Episode 172: Finding Your Passion and a Successful Life With Ambassador Delano Lewis

April 27 , 2022  |  By Matt Waller

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In this week’s episode Matt sits down with Ambassador Delano Lewis, former President and CEO of NPR, and US Ambassador to South Africa, to discuss his expansive career in business and government. Lewis also highlights how understanding the organization’s culture was a game changer in expanding his leadership skills at NPR. He also discusses the unique experience he had as US Ambassador to South Africa and shares what he learned from Nelson Mandela.

Learn more about Ambassador Lewis' books and podcast.

Episode Transcript

Delano Lewis  0:01  
It's not about Delano Lewis, it's not about Dean Waller, it's about you, and you should take a look at you. 

Matt Waller  0:11  
Excellence, professionalism, innovation and collegiality. These are the values the Sam M. Walton College of Business explores in education, business and the lives of people we meet every day, I'm Matt Waller, Dean of the Walton College and welcome to the Be EPIC podcast. I have with me today, Ambassador Delano Lewis. He's been president of Bell Atlantic in Washington DC. He's been President, CEO of NPR. He's the former US ambassador to South Africa. He has served on a number of corporate boards, including Colgate-Palmolive, Halliburton, Eastman Kodak, Black Entertainment Television. So Ambassador, thank you so much for taking time to visit with us today. We really appreciate it.

Delano Lewis  1:04  
Thank you, sir. It's my pleasure Dean to be with you. Thank you.

Matt Waller  1:08  
You graduated from the University of Kansas in 1960, with a bachelor's degree in political science, and then later got your JD. Are you from Kansas originally?

Delano Lewis  1:22  
Yes, I'm a I'm a Jayhawker through and through, born in southern Kansas in a small town called Arkansas City, Kansas. And my dad became a railroader and moved to Kansas City to work on the Santa Fe Railroad. And that's where I grew up in Kansas City, Kansas.

Matt Waller  1:40  
Well, we have a similarity. I grew up in Kansas City as well, but on the Missouri side.

Delano Lewis  1:46  
I'll forgive you.

Matt Waller  1:49  
So when you graduated from law school, I believe you went to work for the Department of Justice, is that correct?

Delano Lewis  1:58  
Yes, that was my first job out of law school. I graduated from Washburn School of Law in Topeka, Kansas in 1963. And because of the US Attorney for the state of Kansas, who was a political person, his name was Newell George, and he'd been a congressman from Kansas City area, and he lost his bid for reelection in 1960. And JFK appointed him the United States attorney. His administrative assistant had been my next door neighbor on the campus at Washburn. And she was the one who put my name forward for the Honors Program at the Department of Justice. And the story there is fascinating because I worked full time and went to law school full time. So I was not an honor student, but I did okay. The US Attorney sent my name into Bobby Kennedy in the Justice Department anyway and I was selected. And I started back in November 1963 in the Department of Justice in Washington, DC.

Matt Waller  3:04  
I would like to move up in time a little bit to 1990. About 30 years after you graduated with your undergraduate degree, 27 years after your law degree, you became the president of Bell Atlantic in Washington, DC, but at the time, when you first joined, it was the Chesapeake and Potomac Telephone Company, is that correct?

Delano Lewis  3:29  
Yes, I spent 10 years in the federal government in several different jobs. And in 1973, the telephone company recruited me to join and that was Chesapeake and Potomac Telephone Company and a subsidiary of the old AT&T. It was one of the 22 operating companies of the old AT&T. And I had a wonderful, marvelous career there and great mentors. And I started as a public affairs manager and became an assistant VP and then a vice president and then president of a subsidiary. So it was a 21 year very successful career. And as you know, in the mid 80s, with the breakup of the Bell System, there were seven baby bells, and one of them was Bell Atlantic, and I stayed with Bell Atlantic and then I retired after 21 years as president of DC operations of Bell Atlantic, which later became Verizon.

Matt Waller  4:27  
As the next stop. You went to NPR for four years as president and CEO, is that correct? 

Delano Lewis  4:33  
That's right. 

Matt Waller  4:34  
So I would think that being president of Bell Atlantic would be very different than being president, CEO of NPR. Am I correct?

Delano Lewis  4:45  
You're quite correct. You're quite correct. And, you know, it was it was quite a culture shock in many ways. 21 years in the business world, and I didn't realize that I would be a business person. I'd really thought I'd be probably practicing law or maybe running for political office, but to spend that time in the business world was a very different and new adventure for me. But I retired early and at age 55, after 21 years and wasn't sure  of the next step. But I was asked by a executive search firm to throw my hat in the ring for possibility of Presidency of National Public Radio. And when I got the call from the executive search firm, I said, "Why are you calling me?" You're looking for a president of National Public Radio, and he said, "Well, I've lived in Washington for a long time. And I've watched your career, he said, I've been with the Carter White House, and I'd see your name in the paper, and I was watching your career and the board of NPR thought they'd like to have a business person to run the organization, they've had journalists before, they'd like to consider having a business person. And so that's why I thought of you. And you've had a background in government as well." So that's how I threw my hat in the ring and, and responded to that call. And I found out later that there was some 200 applications for this position, very well sought after position. And I ended up being one of two finalists, and was selected by the board. But back to your original question about the difference? Yes, I was managing two to 3000 people in the telephone business. And I thought, okay, I'm going to be managing around 400 people dealing with 600 station managers around the country, this is not gonna be that difficult. Well, it was one of the most difficult jobs I had, because it was not only a reputed, well respected media organization, but there were a group of journalists who really didn't want to be managed. And so here is this business guy coming in and talking about managing the company. You know, there were some issues to deal with. But I quickly learned with the help of the chair of the board and decided that if I was going to be a success here, I had to understand the culture and be able to work with the culture, I began to become acclimated and manage. And I had a very exciting time. But yes, it was a little culture shock at the beginning.

Matt Waller  7:13  
Yeah, I can see why they would want to bring a business person into an organization like NPR, when I can also see why it would be so important for you to learn the culture before you started implementing changes. How did you go about, you know, really studying and understanding the culture?

Delano Lewis  7:32  
It's a very, very fascinating question I, I was very fortunate, I spent time with the board chair, he was very patient with me, I spent hours with him, he was a station manager running two stations in the Phoenix area, public radio stations and started telling me the history of the organization. So I listened and learned and talk to the people inside and outside of the organization. And to get a sense of what NPR was all about. And one of the big differences is it was more of a cooperative arrangement where you worked with stations that had been approved by the FCC to do educational kinds of broadcasting. And that's how it began. So coming from the business world where you had a corporate setting, this was more a cooperative setting, where the base of the power of the organization rests with the station managers. For example, there was a board of 16 members, I was the 17th person, voting member of the board. But of the 17 members, 10 of them were station managers. And so they had the power to hire and fire the CEO, they had the power to run the organization with the majority of the board, but yet, they were customers of the services that we provided. So you had your customer being your boss, very different kind of arrangement from my corporate world. And so the learning curve was there. And also, I brought in a consultant, business consultant, who helped me with eyes and ears around the organization, and help give me advice about how to understand this culture and to move it forward. So the learning curve was pretty quick. I spent a lot of time out talking with station managers to spend a lot of time out raising money. But I got a pretty good sense early on of the culture. And it began to work.

Matt Waller  9:19  
When you started trying to bring in some of the experience you had in business, you know, after you got the culture, understood the culture, was it easier to start bringing those principles in? Or was it still a challenge?

Delano Lewis  9:33  
It was a challenge because I had their eyes and ears but you know, change is hard. And I was really trying to get them to see that we need to think about growing. If you looked at the numbers during that time, the listener was age 55+, and I don't know whether that's changed. It's probably still a very older audience. Technology was coming online, new kinds of technologies. Are you going to survive? So my business instincts took over to say, how are we going to grow? How we're going to grow our audience? How are we going to take advantage of technologies? And so I pushed on some model kinds of projects. One was a project with trying to use the internet. And today, it sounds very simple, because we do it all the time, use the internet and have NPR over the internet. And you could listen to Bob Edwards, who was running Morning Edition at that time, and you can hear Bob's voice over the internet. And so, you know, they weren't too sure they wanted to do this. And I kept pushing and pushing and was successful. And now look at it, if you listen to any NPR station, they will say, if you want to learn more, go to KRWG.org, that's our local station and find more about what we're doing. So I was the pioneer of beginning to move that forward and connecting new technologies with our services. And hopefully, we were getting to raise more money and also expanding our listenership. 

Matt Waller  11:09  
Yeah, because you were joining NPR, of course, the internet had been around, but the World Wide Web was brand new. And people were trying to figure out how to use it kind of like they're trying to figure out how to use Web 3.0, as they call it now with Blockchain, crypto, NFT's. Well, that's exciting. I would guess that it was probably challenging to find people that had the right technology skills to help you with that transition. Was it?

Delano Lewis  11:40  
Yes and No. I was pretty lucky, I just had to get the consensus of the management structure to go along with some of these ideas. But I was lucky because there was a chief engineer, who was running the organization at the time, who had some very good ideas. And he had lots of good skills. And he was keeping up with what was going on outside of NPR. So I moved him out of the engineering job as Chief of the engineering operation, which was our technical operation for NPR, and created a new office and that office was looking at new technologies. And that began to move us forward. So I took some again, some of my business instincts and figured out that you take the talent that you have, structure it a little bit differently, give him or her the resources and let them do their jobs. And that's what happened. And we begin to take advantage of the technologies, we begin to move the chain much forward, forward.

Matt Waller  12:40  
And you were US Ambassador to South Africa? Was it from '99 to 2001?

Delano Lewis  12:48  
That's correct.

Matt Waller  12:49  
Tell us a little bit about that. I can't imagine what that's like.

Delano Lewis  12:53  
That was one of the highlights of my career as you as you could imagine. I owe a great deal of that to an Arkansas favorite son. It was President Clinton that nominated me for that position. But I worked on his campaign when he was governor of Arkansas to become president of the United States. I was very active in his becoming president and the political side. I was very active with Ron Brown, who was head of the Democratic Party at that time. So anyway, I had very strong connections to the Clinton White House. While I was at NPR, for example, Vice President Gore was very interested in technology and the superhighway. And he put together a commission dealing with the superhighway and communications and I was co chair of that commission, and developed the two years we looked around on communications for the federal government. And I presented a report to the White House. So I got that call after I had retired from National Public Radio, and living in New Mexico. And I got this call one afternoon from Vice President Gore, saying that the President Clinton would like to nominate me as the next United States Ambassador to the Republic of South Africa, and that was in 1998. So I was very excited about that possibility. And my wife was as well. It took me a year to get confirmed, however, because that's politics when we're seeking a political appointment. You have to have advice and consent of the United States Senate as a political appointee for an ambassadorship and for many other political appointments. But anyway, I got my hearing before the Foreign Relations Committee. And in December 1999, even though I was nominated in '98,11 months after my nomination, I was confirmed. So my wife and I landed in Johannesburg, South Africa, as the ambassador in December 1999. And, as I said before, it was a high honor, not only to represent our country as the United States Ambassador, but to a country that had just come through apartheid and Nelson Mandela had just stepped down as the first democratic elected President of the Republic of South Africa. So all those things were a part of that experience. And to say it was a highlight of my life is an understatement. It was absolutely extraordinary.

Matt Waller  15:12  
Ambassador. Have you ever met Nelson Mandela?

Delano Lewis  15:17  
Yes, I have Dean. It was certainly a highlight of my my experience there. As I'd said before, he had just stepped down as president, a five year term, he only served one term, and his deputy Thabo Mbecki had been elected as the president. And so I called on President Mbeki when I came and presented my credentials to President Mbeki. But I also had a call on the former President Nelson Mandela. During that year and a half that I was the US ambassador, I had a number of occasions to meet with former President Nelson Mandela. But one story that I would relate to you, my sister-in-law, my wife's sister and two grandchildren had come with their aunt to visit. And my grandsons were about 10 or 11 years old. One was about 10. The other was about 12. And they were with their aunt on a visit to us in South Africa. And so we were all in the limousine. And I said, I need to stop by pay a brief call on Nelson Mandela. We have some business that I had to attend, but it wouldn't take very long. So we all went by his office residence. And I went in and we took care of business. And we were walking out. And he said to me, how is the family? And I said, well, the family's fine. My wife, and my sister-in-law, and in fact, my grandsons are out in the car. And he said, in the car, he says, What are they doing in the car? Bring them in. So we came in to his office residence. And he offered us tea. And I mean, could you imagine? And my grandson said, they remember this, obviously to this day, sitting having tea with former President Nelson Mandela. And he turns to my grandsons, and says, you know you have a very important grandfather. And I said, Nelson Mandela is saying, I'm important. And so he said to my grandsons, he is the United States Ambassador to our country here. And he's a very important person. So this gives you a sense of Nelson Mandela, who achieved so much in his lifetime, but being so humble and gregarious, and I just think is wonderful, wonderful story.

Matt Waller  17:36  
Wow, that is a great story. But you're right. I mean, what he accomplished in life was so remarkable, but having that kind of personality and treating people well. It's so critical in business, in politics, in everything.

Delano Lewis  17:55  
There's no question. And you know, you you have to give some credit to President de Klerk. I think President de Klerk. And President Nelson Mandela did share the Peace Prize, because it was President de Klerk, who realized that their system of government should be changed. And he recognized that Nelson Mandela was a leader that he could work with and trust. And it was de Klerk, who called on Nelson Mandela in prison, and set up a whole system for him to be released. And it's just an extraordinary story, because he saw Nelson Mandela, an individual that would probably bring the country together and avoid bloodshed, over a rule of a country where the minority dominated the majority of people. So he leaned on Nelson Mandela, and that was a good choice, an excellent choice. And if you read Nelson Mandela's book, Long Walk to Freedom, when he talks about bending time, before he comes out, and they had already set a date for him to be released. And he says in his book, he had more things to do. Now he'd spent 27 years, he was ready to go out, it was all set. He said, No, no, I can't I'm not ready yet. I've got to do X, Y, and Z before I walk out of here. This is the kind of man who had this plan. And it's just extraordinary. And so when he walked out, it was unbelievable time for that country. And things begin to move from that point on.

Matt Waller  19:35  
Many people listening to this are in business, they're interested in business. They're trying to advance in their careers. And you have a wide variety of experiences in business and government. What kind of advice or recommendations could you give them to help them succeed in what they're trying to accomplish?

Delano Lewis  19:59  
Thank you for the question, Dean Waller. I have been very blessed. I have a wife that I married right after undergrad and we've been married 60, the 62 years this year, we have four adult sons, 11 grandchildren, and two and a half great grandchildren, we have a third great grandchild coming soon. And it was my sons who are all entrepreneurs talk to me about writing a book about my life and career, the thought they said was make it simple. Make it kind of a how to book. So I did and several years ago, oh, I wrote my first book, and it's called, It All Begins with Self, and how to discover your passion, how to succeed in life. And so to those who are listening, if you're in business, you have a job and thinking about other jobs, or you're just beginning your career. I think you should think about yourself. It's not about Delano Lewis, it's not about Dean Waller, it's about you. And you should take a look at you. What are your strengths? What are the things that you do? Well, what are the things that you don't do as well? What are your what are some of your weaknesses? What is it you want to do in life? In the in the book I talked about? The end game, E N D? Think about the end game. What is it you'd like to be? And I remember, if you looked at my high school yearbook, I graduated from Sumner High School in Kansas City, Kansas, in 1956. And if you look at my yearbook, it talks about my activities in high school. But it also talks about ambition. And it says lawyer, so at 17 years of age, I knew when I graduated from high school, I wanted to be a lawyer. I really believed growing up in a segregated society, all black schools, black neighborhood, black church, that the use of the law could make things change. And so that was one of my motivations to become a lawyer. And seven years later, wife and two children later, at age 24, I became a lawyer. So to answer your question, you need to think about your aspirations, your dreams. What's the end game? Where would you like to be 5 or 10 years from now? And figure out how to get there. Do you need other skills? Do you need to go to graduate school? Do you need to go to two year college? Or do you need to work to gain some skills training, but it's all toward that end game, that aspiration of where you'd like to be in five to 10 years, and you set a plan to get it done. So It All Begins with Self.

Matt Waller  22:58  
And for those listening, if you're interested in learning more, the ambassador, as he said, wrote a book called, It All Begins with Self. And it was published in 2015. 

Delano Lewis  23:13  
I have a podcast as well. And it's called Left Right Forward podcast. And so the website is left right forward education.org, the EducationFoundations.org. And it talks about my podcast Left Right Forward. It's an interview show with successful people. And it's also a place where you can buy my book, It All Begins with Self. And the second book is No Condition is Permanent. And it's all about, both of those books are about my life and my experiences. But the podcast I began several years ago, and I'm now doing video, as well as the audio podcast. And on that website. You can listen to those podcasts. And you can see some of those video podcasts. And you can also get copies of my book.

Matt Waller  24:07  
Excellent. Well, Ambassador, thank you so much for taking time to share your wisdom and experiences with some of the young people that listen to this. Congratulations on your amazing accomplishments in your life and in your career.

Delano Lewis  24:26  
Well, thank you so much. It's been my real pleasure to meet you and to your audience. I wish you well, it can be achieved. You can do it. Hard work and perseverance with the skills and a vision, you too can succeed. So thank you for this opportunity.

Matt Waller  24:40  
On behalf of the Sam M. Walton College of Business, I want to thank everyone for spending time with us for another engaging conversation. You can subscribe by going to your favorite podcast service and searching. BeEPIC. B E E P I C.

Matt Waller

Matthew A. Waller is dean emeritus of the Sam M. Walton College of Business and professor of supply chain management. His work as a professor, researcher, and consultant is synergistic, blending academic research with practical insights from industry experience. This continuous cycle of learning and application makes his work more effective, relevant, and impactful.

His goals include contributing to academia through high-quality research and publications, cultivating the next generation of professionals through excellent teaching, and creating value for the organizations he consults by optimizing their strategy and investments.