Shared Leadership with Kevin Hancock

Reading Time: 11 Minutes

In this interview, Kevin Hancock shares a new pathway to organizational excellence.

After the Interview:

About Kevin Hancock

Kevin is an award-winning author and speaker. He is the CEO of Hancock Lumber Company, one of the oldest and best-known family businesses in America. He is also the founder of The Seventh Power, a non-profit organization dedicated to advancing economic sovereignty for native communities across America. Kevin is passionate about a new pathway to organizational excellence built on the employee-centric company, where power is dispersed, leadership is shared, and every voice is heard.

Read the Transcript

Allison: Welcome back to the Deliberate Leaders podcast. I am your host and executive coach Allison Dunn.

Today I’m very excited. We have a fantastic interview scheduled for today that is covering the topic of shared leadership. We have Kevin Hancock, who is an award-winning author and speaker. He is the CEO of Hancock Lumber Company, which – very cool – is one of the oldest and best-known family businesses in America.

Kevin is passionate about a new pathway to organizational excellence, built on the employee centric company where power is dispersed, leadership is shared and every voice is heard.

Kevin has a fantastic quote, so I’m going to quote him. When people feel heard, not judged, they relax. When people relax, they think, and when people think, they grow. I think that is a super powerful way to look at it. Kevin, thank you so much for joining us here today.

Kevin: Allison, it’s my pleasure. I’m happy to be with you. Thank you.

Allison: Fantastic. I am just going to kick this off with a deliberate conversation and it’s a question I ask all of my guests. What would be your number one leadership tip that you would want to give our listeners today?

Kevin: It would be to become the change you wish to see, following on that iconic thought from Gandhi. I think it’s really about looking inward and focusing on yourself, not others.

Allison: I love that. That is fantastic. Thank you very much. That’s a great tip. I just want to make sure our listeners understand, so the first question is going to kind of put some light on this. Kevin, in 2012, you were diagnosed with what is called and I’m going to pronounce this – spasmodic dysphonia, which makes communicating difficult. How has this impacted your ability to lead as the CEO?

Kevin: Yeah, so quite suddenly in that year, I started having trouble speaking. I would go to talk and all the muscles in my throat would spasm, squeeze and contract. Speaking, which I’d always taken for granted and as CEO done a lot of, was suddenly super difficult and I was ultimately diagnosed with spasmodic dysphonia. The short story there is I quite quickly had come up with a different approach to leadership that involved a lot less talking.

Allison: And how has that helped you?

Kevin: Well, at first it was interesting. I wasn’t thinking about leadership. At first, I personally was under duress and I was just trying to protect my broken voice. When it’s hard to talk, you quite quickly come up with strategies for doing less of it, and mine was to answer a question with a question, thereby putting the conversation right back on the other person. So, if I might, I’ll give you a quick example.

 People would come up to me at work because I was the CEO with a question or a problem. Historically, I would’ve listened and then given an answer and direction, but what I started doing then because of my voice was simply saying, that is a good question. What do you think we should do about that? That person would explain what they thought, and I would then say again to protect my voice, okay. That sounds good. Go do that and off he or she would go with his or her solution to the problem they saw.

 Now what struck me after having done this hundreds of times, Allison was simply this. People actually already knew what to do. It turned out they didn’t need a top-down CEO-centric directive. What they really needed was the encouragement and the safety and the confidence to trust and follow their own voice, and that’s what started pulling me down this path of dispersed power and shared leadership, which I’ve been doubling down on again and again ever since.

Allison: How do you think that type of shared leadership communication has helped your lumber company?

Kevin: Well, our company’s performance statistically has taken off, gone through the roof in almost every meaningful category we measure. But I like to talk about that now as an important outcome of a higher calling. That higher calling is helping others come into their own voice. Helping people at work feel powerful and heard and trusted and valued. Helping people at work soar, and then the company ends up soaring on the wings of thriving employees.

Allison: Beautiful. Your topic of interest when you talk about employee-centric, I’m curious and for our listeners the opposite of that we were talking about is being capital-centric. What is the difference, and how do we need to think about it when we think about employee centric?

Kevin: Yeah, I kind of as far as I know, coined the phrase employee centric company to describe the kind of company we were striving to become, and I would summarize it this way. Companies of course have lots of constituents, so I’m not talking about dismissing any of them. What we chose to do is make one of those constituents the first priority and that constituent was the people who work at the company.

 An employee centric company is about making the first order of business the employee experience, and making work meaningful for the people who do it in more than just economic ways. Not because it will improve the performance of your company, that it will do, but because these are human beings who are investing a significant portion of their life at work. What we found is if you are able to create a culture where the employees will self-describe their experience as being meaningful and engaging, they will in turn create exceptional experiences for customers, suppliers and of course the company itself.

Allison: Right. In the introduction of you, you’re described as one of America’s best known family businesses. Hancock Lumber is located in Maine, correct?

Kevin: Yes. Maine.

Allison: Fantastic. I too am from a family company that has a long history and I always call it the best in America, but now I’ve actually met the best in America, which is really nice to know being from New Hampshire. Being employee centric in a family business, is that easier than in a typical non-family-oriented business, do you think?

Kevin: It’s a great question. I would simply say I know it’s a great fit for a family company, and it should be a great fit for all kinds of companies. I would say our company has always put very high value on people, but this is not really just about that cause every company will say they value their employees. This is not about that. This is really about going beyond that to put a whole lot of leadership voice and decision making and trust at every level in the hands of the people that are doing the work.

Allison: Can you share an example or two of how you are focused on the employee experience, and putting the shared leadership in the hands of the person doing the job?

Kevin: Yeah. One of the first keys is you’ve got to be able to measure whatever it is you prioritize. One of the problems historically with the employee experience is a lack of data to help measure how that’s going. We began participating in the Best Places to Work survey process, and we have been a best place to work in Maine for going on a decade now, but we don’t take the survey to win the awards. We take the survey to get the data, and we got 16 different site scores at manufacturing facilities across Maine and New Hampshire, and we’re able to measure now by site, employee engagement. It’s got a score and every site manager in our company sees their site score compared to every other site. No different than any other metric, except we’ve chosen to make this one our top priority.

 Gallup will tell us that nationally employee engagement runs around 34%. At our company, it’s running around 90%. So, 9 out of 10 people who work in our company will confidentially describe the experience as engaging. Complete side note – I’ve got to quickly pick up my power cord and plug it in to my laptop.

Allison: That kind of leads into the next question. I love the fact that you take the opportunity to do the Gallup and the Best Places to Work surveys, because I think the feedback is invaluable and you won’t ever get it if you don’t ask. So my question is, in order for employee feedback to be honest and meaningful and sustainable and really work it into part of your company culture, what do you need to do to make it safe so that people can actually say what they think?

Kevin: That is such an important question, Allison, and what I was going to start by saying was the end of your question. You’ve got to figure out how to make the work culture safe, consistently safe so that people will say what they think. That requires, in my view, restraint. What managers and supervisors need to learn to do is not judge or feel the need to respond to everything everybody says. We’ve come to talk about it this way. We had to change the core purpose of listening, and what we’ve come to say in our company is that listening is for understanding, not judgment.

When someone makes a statement in a huddle circle in our company, my favorite answer from the facilitator or manager leading the huddle would simply be this. Thank you for sharing that. Thank you for sharing that. And if people hear managers saying thank you for sharing that hundreds of times, then in time they’ll come to trust that they can say what they actually think. And I call getting to the point where people say what they actually think the answers to the test, because they will tell you exactly, of course, where the opportunities are to improve the company.

Allison: Yeah. Thank you for sharing that. I can practice it on you. Kevin, what is an example of a piece of feedback that you’ve been able to kind of implement by offering a safe environment so that someone could share that, that has made a significant enough difference, that has moved your engagement to be as awesome as it is at 90%?

Kevin: Well, that’s a great question to take an example. We had a situation just last year where some things happened at one of our sites that I was really disappointed in. I was not mad, but I knew we were better than what had transpired. So, we brought the whole group together that was involved, and at that huddle, all I did to open the huddle was talk about what I did to contribute to the problem or what I did not do that contributed to the problem. I didn’t spend a minute quizzing or pressing anybody other than myself. The room then lit up and spontaneously, everybody did the same thing and all the problems and opportunities easily came out on the table.

 And what it really is about to me back to safety, safe work culture is this simple idea that nobody’s going to get in trouble. I can’t remember the last time in our company somebody got in trouble because it’s not about that. It’s simply about creating a work environment where everyone can keep working to better themselves, the group around them and the company as a whole. But removing the danger and only having really the fun of it just creates such a different work dynamic.

Again, I can’t remember the last time in our company someone raised their voice, someone accused someone else of anything, and yet we’re highly motivated, highly competitive, highly driven, high standards, but that doesn’t have to mean that it’s a dangerous place to work. That to me is a kind of a past based model whose time has come and gone.

Allison: I very much admire the example you just shared and how much that demonstrates that everyone has a part in the process and what part do I own, and setting that as your leadership example is incredibly powerful. I can see why that works for your organization. It’s a great example. It’s unfortunate that a lot of leaders of other companies really do actually go at it from why did that happen, who did that as opposed to here’s where we are and here’s how I contributed to it, cause we all do contribute to it, top to bottom.

Kevin: Right, and really it goes back to trust. Human beings want to do a good job at the activities they enlist in, including work and career. People don’t come to work not wanting to do well and help others do well. So, when you approach it from that faith and trust standpoint, everything just gets so much easier. Now this doesn’t mean that our company is not disciplined. I always go out of my way to talk about this.

In the 10 years that we’ve been really focusing on dispersing power, sharing leadership and strengthening employee voices, our discipline to best practices, process improvement, first pass accuracy, waste elimination, safety has all gotten better. Our safety leader is fond of saying people are much more apt to support – deeply support – that which they help to create. And we found that when people are participating in the decision-making processes, they are much more apt to deeply support those processes coming out of those discussions and those opportunities to participate.

Allison: Yeah, absolutely. I concur. Kevin, do I understand this correctly that you have a new book that is coming out soon?

Kevin: Yeah. I’ve got one that just came out and then another that’s about to on the subject we’ve been discussing. I have a book out called The Seventh Power: One CEO’s Journey Into the Business of Shared Leadership. This voice condition produced a leadership transformation within me and then within our company, and I had a chance to not just think about it, but work on it and see its potential.

So, in this book, I set out on a bit of a travel adventure that brings me from the Navajo Indian reservation in Arizona, all the way to Kiev in the Ukraine, looking for clues or kind of universal rules that would guide us into a new era of shared leadership. And that’s what the book’s about.

Allison: Fantastic. And that one is coming out, did you say?

Kevin: That one’s out.

Allison: Out. Okay.

Kevin: Out and about.

Allison: Excellent. And then the new one that is coming out, what is the title of that one?

Kevin: Yes, that book is titled 48 Whispers: From Pine Ridge and the Northern Plains, the second part of my personal journey that we haven’t discussed. Shortly after acquiring the voice condition, I somewhat serendipitously began traveling from my home in Maine all the way up to the Pine Ridge Indian reservation in the Southwest corner of South Dakota. It’s a place I have now been over 20 times. Pine Ridge is the biggest, most historic, most remote, poorest of all the Sioux reservations on the Northern plains, and here’s the connection, Allison. There I met an entire community that didn’t feel fully heard, that felt as if a piece of their authentic voice had been marginalized or taken or stolen.

 All of this got me thinking about leadership and the historic impact that leaders have had on the voice, the authentic voice of others. I somewhat sadly concluded that leaders have probably done more in total to control, direct and manage the voices of others, rather than to liberate them. And that’s when it really occurred to me that perhaps my own voice condition, which I’d only previously thought of as a liability or a pain in the neck, was actually an invitation and a blessing. An invitation to lead differently in a way that gave others a stronger voice, whether that was at work within a company or in a historically disenfranchised community like the Pine Ridge Indian reservation.

Allison: Wow. That’s a great story. I can’t wait to pick it up and read it. Kevin, I just want to thank you for joining us here today on Deliberate Leaders. I appreciate your leadership mantra. It resonates very much with me, and it’s nice to be talking to a company that is also from New England, which is my former home. So great connecting with you today. Thank you so much.

Kevin: I’m really happy to be with you. Thanks for having me, Allison.


I'm Allison Dunn,

Your Business Executive Coach

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