led podcast, report to our online community by searching @veteranled on your favorite social channels and posting in the comments, we want to hear how your military challenges prepared you to lead your industry or community, and we will let the world know. And of course, hit subscribe and join me next time on Veteran Led.


Berry Law

The attorneys at Berry Law are dedicated to helping injured Veterans. With extensive experience working with VA disability claims, Berry Law can help you with your disability appeals.

This material is for informational purposes only. It does not create an attorney-client relationship between the Firm and the reader, and does not constitute legal advice. Legal advice must be tailored to the specific circumstances of each case, and the contents of this blog are not a substitute for legal counsel.

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