Randy Lewis bet his career that he could create an inclusive workplace at one of America’s biggest corporations where people with disabilities could not just succeed, but thrive. His book, No Greatness without Goodness, is the powerful story of a corporate executive who, after watching the world through the eyes of his own child with autism, Austin, realized that we all have a greater responsibility to make the world a better place for everyone, including those with disabilities.
As the Senior Vice President of Walgreens, Randy Lewis has created thousands of full-time jobs for people with disabilities. No Greatness without Goodness offers a firsthand account of what it takes to lead with courage in order to change people’s lives for the better. Randy’s motto is “What’s the use of having power if you don’t use it to do good.” In this book, you’ll learn how to start working for good no matter where you are or how much power you hold.
We asked Randy to join us for this #ChatAutism Q&A. Here’s what he had to say:
Q: Why did you write this book?
This is a story involving hundreds of people across three continents who came together in a Fortune 50 company to build a mission-critical center that would successfully employ people with disabilities in unprecedented numbers. The immediate goal was to make the company more successful. The ultimate goal was to help change the way business views people with disabilities. It exceeded our expectations in every way and has led other companies around the world to launch their own initiatives.
Since then people often ask questions about it. Why did you do it? How did you get others on board? Why did you take such a risk? What made you think it would work?
Sometimes people ask different and more personal questions. What can I do to make a difference? How will I know when an opportunity comes along?
I wrote the book to answer the straightforward questions and to provide insight into the others. I wanted to show that big business can make a difference and make a profit. All that’s needed is for people who want to do good to step forward. Others will join them. Everyone wants to do something bigger than themselves. Everyone knows in his and her deepest self that there is no greatness without goodness.
In doing what had never been done, we stood on the shoulders of others before us. The experience of our contemporaries who do great work in employment and related fields was just waiting for us to tap into it. Employing people with disabilities unleashed a tremendous source of creativity – the kind that can only come from a lifetime of having to learn how to do things differently because you can’t do things like everyone else. Everyone benefited. We learned lessons in leadership that no book could ever teach. We found that we were all better people than we thought we were – more resourceful and more compassionate, more willing to work together and more intent on productivity.
We are connected by story. We learn from story. It teaches directly and through nuance and everyone hears it differently depending on disposition and circumstance. Looking back even I am astounded by what was accomplished and how the unlikely parts came together. It will remind readers of the power that comes with listening to their better angels. I believed this was a story worth telling, and one that readers could easily relate to through the lens of their own experiences. And I tried to extract the lessons we learned and highlight them as they applied to the narrative along the way. In short, an amazing story and a how-to guide for those who want to make a difference.
Q: Tell me about your son, Austin. What challenges did you face raising a child with autism? What have you learned from him?
Austin lost his language at the age of three. He also stopped responding to our words. On the day of his diagnosis, the son we had died and a new one took his place. Our delightful son became an uncontrollable stranger we would have to learn to know. He slipped away from his mother, Kay, so often during shopping trips that she began telling store managers he was deaf so they would understand the difficulty and urgency of finding him. We couldn’t eat in a restaurant, go to movie, or leave him with babysitters. His public meltdowns caused other parents to look at us like we were idiots. Being shamed in public became a commonplace event.
For five years Austin met with a speech therapist twice a week and never said a word. Then one day he spoke an entire sentence. But knowing how to comprehend what was being said to him and to communicate his own feelings was a long way off.
Austin did communicate without words, however. When I’d frown at him, he would run across the room to push my eyebrows up. Those little hands on my face calmed my anger like nothing else ever could have. When I spoke harshly to him, he would be unhappy for days – so long that I would repent of any impatience and vow to hold my temper better the next time. He taught me more patience than I ever thought possible.
Experts told us he might never be potty-trained or learn to tie his shoes. No one dreamed he would read and drive a car, as he does today. Each step took months and sometimes years of patient lessons. But Austin didn’t quit and neither did we.
Health and hygiene were struggles – how often to change towels, why you should eat your vegetables. Austin asks why a thousand times. We’ve learned to be creative with explanations and repeat them endlessly. We still have never come up with a convincing argument for why he should eat vegetables.
For years, I cut his hair myself by wrestling him to the floor amid screams and flailing arms and legs. But as he was getting bigger and I was getting older, we realized that he would have to learn to go to the barber. First he just sat in the chair. Then the barber clipped the scissors near his head. It was a year before Austin finally let the barber clip his hair.
He continues to advance even now in his 20s, and if you spend enough time with him you will discover a compassionate, curious and charming young man with a delightful (albeit odd at times) sense of humor. When watching movie he may laugh when everyone else is gasping, but there’s nothing callous about him. A lost kitten can make him cry all night.
One of the most important lessons Austin has taught me is to look past the obvious and to see a full and complete person who is different in many aspects but so much alike in many more if I take the time and set aside my preconceptions. He opened my eyes to see others as they are and not according to my preconceptions.
Loving my son helped me understand the pain of parents everywhere who lie in bed at night worrying about what will happen to their children after they are gone. Watching my son progress taught me that we underestimate and dismiss the abilities and contribution of those on the margins. Seeing the way he is dismissed or ignored by others gave me the courage to stand up for those who are unjustly overlooked and ignored.
Q: Why did you want to build a distribution center for people with disabilities at Walgreens? What inspired you to take on such a big challenge?
All parents have dreams for their children. When Austin was diagnosed, we knew most of our dreams might not come true. But facing a harsh reality didn’t keep us from dreaming new dreams. We learned the joy of even the smallest of victories: using a fork, responding to the word “no,” eating quietly in a restaurant. For most people a driver’s license is just an ordinary teenage rite of passage; for Austin it was like graduating summa cum laude from MIT. A job paying a living wage would be like a Nobel Prize. But what were the chances he would ever have one? Austin could achieve wonders if people would give him a chance, but would they?
As a parent and an employer, I saw the obstacles that people with disabilities face in securing employment. They may not be able to get through the on-line application process, may not interview well, may not be able to learn the way we are used to training, may have inconsistency in their employment history. They face a death by a thousand cuts. And the unkindest cut? The belief by 99.999% of us that people with disabilities really cannot do any job as well as a typically-abled person.
So the question was: Who is going to do something about it? Because of Austin, I knew what was needed. And I knew that people with disabilities were capable of doing far more than most people thought they could. Walgreens was growing. We were offering well-paying jobs with a future. We had already built some of the most automated distribution centers in the world. We were planning a new center that would be even more automated and the most efficient in our history.
This was the chance I’d been waiting for. Why couldn’t we build this super center in such a way that people with disabilities would be able to perform as well as anyone in the world? I believed we could and that we could do it at no additional cost. As the dream grew, I began to believe we could hire not just a few people with disabilities but lots of them. We began to believe we could do something that had never been done: one-third of the workforce, 200 people with disabilities working side-by-side, performing the same jobs, held to the same standards, earning the same pay. And if we were successful, we promised, we’ll open our doors to the world and give away everything we’ve learned.
We knew it would be hard and require our very best. But if it worked, we might change the world. We made one question our mantra: If we can’t do this, who can?
We reasoned that if our plan didn’t work or if it fell short, we would adjust just like we always do in business whenever we encounter a problem. Even if it was a failure, we could take solace in knowing that if we couldn’t do it, nobody else could have. This dream grew until it became one we could not resist.
Q: What are your hopes for the future for your son Austin and other adults with disabilities?
Our hope for Austin is the same as it for our daughters: that they live a satisfying life in safety and health. Specifically, that one day he live independently, be able to support himself, have friends and continue to expand his world and interests.
When it comes to people with disabilities, my hope is that we will all learn that there is no “them.” No matter what separates us, we are more alike than we are different. Employment is often a black-and-white world, but ability is not an either/or. Like most things, it is a spectrum. We are all on the spectrum. We just differ in where we fall. Everyone has a disability – some people can hide theirs and others can’t. My ultimate hope is that during my lifetime people with disabilities will be engaged fully in all aspects of society, that this will be the norm not the exception.
Q: What do you hope people will take away from your new book No Greatness Without Goodness?
I hope it reminds leaders of the awesome responsibility of power. What’s the point of having power if you can’t do good with it? What we accomplished showed that business can contribute to the common good while achieving an organizational mission. The rewards in terms of employee trust, morale and loyalty were enormous.
I hope it reminds all of us, regardless of station and circumstance, that we underestimate our own ability to make a difference.
Changing the status quo for the better is not easy, but even the attempt is worthwhile. Along the way, there will be both frustration and joy. How you get there and what you end up with will be probably very different from what you envision at the beginning, but chances are good that you will look back in wonder at all the ways others stepped forward. Others will help, challenge and inspire you. You will touch people in more ways that you will never know. You will make a difference even though sometimes it doesn’t seem so. And regardless of outcome, the times when you dream big and work for the good of others will be the most meaningful and satisfying work of your life. Knowing that you stepped forward when so few do is a tremendous reward in itself. No one could ask for more.