When CEO Kevin Hancock was diagnosed with spasmodic dysphonia at a critical, challenging time for his company, he wondered how he could lead his team out of the housing bust.
However, he discovered the power of shared leadership, which he wrote about in his book The Seventh Power. In this week’s interview, Kevin shares with us his journey and how you can implement shared leadership in your own company to empower your people and grow your business.
Rich: Our guest today is an award-winning author, speaker and CEO. Established in 1848, Hancock Lumber Company, led by his 550 employees, is one of the oldest family businesses in America. The company is a seven time recipient of the Best Places to Work in Maine Award. Additionally, our guest has received the Ed Muskie Access to Justice Award, and the Habitat for Humanity Spirit of Humanity Award.
His first book, Not for Sale: Finding Center in the Land of Crazy Horse, won three national book awards. His most recent book, The Seventh Power – One Journey into the Business of Shared Leadership. What was released in 2020 and is available wherever books are sold.
He is a frequent visitor to the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota, and an advocate of strengthening the voices of all individuals within a company or community through listening, empowering, and shared leadership. We’re very excited to be diving into this unique approach to leadership with Kevin Hancock. Kevin, welcome to the podcast.
Kevin: Rich, it’s lovely to be with you. Thanks so much for having me.
Rich: Our pleasure.
Yury: Well, Mr. Hancock, I’ll address you as Kevin. You’ve been diagnosed with spasmodic dysphonia, which affects your speaking voice but figures heavily into your leadership style. Can you walk us through what happened?
Kevin: Sure. So, yeah, back in 2010 I was quite busy trying to help our company through the collapse of the housing and mortgage markets, when suddenly I have trouble speaking. And it turned out I’d acquired, as you mentioned Yury, a rare neurological voice disorder called spasmodic dysphonia that effects only speech with no known cause no, no known cure.
So suddenly, really important leadership moment in our company’s history, I couldn’t really use my voice. Something I’d always used a lot, but took for granted. And when I thought about it at first, really as a CEO your tool is your voice. So have that taken away really quickly transformed the way I thought about leadership. And to make a long story short, I had to figure out how to lead while talking a lot less.
And at first I said, what possible good could a CEO be who can’t talk all the time? But now I laugh about that because it really ended up revolutionizing the way I thought about leadership. And in a nutshell, the transformation for me was, why can’t everyone at this company become the voice of the company? We have, as Rich mentioned, 550 people who work at Hancock lumber. The truth is they all have a voice. They all have an important voice and they all lead this company. So it really led me to this vision of dispersing power and using my position as a CEO to strengthen other people’s voices, not my own. So this voice condition ended up really becoming an unforeseen blessing and an invitation to think completely differently about leadership.
Rich: I mean, it’s interesting how you approach that. And I’m just wondering, when you talk about that all your employees have a voice. Do you mean that they all have a voice within the company, you’re listening to all of them? Or does it mean that they all have a voice outside the company as well, so that any one of them might be a spokesperson for the company?
Kevin: Well, that’s such a great question. And my answer would be, yes, it means both. At the most important level, which transcends their jobs, they’re all unique human beings who innately as individual human beings have a voice that’s worthy of being heard and respected. So that comes first to me.
But then within the business, the idea is that if everyone has an authentic voice and it’s a safe culture for people to say what they think, and you know that you’re supposed to say what you think and trust your own voice, that will create a much better corporate outcomes. But to me, those corporate outcomes are secondary to the higher calling of just respecting all human voices.
My favorite rhetorical question now has become this, what if everybody on earth felt trusted, respected, valued, and heard, what might change? And I actually think everything might change. It would change the dynamics of human society on planet Earth, and work happens to become a great place to help adults self-actualize and come into their own voice, because so many adults work. What do adults do, they work. And so it’s a great place to get at the society, not just making money or proving a business.
Yury: Well it sounds like it’s a message for all mankind, across the nations. And is this something that you dive into in your latest book, The Seventh Power – One CEO’s Journey into the Business of Shared Leadership?
Kevin: Yes. That’s what that book is about. So the seventh power is a Sioux concept that I picked up on the Pine Ridge Indian reservation. It’s the honoring of the human spirit. So the Sioux give tribute in their medicine wheel to the six great external powers, the four cardinal directions, sky, and earth. But then say that a seventh power exists. And that seventh power is you, it’s me, it’s the individual human spirit. And wherever you are, you are at the center of your aural. So the seventh power is really about honoring the capability of the individual human spirit. And it powers organizations by relief saying that individual human spirit to its highest and best potential.
So the organization, well let me say it this way, I think of Rudyard Kipling’s iconic line in the Jungle Book, seventh power really means this, “The strength of the pack is the wolf. And if every individual is thriving, then that community by default is going to thrive there.”
Yury: Is there a correlation with self-actualization?
Kevin: Yes. And this all cam, Yury, from my voice condition. So I suddenly I could not always be heard. So I actually understood what that felt like. Then I started traveling out to the Pine Ridge Indian reservation where I met an entire community that didn’t feel fully heard, that felt marginalized or pushed to the side. And it really hit me that there are lots of ways for humans to lose a piece of their voice in this world. And that perhaps even the human experience is all about the quest for self-actualization, that maybe we’re all here on earth just doing the best we can to come into our own unique never to be repeated voice.
But what really motivated me was the thought that probably historically across time, leaders of organizations have probably done more historically to limit, restrict, coach, and direct the voices of others than to free them. And that understanding really became my personal mission in my writing and in our work at the company, to simply have Hancock Lumber be a place where everyone could have a voice, could have their own authentic voice, and that the benefits of that would be corporate, but would most importantly be far bigger.
Rich: As I’m listening to Kevin and running my own company as well, although obviously much smaller than yours, I think about all the different employees that I’ve seen over the years. And some have had no problem in stepping up into a “leadership position”, about sharing their voice with the world, sharing their voice internally. But I’ve had other people who were very, maybe their comfort zone is not one that has a loud voice. So I’m wondering as you think about your own company, are you recommending that we allow people to speak or encourage people to speak, maybe who normally just aren’t comfortable doing that? Are you pushing your employees or just opening up the gate so they can speak for themselves? If that makes sense.
Kevin: That’s such a great question. It’s really allowing everyone to lead in their own way. So as you suggest. So some people may be constantly verbal about that, others may be more thoughtful and periodic and cautious. And it’s really about letting everybody just be who they are. So it’s definitely not expecting everyone to lead in the same way, but rather honor that everyone can lead in their own unique way.
Yury: What would be your recommendation for the employees that never experienced this kind of concept, or by default has an assumption that they just simply have to follow strict guidelines and be task oriented instead of being a voice for the company or be a voice inside the company?
Kevin: Well, you have so many great questions, you two. I love these questions. I’m really feeling blessed to talk with you. So I think the big answer there is that I believe humanity is on the cusp of a really big, difficult transition from being what I would call empire-centric to becoming digitally-centric.
For thousands of years, humans have been indoctrinated into the art of service to the empire, whether that was literally the emperor or today your employer, or whatever the case might be. So really we ultimately need to start thinking very differently even about education and how we educate young people and how we really encourage them to do something, which is counterintuitive, which is to put themselves first.
The greatest way to contribute to it the advancement of society is to follow your own voice and do what makes you light up, to be that which makes you light up. But that’s really very counter to what we were taught growing up and what’s been indoctrinated into us. So breaking those patterns is not a quick, simple, short exercise.
Rich: Kevin, I’m listening in and there’s been so many great ideas here, and there’s been a lot of talk that you’ve shared with us about the idea of giving people a voice. But I’m kind of curious now about breaking that down into tactics. You know, at the end of the day, I’m going to try and take this information that you shared with us, and I’m going to try and practice it in my own company.
So for people like me who are listening right now, what are some of the tactical things that you’ve done since coming to this realization that have made the biggest change in Hancock Lumber?
Kevin: Yeah. I have two answers there. One is mission, and the second is metric. So most companies get whatever they focus on. So if a company is not creating an exceptional employee engagement experience it’s not because they can’t, it’s just because they haven’t prioritized it.
We ended up step number one changing the very mission of our company, or I might say the first mission. The first mission has to be meaningful to the people who work here, that this company needs to add value to their lives beyond just the economic benefits of work.
So once we took on that mission, that changed the way all of our leaders thought about what they needed to do. Now second, we needed a new metric so as to measure our progress against that mission. And one of the ways we’ve achieved that is through participation in the Best Places to Work in Maine survey, which produces an actual engagement score. And we’ve been a Best Place to Work in Maine now for seven years in a row. But we don’t take the survey to win the award. We take the survey to get the data, to make the voice of the employee as strong as possible.
So I would say in answer to your question, it would be number one to think about your mission and how important are you making the employee. And then number two, if you want to make the employee experience a priority, you’re going to need a metric or metrics so as to measure how you’re doing,
Rich: Can you share with us any of the metrics that you’ve put into place at Hancock as just as a specific example, so at the end of the year you can be like, we’re doing well, we need improvement, whatever the case may be?
Kevin: Yeah, the engagement scores right there are a great example. So Gallup will tell us that nationally employee engagement runs at around 33%. Meaning out of America’s 180 million workers, two out of three are not into their jobs. Think about that? Think about not just the economic waste of that, but think about the social or human waste of that.
At Hancock Lumber today, that percentage is 88%. So at our company, nearly 9 out of 10 employees will confidentially describe themselves as highly engaged and into their work. So from 1 in 3 to 9 in 10, and again, you can picture the economic difference in that. But also think about the social or human difference in that, that work is meaningful.
Yury: I think it’s a common metric, well, common knowledge, that on average, if you break down the work day, your typical eight hour day on average, people actually engage in their work. Those who are engaged, it’s between four to five hours.
So the three hours a day of actual valuable time, like you said, is just simply being wasted on activities that basically disengage employees from the work that they’re supposed to be doing or excited to be doing. Because it’s not about, “I have to”, it’s about, “I get to” do something that I’m excited about and proud of that.
Kevin: Yes. Great example. I totally agree with that.
Yury: You know, it’s a humble brag, Machias Savings Bank also participates in the Best Places to Work in Maine, and this year we were named the Best Employer in the large employer category. And just today, American Banking Association (ABA) released their rankings of best banks to work for, and out of 85 banks across the nation, Machias Savings Bank made the top five, and we were ranked number four. So we are celebrating employee appreciation week today.
And it totally resonates with your message about mission and metrics. It resonates with me because we never talk about Machias Savings Bank as a financial institution. We’re talking about as the engine of growth, we are moving Maine forward. And those are the metrics that are important to us. And those are the metrics that are easy to associate with as an employee because you’re not simply contributing to the bottom line, you’re contributing to the wellbeing of one person, one business, and one community at a time.
Kevin: I love that you shared that. So everyone listening to this podcast think about the burst of energy that you just heard in Yury’s description of Machias Savings and that recognition. Think about how cool that is. Now if you work at that company, how proud would that make you feel? If you were looking for a job in the industry, what would that do to your interest in Machias Savings? It would go up. And finally, if you were banking there, how would you feel about where you were banking? You’d feel great about it.
This is really the crux of it, that it adds value to every constituency group. Because you know this is not just work, this is humanity being served and advanced. Human beings being served and advanced.
Rich: So I’m listening to you guys talk, and obviously you both work at good sized companies in Maine, and you’re got great employee buy in and you’re doing a lot of things right. Yury, I don’t know how many hundreds of people exactly work there.
Yury: I would say, I believe it’s 268.
Rich: We’ve got 550 over at Hancock Lumber. Well, I’ve got eight employees. So talk to me a little bit, if you would, Kevin. How would you implement this in a small boutique shop? How would you implement these ideas in a startup? It’s one thing to do it when you’ve got – and maybe it’s harder to do in a big company – but the bottom line is, we’ve got two example of large companies. What are some things that those of us who are running very small businesses can do that are in alignment with what you’re talking about?
Kevin: Yeah, I think that, well sure, Rich, that your company is an exceptional example of what you’re talking about. I think smaller companies that are really incubated intimately actually live this way by default. You know everybody on your team extremely well. Every single role is essential, every individual has to lead in that role, and the communication is very flat and fast. You’ve got in a smaller organization all the convictions to excel as say highly employee-centric engaged organization. You almost can’t run a small business without it. It’s like right in the DNA of an entrepreneurial small company.
Yury: Do you have a message for people who work for owners who don’t have a power dispersal mindset?
Kevin: I do. And it goes all the way back to that iconic, thought from Gandhi, which is to put your focus on becoming the change you wish to see in the world. Now there’s a really big focus of empowerment and seventh power. It cuts right to the heart of it, Yury, which is change creation is not about what someone else needs to do, it’s about what I can do, it’s about what I can become. It’s about self-actualizing your own power.
Now people can say, to your point, “Well, Kevin Hancock you’re in a unique position because you’re the CEO of this company and I might not be the CEO of my company. So how do I do this?” Well, my answer to that is everybody’s got structural limitations. I would like to snap my finger and have all of corporate America operate this way. But I can’t, I actually only control an Infinitesimal small portion of the economy, even in Southern Maine. So I can’t make that happen, but what I can do is become the change I wish to see other companies here.
So I think it’s really always about pulling it back to what you can do. Pulling it back to what you can do and doing, what you can do, and looking internally for change creation, not externally.
Yury: So it’s not necessarily about doing a better job or doing more of what you’re good at. It’s actually expanding your horizons and prioritizing what truly matters to you as an individual, in alignment with the organizational goals, and potentially metrics. So your performance can be recognized as not just a contributing employee that addresses specific parameters of their responsibilities, but as an agent of change within the organization. Then everyone can kind of adopt to that role if they’re willing to step up to the plate. Am I hearing you correctly?
Kevin: Yeah. I’ll do maybe one simple example that’s common. Let’s say I have a wish that my company would listen better. Now, I can only control how one person listens. So what I’m actually going to focus on is making sure that I listen better, and that I’m less judgmental, and I’m more tolerant or encouraging and respectful of what others have to say. That’s how I focus on helping my company or my department or my team listen better.
I can wait for someone else to change, which may or may not happen, or I can take steps towards creating the change that I’m passionate about or seeking.
Yury: We actually recently had a guest on the podcast, Jodie Flynn, and she was talking about modeling a behavior that you wish to see in your employee. So that’s kind of like a little bit in reverse where the employees are starting to model the behavior that he or she wants to see around them?
Yury: Fantastic. Awesome.
Rich: So I have this question, Kevin, and it’s kind of been at the back of my head. And it’s been building as you’ve been talking because you quoted, I want to say maybe it was Rudyard Kipling earlier and then Gandhi. You’ve been heavily influenced by Native American culture talking about things like the medicine wheel and the spiritual things. You’re the head of a lumber company in Maine, and there’s a certain amount of old school manliness in the idea of running a lumberyard in Maine or a lumber company in Maine. And there may have been, before you had this epiphany, a certain amount of structure in the company and that there was a hierarchy and that maybe people who are not as high up as you but they had come to expect a certain fiefdom.
When you had this moment and you realized that there was a better way to lead, did you get pushback from any of your employees about this direction? And if so, what did you do about it? Because Gandhi and lumber are not necessarily always in the same sentence.
Yury: I wouldn’t say Gandhi and capitalism.
Kevin: Yeah. Oh, I love it. Great question. Well, I got lucky because of my voice condition, I had to lead differently. That leadership required to let others say more and me saying less, so I had no choice. I was committed by a power bigger than myself to a different path. Once I saw the magic of it, I began doubling down. Once our people saw the magic of it and we began doubling down.
So I was lucky I had a catalyst at a negative event, something that was disguised as a negative event, but really was a big blessing come into my life that pushed me off the ledge. And one side jumped there was no possibility to turn back. Because my voice, if you will, wouldn’t allow it. So I was lucky.
I had a dream that an angel showed up and asked me to go back in my life 15 years, which was prior to the set of my voice condition. And I panicked in the dream, Rich and Yury, I said to the angel, “No, I do not want to go back then, because I might not acquire SD again.” That’s how valuable my limitation has become to helping me transform, first as a person, and then second as a leader.
Yury: This is a very powerful message for all of us. Because sometimes I wake up in the morning and I feel lost, I feel that I’m not accomplishing the things that I believe that I should accomplish by now. And hearing the limitations that you’ve been dealing with and how you tapped into the power of that unknown and rediscovered yourself. This is pretty incredible, especially in the times of uncertainty when we don’t know what’s going to happen tomorrow. I think it’s a great reminder that ultimately it’s up to us to lead our lives and the directions that we can control and don’t have to tap into outside resources for encouragement or inspiration. It’s all inside of us.
Kevin: I love that last point you made. I just wrote an op ed a month or so ago about the importance in turbulent times where the external world is highly consuming and distracting, like now, for all kinds of reasons. The importance of staying on your own mission and staying on your own voice, we need to be aware of what’s happening globally, broadly, but not consumed, not paralyzed, not frozen. Because, you Rich, you Yury, everybody listening, we’ve all got a unique mission on this planet that no one else can pursue but for you. And we cannot get thrown off our rockers into paralysis by the external chaos. So we’ve really got to get back within ourselves.
If you look at the light that’s right in front of you, it’s typically a lot more manageable than the global picture you see on TV or on the internet. Globally aware, but then we got to come back and get it. I have a therapist friend who keeps saying to me, I love this quote. She keeps saying to me, “Kevin, get back in your body and stay there.” And I just love that idea of getting back into your voice and into your mission, and your message, and make your contribution, and don’t be overwhelmed by the chaos around you.
Yury: Wow. This is incredible. Thank you, Kevin. Well I feel like we talked a lot about transformation and change and a lot of very spiritual things that are important in the very materialistic world. But now I want to bring us back, not necessarily to our bodies, but to our state, the beautiful state of Maine. On the show we always ask this question at the end of the show, “What one thing would you change if you could to improve the business ecosystem here in Maine?”
Kevin: Right. It’s a great question. I’m going to preface it by saying I think Maine is pretty amazing exactly as it is. Our beauty and our blemishes uniquely combined to make Maine, Maine.
But to your question, I would say it goes back to something we said earlier, which is start rethinking how we’re educating young people coming into the 21st century. I remember when, our two daughters – are adult girls now, young women in their twenties – but I remember that at a high school band, someone who works at the school there saying – and meaning well – said the statement that we’re preparing these people to enter the work force. And as a CEO, I said to myself, what a terrible goal. What a terrible goal. That’s that empire-centric approach that’s so ingrained. That’s not what we should be preparing them to do. We should be preparing them to enter their own seventh power. They are their goal, their own unique voice, their own unique mission, which, yeah, is going to include a job and a career.
So it’s a complete reorientation. We’re teaching young people almost the exact opposite of what we should be to enter the 21st century, which is you are a power source unto yourself. Imagine if every graduating senior in Maine believed that.
Yury: You know, this is an incredible, incredible message. And I also wanted to add to what you just said. My wife and I, we recently looked at our “life accounts”, where we had three different domains. The first domain was “being”, and under that domain we had spiritual, physical and intellectual accounts. Then we had the second domain relating to where we focused on our marital goals, social and parental goals. And the third domain was “doing”. This is our careers, our hobbies, and our financial accounts, how we manage our finances. So I clearly resonate with what you’re saying. But it took me years to arrive to that kind of mindset that these are the things that are more important than just manually doing the task and following this kind of determined conveyor belt steps when you start here and you end there, and this is what you need to be doing on a daily basis of this is what you thing about when you go to bed and this is what you think about when you wake up and for the rest of the day. So I clearly resonate with you, and this is a very powerful message.
Kevin: Thank you. Thank you,
Rich: Kevin, this has been great. I love your approach on leadership, I love everything you shared with us today. For people who want to dig in a little bit deeper and learn more, where can we send them online?
Kevin: Yeah, they go right to my web site, which is kevindhancock.com. And there are lots of resources there, my books are there, anyone can reach me there and I reach back towards anyone that’s trying to connect with me.
Rich: Awesome. Kevin, thank you so much for your time today. We really appreciate it.
Kevin: Rich and Yury it was inspiring, thank you for having me
Rich: Thank you for your kindness.
Yury: We appreciate that. It’s very generous of you.
Rich: Wow. Very powerful, very meaningful interview with Kevin today. If you want the full transcript from today’s episode, head on over to fastforwardmaine.com/67, and you’ll find the transcript there along with all the links that Kevin shared with us so you’ll be able to go check out his stuff as well. Yury, a lot to take in today, but what was your fast take?
Yury: My fast take is more like a message to business leaders and business owners. If you see yourself or your company as a change agent, your mission should be aligned with the metrics that demonstrate the results and the changes that you seek to see in this world. That is the fast take from me. Rich, what is your fast take?
Rich: I think my fast take, what I took away from today’s conversation, is just the incredible reframing that Kevin must have gone through when this happened. The idea that he had this dream, where he had the opportunity of maybe not getting spasmodic dysphonia and it filled him with panic because this has been such a powerful defining moment in his life that he didn’t want to lose, is incredible. I mean, the bottom line is things happen to us. Good things, bad things, terrible things happen to us. He didn’t ask for this condition, but it is up to us how we handle these situations once they arise. And he obviously handled in the best possible way. Not just having a positive impact on his life, but also the life of all the employees over Hancock, and also anybody who picks up that book or listens to him speak. So that idea of reframing and taking what could have been a terrible episode in your life and completely making it a positive transformative one, that’s my fast take for today.