The news comes like this kind of news usually does today – someone sends an email, or forwards a message, or perhaps even makes a phone call. In this case, I received an email last Friday saying that Robert Berra had died in St. Petersburg, Florida.
Not many people working at Monsanto today will remember Bob Berra – many of them were children in grade school when he retired from the company then called Monsanto. But what he accomplished while he was here is still very much with us today, long after spin-offs, acquisitions, being acquired, and being spun-off. The company we know as Monsanto today is very different from the company Bob retired from, but his mark is still felt in subtle yet important ways.
Bob died Thursday, May 9. He would have turned 89 in June. He retired as Monsanto’s Senior Vice President of Human Resources in 1989.
I worked with him closely for three years, from 1980 to 1983. But it was three rather intense years, and I spent a lot of time in his office, talking with him and listening to him – and writing for him. I was in the corporate speechwriting group, the youngest in the group, in fact, and being the newcomer I was assigned to write speeches for several executives, one of whom happened to be the boss’s boss’s boss – Bob Berra.
Bob didn’t like the hierarchy of Monsanto’s speechwriting system – he didn’t like all the layers that would look at his speeches and (possibly) (usually) make changes before he saw the drafts. So he sent word down the chain – “Leave my speechwriter alone, and no one sees my speech drafts except me.”
One memo and all that bureaucracy was knocked into the closet. I did like working for Bob.
He gave a lot of speeches, both within the company and to countless outside organizations. He would rarely if ever turn down a speaking invitation from a human resources or personnel association. He believed in giving back to his profession.
Bob could be an iconoclast. He was an HR professional who understood why unions had come about, and the good they had accomplished, not the kind of sentiment you expect from a corporate executive.
He also believed in Monsanto’s people. He had little patience with systems and procedures that prevented people from being helped when they needed help. He was to first to cut through HR red tape, if it meant helping meet a need. (I know this from firsthand experience; he did it for me long before I actually met him.)
He and his HR team helped manage a series of wrenching organizational and business changes throughout the 1980s. Tens of thousands of people were affected, and he did his best to make sure the changes were made with compassion, empathy, and understanding. It was still difficult, and he knew how hard it was on employees and their families.
The last time I talked with Bob was 2005, and it concerned the death of a Monsanto executive. He was his usual self, consistent in his admiration for Monsanto’s people and optimistic about the company’s future.
What the obituary can’t tell you is that loud and distinctive laugh he had, that way he had of deflating pompousness, the sharpness of his wit, and the compassion he had for people.
It was a blessing to have known him and worked with him.