Thursday, March 29, 2012

Strange and Familiar

Reading The Heart Aroused: Poetry and the Preservation of the Soul in Corporate America by David Whyte has been a both familiar and a strange experience for me.

It was familiar in that I met some aspect of my own work experience and career on virtually every page.

It was strange in that I realized how common my own experience is – or that it’s common enough that Whyte could describe these experiences as common in corporate America.

The strangeness and the familiarity continue on the final chapter, “The Soul of the World.”  Whyte spoke to poetry, and the role poetry plays in the corporate workplace.

“Poetry is the art of overhearing ourselves say things from which it is impossible to retreat,” he says. “A true line acts like a lightning rod in a storm. All our doubts about the experience disappear in a flash as the accumulated change contained in the electric ripeness of the moment runs to earth. Just before we are struck, we may even feel, as in a true lightning storm, the hair rising on the back of the neck, as we realize ‘it’ is being said.”

What poetry can bridge is the separation of corporate life from “the soul of the world.” Corporate self-preoccupation can often become so great that it separates people from the realities of the world they live in. I might add that nowhere is this self-preoccupation greater than at a corporate headquarters.

I’ve seen poetry – or a kind of poetry – bridge the separation. I’ve described here a speech I wrote for an executive, who used a speech not only to bridge the company to the larger world but also his industry. Some two years later, there was another speech by another executive, this time the CEO, that did something similar, except it completed the process of moving the company outside of itself and position it in the larger world beyond.

And it happened by accident.

The CEO had already created something of a stir with an initiative to reduce air emissions at manufacturing plants – by 90 percent and in four years. But he was looking for something more, something greater and larger, something that would seize the attention of people inside and outside the company. A number of proposals had been studied and brought forward – but the price tags for all of them had created sticker shock (and there were the shareowners to consider).

At some point, I was brought into the process, given copies of all the proposals, and asked by the company’s senior environmental executive to see if there was a “soft path” to getting at what the CEO wanted, defined as significant but without the obvious costs attached to it. I was cautioned not to share what I was doing with anyone, including my own boss.

I wrote the speech. The conclusion was a summary of the speech using seven short but rhetorically related statements. It was meant to be a rousing kind of conclusion, with repetition and rather emotional language. I didn't think of it as a new company policy. I gave the draft to the environmental executive, and didn’t hear anything for several weeks.

And then the word came back. The CEO would give the speech in Washington, D.C. I was pressed back into service for editing and preparing additional documents that would be needed. A few additional people were brought into the information loop, but the speech was still being held very closely. (The concern was that, if existence of the speech became known, various internal people and groups would move to influence it in a “watering down” direction.) (Which turned out to be a well-founded concern, except it happened after the speech was given.)

The CEO gave the speech, and then all heck broke loose inside the company. Senior business executives were upset that significant commitments had been made on their behalf, with no opportunity for input. People responsible for regulatory compliance believed they had been cut out of the loop (they had). The finance people were concerned. Executives responsible for manufacturing were concerned.

Employees loved it.

The outpouring of support was amazing. The CEO was flooded with letters from employees all over the world (this was pre-email). More than that, employees began to do things. Native-plant prairies were established at three plant locations. Initiatives were started in local communities.

Outside the company, the reaction was profound. The head of a major environmental group distributed copies of the speech to thousands of people and groups across the U.S. Discussions at industry trade associations started, leading to new programs. Competitors adopted similar efforts (and gave similar speeches).

Those seven simple “rhetorical devices” became the company mission statement for the next decade, when they replaced by another, similar set of principles announced in – a speech. But that’s another story.

Poetry – of a sort – bridged the separation between the corporate workplace and the world described in The Heart Aroused. For a time, the soul of the company was entwined with the “soul of the world.” David Whyte would smile.

We've been reading The Heart Aroused over at TweetSpeak Poetry. This week concludes our discussion of the book.

1 comment:

diana said...

Wow, Glynn. That is an amazing story. On behalf of prairie grasses everywhere, thank you for your part in making something revolutionary happen in corporate America! LOVED this.