I expected a good speech from Randy Lewis when he opened the Warehousing Education and Research Council's annual meeting last month. He is an articulate, dedicated, and well-informed professional. What I did not expect was to be as moved as I was.
But Lewis, who is senior vice president of distribution and logistics for Walgreens, delivered a heartfelt and personal address that brought the crowd of 1,100 to its feet. The subject of his speech was Walgreens' commitment to employ large numbers of people with cognitive or physical disabilities at its new DC in Anderson, S.C.
We brought that story to readers in our October 2007 issue, but I think what might have been missing from that piece—and it would have been difficult to convey—was Lewis's passion for the project's success.
Now passion is a word that is often abused in discussions about business leadership. In Lewis's case, though, he wears on his sleeve his deep belief that offering opportunity to people who face enormous physical or mental barriers is not just the right thing to do, but also good business. It is a passion born of his own personal experience raising a son, Austin, who is autistic.
What impresses is that this is not charity; it is not simply about doing good. It is about giving people a chance to prove themselves. "People with disabilities die a death of 1,000 cuts," Lewis said. "The unkindest cut is the belief that people with disabilities cannot do the job." At Walgreens, though, there is no make-work involved— every employee is held to the same standard. "They have to walk through the door and do the job every day."
The lesson for businesses everywhere, many of which fret about where the workers of the future will come from, is that when you do give people a chance, they not only can succeed, but excel.
Lewis borrowed the title of his address, "Will hope and history rhyme?" from The Cure at Troy, Seamus Heaney's translation of Sophocles' Philoctetes. It is the story of a maimed warrior who had been abandoned by Odysseus on a deserted island but whom Odysseus now must persuade to come to the aid of the Greeks in order to win the Trojan War. What could be a story of yet a second betrayal turns out to be more a story of hope. "Once in a lifetime/The longed-for tidal wave/Of justice can rise up,/And hope and history rhyme," says the chorus in Heaney's translation.
It is such a vision that moves Lewis, who characterizes Walgreens' innovative hiring program at Anderson as "the best thing we have ever done."
Lewis now carries that message of possibility around the country, urging others to follow suit. "Look around this room," he said. "Who is better prepared to address this?"