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Book Review: ...And Dignity for All

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... And Dignity For All
by James Despain and Jane Bodman Converse
Financial Times Prentice Hall
198 pages
$19.95

How A Company and a Man Changed Tracks

James Despain began his career at Caterpillar as a broom sweeper on the factory floor. Forty-three years later, he retired from the company as an executive vice president who had transformed a deeply unprofitable division of the firm into one of its most important profit makers. With no college education but a deep-seated need to work hard and improve his company, he was able to make long-term, successful changes. More than a biography, however, ... And Dignity For All is the story of a manager's transformation from feared bully boss to a leader who understands the power of respect and positive support.

Despain learned early from a brutal coal-mining father that authority must be respected or the consequences would be painful. After high school and a stint in the Air National Guard, he went to work for Caterpillar, and took the hard lessons of blind obedience from his boyhood and military service with him.

After hard days on the shop floor, a stint in a management apprentice program, and a year layoff from the company, Despain returned to work for Caterpillar as a machine operator. When his amazing productivity and efficiency became the reason his supervisor would not let him leave the shop floor to move up the ranks of the company, he quit his job and went to work at a small tool and die shop where he became plant manager. After running into similar problems with managers there, he returned to Caterpillar as a salaried office employee. Within months he returned to the plant as a supervisor.

A Bully Boss

As a foreman, Despain felt the power of his job. He became tougher, meaner and more aggressive when he dealt with complaints and accusations. His role as a bully boss was made apparent on an assembly line one day when the operator told him an overworked machine was beginning to smoke. In an effort to meet production demands and make his deadlines, Despain describes how he forced his employees to keep the machine running at any cost, despite the potential for a fire, injury or worse.

After taking a job for Caterpillar in Cleveland, Despain learned how divisions between employees and managers could create huge rifts that hampered productivity and progress. While in Japan on another assignment, Despain gained a new perspective on the importance of building a culture of performance and respect. After moving again, this time to Mexico, Despain learned how a devotion to quality must be forged with passionate belief.

Eight years later and back home in Peoria, Ill., he was made a vice president of North American plants for Caterpillar, and put in charge of the company's Track-Type Tractor Division. Before he arrived at this division, plant modernization, reengineering, reorganization, and total quality management were doing nothing to help the company turn a profit. The division was in the company's original plant, had a culture that was almost as old, and its employees -- who had just returned to work after an eight-month strike -- were unhappy. As competitors were making great headway in the industry, the division was facing tough times.

When Despain took a hard look at his own command-and-control management style, he realized that he was part of the division's problems as much as anything else. This is when he set out to change his own style of leadership to better fit his ideals, and change the company's culture as well. Taking his cue from role models in Japan and elsewhere who had offered him better ways to deal with people and management issues, Despain transformed himself and the division by establishing a set of nine core values -- trust, mutual respect, teamwork, empowerment, risk taking, a sense of urgency, continuous improvement, commitment and customer satisfaction -- to guide employee interactions.

'More Freedom to Make a Difference'

Despain writes that these core values became "a blueprint for creating a work environment that drives success because they provide people a context for their decisions, broad boundaries for their ideas, and more freedom to make a difference." He explains that these values, and not large capital investments and forced "right-sizing," improved everything at the division, from profit to employee satisfaction.

Why We Like This Book

...And Dignity For All shines as a management book because it is the tale of a dynamic middle manager who experienced an epiphany late in his career and metamorphosed from a hard-nosed boss who made bad management decisions to a leader who learned the importance of trust and integrity. Despain was able to learn from his mistakes and gain a greater understanding of the value that a company can gain when employees are empowered and allowed to express themselves with support from managers who know how to unlock greatness and embrace positive change.

Copyright © 2003 Soundview Executive Book Summaries

Last updated: Jun 5, 2003




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