“What’s the use of having power if you don’t use it to do good?”

For the former VP of Walgreens that is all too often that we subjugate our values and loyalty in exchange for privilege and power. But if the leaders are vested with power, looking for ways to use it to serve the business and to build the world we long for it’s more than a requirement. It’s an imperative. In the following interview, get to know the man “who hired a workforce no one else would” – people with disabilities – and who transformed it into a business model and into a leadership philosophy already replicated in several companies

nog’-wog [no greatnesswithout goodness] [L. nil magnum nisi bonum, nothing is great unless good]

  1. no achievement can be considered great if detrimental to the common good
  2. a leadership philosophy which seeks to maximize the benefit of all who are impacted by its decisions; ethical leadership; selfless leadership: it is about us not me
  3. a belief that it is possible and desirable seek to reconcile the disparate facets of our lives and embrace the best of all: e.g., achieve excellence, do rewarding work, make a difference and leave the world a better place; to be one person at home and the same person at work; combine good business and good citizenship; do well and do good

Randy Lewis, Former VP at Walgreens and founder of NOGWOG Disability Initiative

No Goodness Without Greatness could be the title of a fictional movie. Actually, it’s the title of a book, but the story in their pages is everything but fiction. On the contrary. His author, J. Randolph Lewis, who will be one of the most acclaimed speakers to be present at the XXVI UNIAPAC’s World Congress in Lisbon, is the pioneer of an inclusive business model, which started at Walgreens and that is being replicated in some big companies in the US. The initiative was based on the very audacious idea that people with disabilities could and should have the same professional opportunities than everybody else, contributing to a company’s productivity like everybody else and enjoying the same benefits as everybody else.

As a father of Austin, an autistic person, Lewis claims that he had learned from his son that being “different” doesn’t mean being “incapable”. As the senior vice president of Walgreens, and through a revolutionary move, Randy Lewis created thousands of full-time jobs for people with disabilities, proving that it is possible to have a “mixed” workforce, where prejudice has no place and the people with disabilities can also be people with capacities.

After retiring from Walgreens, Randy founded the NOGWOG Disability Initiative. The non-profit organization is dedicated to the expansion of hiring the disabled by Fortune 500 companies based upon the Walgreens experience. Randy Lewis also maintains an active speaking schedule about the advantages of hiring those with disabilities, inspiring other companies to follow his model.

In the following interview, Randy Lewis shares a little bit of his personal and professional stories – which aren’t mutually excluded – and assures that, in the business world, the best way to answer to the question “should we dedicate ourselves to achieving our business goals OR maximizing our positive impact on the world?” should be with a resounded “YES!”.

“Why I hired a workforce no else would” – the powerful title of your TEDx in Naperville – is a good starting point for our conversation.

  • Can you briefly share with us how your son Austin taught you to see people as they are instead of how they look and how did you envision that a Fortune 500 company could make a real difference in business hiring people with disabilities?

Our son Austin has autism and didn’t speak until he was ten years old.  He is now 30 years old. When people meet Austin, they tend to underestimate him. He speaks but has difficulty carrying-on a typical conversation. He rocks back and forth occasionally. He reads at a primary school level. And if he were like other people in his situation, he would never be offered a job.

I, too, have always underestimated him and he has surprised me again and again.  People would never guess that he now has a full-time job that pays a living wage and that he drives an hour each day to work. Austin taught me to see the person and not to be blinded by the disability.

We realized that there were likely others like Austin with different kinds of disabilities who could do the jobs in our distribution centers if they had a chance to demonstrate their skills. However, there were no companies that had done this, especially on a large scale. I thought,” If we can’t do this, who can?  Who better than us to demonstrate to the world that people with disabilities can do the job as well as anyone? And maybe by setting high goals (30% of the workforce, same jobs, same performance standards) and being successful, we can create a model that would help other companies do something similar.”

We opened the first large-scale distribution center with these goals in 2007 and a second in 2009.  These sites turned out to be our most productive in our history. And we opened up our doors and gave it away, even to our competitors.

  • NOGWOG is not only the name of the website which hosts your Disability Initiative, but also a business and leadership philosophy. Could you share with us its core values?

Nogwog is shorthand for No Greatness Without Goodness, which is the name of the book I wrote about the experience and what I had learned.  Its Latin equivalent is “Ni Magna Nisi Bonum” which is the motto of the Petit Seminaire School in Puducherry, India which I came across in the novel, Life of Pi. It struck a chord. It is a reminder that the most important and the most satisfying work is that which demands our best and also serves others.

From a business standpoint, we have multiple stakeholders to serve– customers, employees, shareholders, and community (depending on the type of business, “community” can be local or global.) Any company that ignores any of the first three will not be successful. However, any company which ignores the last misses an opportunity to provide meaning to the work of the business.

Leadership is a privilege and sets the tone of the organization. We long for leaders worth following – those whom we can trust, who are devoted to excellence and care about us as people, not as interchangeable parts. Leaders who will help us be successful, do meaningful work and create an environment that will bring out the best in us. The most effective leaders help transform us from bricklayers to cathedral builders.

As business leaders do like numbers and statistics, could you provide a “numerical perspective” that shows how many people and companies were impacted by your work (firstly in Walgreens) and devotion to this promotion of inclusiveness in the corporate world?

It is an idea whose time has come.  Based on the results Walgreens has achieved, the National Governors’ Association in the United States has called it the ‘gold standard of disability employment’. Walgreens continues to host executives from hundreds of companies, large and small, to see how it works and meet with senior managers and frontline supervisors to answer whichever questions they might have.  Many of those companies have launched similar initiatives using the model. For instance, both Marks & Spencer in the UK and Best Buy now have large-scale distribution centers where people with disabilities (PWDs) compose one-third or more of the workforce.  Other large companies include UPS, Starbucks, Toyota, AT&T, Apple, Pepsi, Crown Equipment and Procter & Gamble.

Walgreens has extended the initiative to all its distribution centers which employ now almost 2,000 PWDs and is projected to be 20% of its entire logistics workforce by 2020.

  • Research (and a paper) has been conducted about team managers responsible for workforces with a significant percentage of workers with limited skills, to detail “the evolution of managers from the traditional autocratic, process-focused leadership style commonly used to achieve production goals to a relationship-based leadership, people-centric leadership style”. Can you tell us the most significant results of the study in question?

Anderson University published an award-winning study on Walgreens’ inclusive workforce that is composed of both people with disabilities and typically-abled people who work side-by-side, earn the same wages and are held to the same performance standards.  It concluded that people with disabilities are a catalyst for change from a process-focused to a people-focused culture resulting in a more engaged workforce, better managers and higher performance.

With only a typically-abled workforce, the manager makes generalized assumptions about the abilities of the employee and the manager’s principal focus is the achievement of production goals.  In a process-focused culture, the employee needs to adapt to the manager’s leadership and standards.

However, with an inclusive workforce, employees start with dramatically different skills and the manager must work to align and support each employee’s capability to achieve production goals by learning how to solve each team member’s challenges. Managers develop an authentic relationship with the team members by learning to communicate at the individual’s level. They determine what the employee can do, as well as how to best create conditions and support for the employee. Managers also learn that they can make mistakes and still lead effectively. As a result, managers and employees report being transformed into people who have a passion for serving others and who perceive their work as intrinsically rewarding. Production targets are exceeded as a result of increased manager creativity and employee engagement.

Other companies I have spoken with have had similar experiences.

  • Your motto “Why have power if we don’t use it for good?” is also the real story of your life. Taking in account the thematic that will be central to the UNIAPAC World Congress – business as a noble vocation – what “strategy” would you use to convince business leaders that doing good is not only good for their souls, but also for their businesses? 

Whatever we do for business should also be good for the soul.  We often limit ourselves by framing choices as “either or”.  For instance, should we dedicate ourselves to achieving our business goals or maximizing our positive impact on the world?  The best answer should be “Yes!”.  It will stir creativity, inspire the workforce, and endear customers.

For instance, when we met with the Board of Directors about building the center, we told them that it was going to be the most productive ever and have a large number of PWDs, something that had never been done. When they asked what if our disability initiative were to conflict with achieving desired business results, we said we would adjust accordingly just as we do whenever with other new initiatives.  To bring out the best in those who would make it a reality, we told managers and team members what we hoped to do and why it was important. When they asked what would happen if they made mistakes, we told them to learn from them, adjust and keep moving forward and if they ran into a roadblock, to figure out a way around the problem and if unsuccessful to bring it forward so we could help them from higher up.  Our standard of performance was to “sleep well at night knowing that we had given it our best”. That is, if the initiative failed, we were going to tell the world that it cannot be done because we were unable to.  We continue to get letters of thanks from customers and soon-to-be customers when they learn of it.

If we view our sole responsibility is maximizing profits for the owners, we deny ourselves, the business and our employees to participate in bringing more light into the world.  A business unto itself has no ‘soul’, and if it is to have one, it is because its leaders bring theirs into the workplace.  Unfortunately, we claim values that we may often ignore in our professional lives due to the ‘demands of the businesses’ or perceived expectations of shareholders.  This is just another way of saying we subjugate our values and loyalty in exchange for privilege and power.  Leaders are vested with power. We need to look for ways to use it to serve the business and to build the world we long for.