From floor sweeper to general manager


  • Business
  • Monday, 02 Jun 2003

BY ALVIN TAY

THIS is a story of how one boy born towards the end of the Great Depression from a coal mining town in the United States – without a college education – became a street-smart seasoned leader.  

“I am not your typical senior executive,” says James Despain in the introduction of And Dignity for All: Unlocking Greatness with Values-Based Leadership (James E. Despain, Jane Bodman Converse FT Prentice Hall).  

The former Caterpillar vice-president notes: “This book is the story of a lifetime of experiences and the lessons I learned that enabled me to become a true leader of people.  

Ending the struggle between workers and bosses is the agenda of this frank 'memoir-cum-manifesto' by Despain and Converse.

“I began my career as a sweeper in a factory that makes the largest earthmoving equipment in the world. I ended it at the same company – a vice-president of a US$20bil corporation, adds Despain.  

This story includes how Despain and his colleagues transformed a factory and an entire division into highly profitable leaders in the corporation and industry. 

And Dignity for All attempts to tell you how to do the same in whatever business you find yourself, but I must add that you would first need to distil these nuggets of wisdom by doing some serious reading yourself.  

And that means reading the book at least a few times to find what applies.  

That in a nutshell is what you would get from And Dignity for All. 

Ending the struggle between workers and bosses is the agenda of this frank “memoir-cum-manifesto” by Despain. 

In his climbing up the corporate ladder, Despain gained much knowledge of the ongoing shop-floor strife between arrogant, abusive managers and recalcitrant, featherbedding union workers.  

But in an overseas posting, he got a look at Japanese factories where harmony and mutual respect reigned, and he later triumphed by inspiring unskilled but eager Mexican workers with his quality-boosting “excellencia” system.  

Recalled to run Caterpillar's ailing Peoria complex back in the US, Despain instituted a new management “vision” emphasising “people-based versus power-based principles” built on values like trust, teamwork and empowerment, which he credits with restoring profitability and morale after the bitter 1994 strike that ended with the union returning to work without a contract.  

Despain offers many valuable first-hand insights into workplace conflicts, and he is unusually forthright in placing unions, a topic that many management theorists side step, at the centre of his discussion of labour-management relations.  

But his treatment seems one-sided; while he even-handedly condemns excesses on both sides of the management-management divide, his conclusion is that it is the union that must give way to management's high-minded human-relations initiatives.  

His call for management-management solidarity is laudable, but some workers may see it as the velvet glove on the mailed fist. 

Despain is currently a trustee at Eureka College.  

Jane Bodman Converse is president of Converse Inc, Peoria, Illinois, and has more than 30 years of experience in organisational consulting, communications, and marketing.  

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