A life and career centered in service can take one many places. For Ambassador Delano Lewis it has ranged from his early roots in Kansas City, KS to service in the Peace Corps in Africa, being named CEO of Chesapeake & Potomac Telephone Company (C&P Telephone Company), President and CEO of National Public Radio, appointed by President Clinton as Ambassador to South Africa, or serving on the boards of directors of multiple Fortune 500 companies. Lewis has travelled the world, built a significant professional legacy and raised an educated successful family while doing it.
Within Lewis’ distinguished career is a recurring theme of service that originated from his formative years in his hometown with his family, friends and the church. Consistent emphasis on education created opportunities that changed his life.
“I grew up in the segregated times of Kansas City. The neighborhood, the schools, my teachers were all black. What I came away with, as I look back on those years, was a strong educational background with the teachers who were extraordinary,” shared Lewis. “Many of our teachers had their Master’s Degrees at Sumner High School, while working on their PhDs. They couldn’t get jobs other places because of discrimination, so they were our teachers at Sumner and they were absolutely outstanding. My early years in Kansas City, Kansas provided me a strong educational foundation.”
After receiving his undergraduate degree from the University of Kansas, Lewis went on to graduate from the Washburn University School of Law. Following graduation from Law school, Lewis accepted a position with the Dept. of Justice in Washington, DC. In 1966, Lewis was offered and accepted a staff position, associate director with the US Peace Corps in Nigeria. When the Nigerian Civil War, prompted the evacuation of the Peace Corps, Lewis was named Country Director for the Peace Corps program in Uganda; managing 160 Peace Corps volunteers.
Upon completion of his assignment with the Peace Corps, Lewis returned to the United States, moving to Washington, D.C. in 1969 working on Capitol Hill. “I worked for Senator Edward Brooke, who was the only black senator in the Senate at that time. I worked for him as a legislative assistant and when Reverend Walter Fauntroy was elected non-voting delegate to the House of Representatives, I moved over to become Walter’s Chief of Staff. It was from that vantage point that the Telephone Company found me.”
A senior executive at C&P Telephone Company had been observing Lewis career in Washington with hopes of recruiting him. Lewis’ political experience coupled with his connectivity to political influencers and community made him a desirable candidate to assist with forthcoming telephone regulatory oversight.
“I was invited to lunch with Chuck Weikel, an Assistant VP at C&P Telephone Company and he said, ‘We’ve been watching you and you have an amazing career so far. We need someone in our ranks that knows politics and knows the local scene. You’ve got the background, etc. would you be interested?’ After some negotiations, I became a Public Affairs Manager for C&P Telephone Company. I had no idea I would be in the business world, and I stayed 21 years. It was my proudest professional moment to be a part of the business world, from 1973 to 1994. I worked my way up and ended up becoming the President of Washington D.C. operations for Bell Atlantic, which is now Verizon.”
Today, Lewis is a speaker, consultant and author of a new book. Lewis shares principled perspectives on success with his life experiences as references in his book, It All Begins with Self: How to Discover Your Passion, Connect with People, Succeed in Life.
A best-seller on Amazon in the Biography, Political and Business categories, Lewis’ book was targeted for people 18-35 but finds that it’s helpful for those transitioning in their career as well. “The book is meant to help people who are thinking about or beginning their careers, but it does have applications to people mid-career or who are thinking about shifting. I share principles of how you can make these moves,” shared Lewis.
Lewis credits the inspiration for his book to his family as they shared in his career in the US and abroad. “I spent 35 years in Washington and several years overseas. I’ve done things in government, business and not-for-profit. I’ve been successful. I’ve also had my ups and downs,” Lewis reflected. “My family had been encouraging me to put something down, so I worked with my family who all gave me editorial support as I wrote the book.”
Sought after for his leadership experience, Lewis has served on the boards of directors of Apple, Black Entertainment Television, Colgate-Palmolive, Eastman Kodak, GEICO, Haliburton and J.P.Morgan Chase. His track record as a black member on these boards, gives him an informed perspective on the current state of diversity on corporate boards.
“It’s very clear that a lot of work has to be done with regards to bringing diverse candidates into the corporate world. I’ve served on the Colgate-Palmolive board for over 20 years. I chaired the Nominating and Governance committee, which brings in new directors. Before retiring from the Colgate-Palmolive board, there were three women and three blacks. A black woman and two black men out of a board of eleven. So, we were fairly diverse. We were also diverse in careers and ethnicity.”
Lewis’ views the need for diversity of board composition for major corporations as a business imperative creating valuable links to market share with diverse communities. “Many other corporations are still behind. If you look at the business world, with the power base of minorities, with Hispanics, with Asians and African-Americans in terms of consumer population, you’re going to need to have those people represented on your boards, because those are your customers.”
“For those executives looking for board seats, so much of life, not only for board seats, but on advancement in careers, depends on mentors and relationships. I talk a lot about that in my book, It All Begins With Self. I didn’t just get to those boards by having the ability and having the skills. Someone had to know that I had those skills, and that I could be a good board member. So, it’s the network. It’s the people that you know, and the people that know other people.”
Ambassador Delano Lewis’ desire to help people and impact lives through service has taken him to great heights in private industry but also global diplomacy as an Ambassador to South Africa. When asked to define his personal and professional legacy, he still centers back home to family and service. “Being a good husband and father has been an important side of my personal legacy. As for professional legacy, every job I had, I wanted to do the best I could. I always wanted to help people along the way. Not only minorities and women but others who needed a hand.”