Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Nice Guys Finish...What?

I’m reading the newspaper one Tuesday morning, and there on the obituary page I see a photo with a story about a local retired executive who had died of cancer. I stared. I could barely comprehend the words.

I wrote speeches for this man for four years, and I wrote some of the best speeches I’ve ever written. I loved working for him…

To read the rest of the article, please visit The High Calling Blogs.

(Several people have asked, so here is the article published on Aug. 4, 2005, by the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.)

Hal Corbett Pushed Chemical Industry in Right Direction

(St. Louis Post-Dispatch Commentary Page – Aug. 4, 2005)

Harold J. Corbett, 78, died Tuesday of cancer. As his obituary in the Post-Dispatch noted, he had a distinguished career at Monsanto Company, retiring as Senior Vice President for Environment, Safety and Health.

I knew him as Hal. I met him in late 1987, when I was assigned the job of environmental communications at Monsanto. He had the right height for a typical Monsanto executive – he was tall – but he wasn’t typical. He was modest and quiet, almost unassuming, almost shy, the “nice guy,” which the corporate culture of that time tended to read as “non-assertive.” But Hal had come up through manufacturing, and he was tough. And he had the courage to do the right thing.

This quiet, unassuming, nice guy ignited a revolution in the chemical industry.

As 1987 gave way to 1988, concerns about the environment were growing everywhere. It wasn’t just what some NASA guy had said about some new thing called global warming, or the drought of 1988, or the medical syringes washing up on New Jersey beaches, or the ongoing coverage of toxic chemicals and Superfund sites. It was all of these things and more – not for nothing did Time Magazine choose an ailing “planet of the year” for 1988.

In the midst of all these concerns that year, a new law was going into effect in July 1. All manufacturers would have to report – publicly – their emissions of toxic chemicals. It didn’t matter that these emissions were legal and permitted by state and federal regulators. And the law didn’t require that manufacturers actually do anything about these emissions. Manufacturers would just have to be report them.

The problem for manufacturers was that the numbers were going to be huge – billions of pounds of toxic chemicals emitted or released into the environment every year. The chemical and mining industries would have the biggest numbers, but no manufacturer was exempt – even the Post-Dispatch had to report its toxic emissions (which it did).

Hal Corbett’s organization was responsible for measuring and reporting these emissions for Monsanto. He, and everyone else involved, and everyone else in the chemical industry, understood the implications of “simply reporting the numbers.” And while every major chemical company was scrambling to figure out what to do, Hal had a small team at Monsanto look at the issue in a non-traditional way: what if we release all of our emissions data ourselves, before the EPA does? What if we decide we have to take responsibility for these emissions, and accept public concerns as legitimate, even if we are the experts and even if we can prove that no harm is being done? What does accepting that responsibility actually mean?

The team met internal opposition at every step of the way, as Hal knew it would. But he kept helping it forward, figuring a way around that obstacle or how to deal with that particular pocket of opposition. The fact that he was so well liked and respected inside the company was an enormous asset.

In April of 1988, when Hal’s team was right in the thick of moving this rather startling strategy through the company, Hal gave a speech that ultimately cemented the new strategy into place. He wasn’t a great speaker, or an eloquent one. But his sincerity trumped great speaking ability and eloquence every time. He believed what he said, and believed in what he said, and every audience who heard him knew it.

The speech was to a group of 1,500 American and British chemical engineers, meeting in London. Hal told a story of two chemical industries – one that had transformed and improved every aspect of life imaginable, and one that had polluted the earth in the process. And he said that both chemical industries were real, and the one that had brought so much benefit to so many people was responsible for figuring out how to address and deal with the concerns and problems created by the other. And he said if people in the industry didn’t think we should take responsibility, we needed to look no further than the thousands of men, women and children who died in Bhopal, India, when a chemical plant leaked a toxic material.

The speech had an immediate and dramatic impact inside of Monsanto. Richard Mahoney, the company’s CEO at the time, announced an initiative to reduce toxic air emissions by 90 percent – in four years. Mahoney would follow that up with a series of seven commitments to environmental protection and additional waste reduction efforts. DuPont followed Monsanto’s lead. So did Dow. So did the industry’s trade association. Waste reduction and process improvement initiatives sprouted everywhere.

Hal’s speech became known as “the speech that refused to die.” Thousands of requests for copies poured in over the years. One of the last I remember came in 1995 – seven years later – from a BBC reporter in London, who had read the speech and was amazed that any industry executive would have said the things that Hal had said. From London to London, Hal’s speech had come full circle.

In his quiet, unassuming, nice-guy way, Hal Corbett made the world a better place. And all of us are better off because of it.

Following his initial stint at Monsanto and Solutia Inc.,a spin-off of Monsanto, Glynn Young served as Director of Executive Communications for St. Louis Public Schools. In 2004, he returned to Monsanto, where he is now director of Environmental Communications.


Anne Lang Bundy said...

Glynn, in your words I could watch everything unfold. What an honor and privilege for you to work with such a man ... and carry on his legacy.

Unknown said...

Yay! I'm so glad you were able to bless so many people with your knowledge of the legacy of this man. I'm sure many were challenged by his story to live more wholly and humbly. It's always a privilege to know people like this.

SimplyDarlene said...

Wow, Glynn. My husband is the environmental manager at a local pulp mill and his work runs parallel lines to the man you wrote about. Integrity and a willingness to do the right thing, both as a boss-man and a son of God, speaks so much louder than ear-pleasing racket.

I need to share this with my husband. It is so easy for those like him to feel weighted down by the bigger big-wigs when things don't clip along solely at a monetarily prosperous pace. I know he stands secure beneath an ethical umbrella and refuses to step into the profit margin rains.

Thank you for the encouragement through the sharing of this man's legacy.


Anonymous said...

Glynn -- I read your story over on HCB, but I am reading your op-ed here. Incredible story, incredible guy.

annell4 said...

Just the mention of Monsanto, doesn't make me feel too good.....maybe the thing I feel is creepy.

There's probably nice guys everywhere, trying to do what they can to make things better.

Marcus Goodyear said...

It's funny how we like to villain-ize who groups and companies, rather than assume they had the best motives.

Having the best motives doesn't erase mistakes, but at least it means there is room for growth and change.

Sounds like Hal created a culture that was able to grow and change in important ways.

Marcus Goodyear said...

Um. That should have been "whole gropus and companies." It's been a long day.

Dan said...

Thanks for including the article, Glynn. This is a very moving story and a reminder of how people without fanfare face the obstacles before them and overcome. I'm thankful to Hal for what he's done for all of us; and before now I didn't even know he'd done it.

Ted Corbett said...


Thanks again for this, it had been years since I read it. We've not forgotten the gift of this article. As you would guess, we had no idea about this, until you took the gracious step of writing about it. God's blessings, Ted

Tricia Corbett Murray said...

My brother, Ted, just emailed this to me today. Like him I hadn't read this in years. It is almost my dad's birthday, July 3rd, and he has been on my mind a lot lately. Your article made me cry, (and I don't cry much)just to remember all that we had lost. When I was a young girl, I thought my dad was like all other dads in this world. Nothing special, except to me. As I grew older and went to college and tried to decide what I wanted to do with my life, I became convinced I wanted to go into business like my dad. I believed the business world was filled with people wanting to do the right thing, people with integrity and high moral values. I did work for some years in the business world for very large corporations who shall remain nameless. I learned that the father I grew up with was nothing like the other dads out there and nothing like the other business people I met.

It is so gratifying to know that he lives on through people like you that he knew and respected even though we knew little of this side of him. I wish he was here so I could still hear him talk about any variety of things. He knew about so many things. Where did he learn all of this? I used to think I couldn't admire my father more than I did and then I read some of your words. Thank you for this, Glynn.

Unknown said...

I know I have thanked you before, but like the lasting gifts our father gave his children, your blog post and op-ed has been a lasting gift...clearly not just for his children and grandchildren but for the many others who commented on your blog.
Like my sister above, when I was a little girl, I thought everyone had a Dad like mine. It wasn't until high school that I began to realize just how unusual a man he was. I too chose a business career because I believed my father was a fair representation of the average businessman. I naively believed his leadership style was the norm. I have now learned just how very unique he was, and how wrong I was.
I am so thankful you knew him...in order that I might know him better too.