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Required reading: "maverick's guide'


Mind Your Own Business: A Maverick's Guide to Business, Leadership and Life

Author: Sidney Harmon

Publisher: Currency/Doubleday

Details: 196 pages, $24.95

Sidney Harmon, executive chairman of Harmon International Industries, credits an undereducated worker at one of his companies with having changed his life.

He makes that assertion in chapter four of Mind Your Own Business, a splendid blend of autobiography and insightful reflections on business and leadership.

Although the worker, Nobi Cross, may not have actually changed Harmon's life, it is clear the "polish and buff" worker profoundly affected Harmon's thinking about the relationship between workers and technology, as well as the relationship between technology and customers.

The chapter pertaining to Cross, "The Buzzer Works for Me," tells the story of a 1970 episode at Harmon Automotive in Bolivar, Tenn. That plant made remote-control side-view mirrors for car manufacturers. The plant was run-down and old-fashioned. The workers were mostly black. And rates of alcohol abuse, drug addiction and suicide in Bolivar were among the nation's highest.

One day, during the second shift at the plant, the buzzer that signaled the 10 p.m. coffee break failed. Managers decided to activate another buzzer and reschedule the break for 10:10 p.m. But Cross wasn't buying that.

Harmon explains that in the polish-and-buff department, where Cross worked, conditions were terrible.

"The twelve operators there were required to hold zinc casting against a buffing wheel to polish the castings. The process sprayed the buffing compound into the air and into the operators' lungs. Those who worked in that department eagerly anticipated the coffee break," Harmon writes.

Cross was in no mood to wait an additional 10 minutes for the break. He stopped buffing and said:

"I don't work for the buzzer. The buzzer works for me."

He and his co-workers then walked away to their coffee break.

"In his own way," Harmon writes, "Nobi was declaring that the purpose of technology is to serve the user, not to intimidate or control him. He understood that the only purpose of the buzzer was to announce when it was 10 p.m. Since he had a watch, he needed no further assistance."

The managers at the Bolivar plant thought that they could not sit still and allow workers to determine when to take a break. Therefore, they suspended everybody involved. And that led to Harmon's going down to Bolivar to try to straighten things out.

After touring the plant and interviewing the workers, Harmon got a sense of what it was like to work the assembly line in his plant and how that affected the lives of the workers and the Bolivar community.

"For the first time, I could feel what it was like to yield any sense of individuality and freedom the moment an employee appeared at work. I could see him inhibited by the very nature of what he was doing, from sharing a moment with a neighbor or experiencing any sense of craftsmanship. I could understand the hate for the foreman, who was trapped in the same madness as he pressed the employees for more and better when they had come to believe that more meant worse," he writes.

Harmon responded to his revelation by initiating the "Bolivar Experiment," which was modeled on the way students and faculty interacted at Friends World College in Long Island, N.Y. Harmon was also president of the college at that time.

"Our workers were like the college's students; the supervisors could fulfill the role of the faculty. If a progressive view of education could lead to the leaps of imagination and learning I was seeing at FWC, shouldn't the same principles be equally productive in a factory?" Harmon writes.

When the experiment had taken hold, Harmon asked a line supervisor how he felt about yielding so much responsibility to his workers. The supervisor replied, "I notice that the more power I give, the more power I get."

The lessons of Bolivar were applied at Harmon companies in other parts of the country and in Europe.

"We look to our people as central, and they look to us for reciprocity. You might think of it as a new social contract _ a "more for more' arrangement in which each side ups the ante," Harmon writes.

This is a book about leadership. Harmon calls it "leadership for a digital age." It is a style of leadership that invites participation at all levels of the enterprise instead of the old-fashioned top-down heaviness.

Mind Your Own Business should be required reading for every business owner or manager, and for everyone with such aspirations.

_ Fort Worth (Texas) Star-Telegram