Terrance McWilliams received his first leadership lessons as a Boy Scout. Those lessons were reinforced during decades of military service and put to use both in the Army and in his current job at El Pomar Foundation.
Raised in Daytona Beach, Florida, McWilliams followed in his father’s footsteps and joined the military, where he put to use the lesson his dad taught him: “Growing up, you know, where I did, my dad always said Black people had to work twice as hard. So that’s what I did.”
And it paid off — quickly. McWilliams joined the military as a private. And 18 months later, he was promoted to sergeant.
“I went from being a follower to being a leader,” he said. “It was fast, but I was ready for it.”
His military career brought him to Fort Carson, not once, but twice. After spending years in Europe, he found the place he wanted to call home when he was stationed in Colorado Springs.
“There was something about Colorado Springs in 1996 when I first moved here; I fell in love with the place,” he said. “It was a medium-sized town, but it felt like a small town, where everyone knew you. It’s much bigger now, but it still feels that same way. Inclusive. I fought to get back here, and moved back in 2002. When I retired in 2007, we said, ‘This is it. This is home.’ My family is all back in Florida and they keep asking me when I’m coming home. Colorado Springs is home now.”
McWilliams’ children live here along with his nine grandchildren. Since his military retirement, he’s worked at El Pomar Foundation, where he oversees military and veteran services.
He also is deeply involved in the community. He sits on the boards of the Mt. Carmel Veterans Service Center and the Colorado Springs Leadership Institute. He serves on the state board for community colleges and vocational education and on the board of the Rocky Mountain USO, as well as the Salvation Army.
How did you transition from your job at Fort Carson to El Pomar?
When word got out I was retiring, I went in the office one morning and my secretary said that Mr. [Bill] Hybl would like to speak to you. I said, ‘Who is Mr. Hybl?’ I had seen him around, but I didn’t know who he was or what he did. I associated El Pomar with The Broadmoor. He asked me to have breakfast, so we met at The Broadmoor. He asked me what I was going to do when I got out of the military. I told him, ‘Spend some time with family, get reacquainted, then I don’t know — something in defense, I guess.’ He said, ‘I want you to come work for me.’ And I asked him, ‘Doing what?’ He said, ‘We’ll figure that out when you start.’
And I started work as a director, now I’m a senior vice president. I oversee military and veterans programs for the foundation, making sure we are reaching out and supporting the military. It’s such a large community here. We make sure we’re reaching out to veterans’ organizations, other organizations that support the military.
How has the city changed since you were first stationed here in 1996?
Right after I first moved here, MCI moved its headquarters here. We were becoming Silicon Mountain. Colorado Springs was a nice, medium-sized town full of friendly people. All of a sudden, it exploded. And while we’ve had some setbacks, we are still exploding. But that same, nice, friendly feel is still there. That’s what is appealing to me. When you go to other communities, the military is set apart. There’s no real feeling of belonging. Here, the community really embraces the military, really takes care of the military stationed here.
What advice do you have for people starting out in their careers?
It’s not about you. You have to look at the bigger picture and figure out: How do I fit in to that bigger picture? If you want to be effective, that’s the advice I would give. Give what you have to offer, but remember you are part of an organization. I’ve worked with leaders who thought it was all about them, and all revolved around them. No matter what position you are in, it’s about the bigger picture; it’s about the mission. You need to support others around you, bringing them together to do great things.
What are your core values?
Dignity and respect — treat everyone with dignity and respect. I also live by keeping my word; my word is my bond. Do unto others as you want them to do unto you. Don’t put someone down because you feel you are in a position over them; they are equally important to the mission.
There’s been civil unrest and more attention about racial injustice in 2020. What’s been your experience in Colorado Springs?
We have our issues here; all communities do. But the issues here aren’t equal to those in other communities. From my perspective, we have inclusiveness here that isn’t found somewhere else. I lived in Florida; I went to a segregated school. I was in the first classes for integrated schools in Florida. And I have not seen the issues here in Colorado Springs to the extent other places are seeing it.
The vast amount of people in Colorado Springs are what I call ‘implants.’ They aren’t from here, and with the military, there’s a lot of different people from a lot of different cultures. They came here from somewhere else and made it home. We all decided to make this place our home, our community. In the South, there’s still a long way to go. It’s better here.
What are your plans for the future?
I plan to keep doing what I’m doing, keep being involved in the community, keep working at El Pomar. I plan to stay engaged until either I don’t want to anymore or I can’t. I’m going to keep serving on boards and organizations to help foster productive conversations.
— Join Phil Long Dealerships and the Colorado Springs Business Journal for the 2021 COS CEO Leadership Lessons with Terrance McWilliams, El Pomar Foundation, 4:30-6 p.m., May 13, at the Ent Center for the Arts and via Zoom.