The Bregman Leadership Podcast
Episode 222

Kevin Hancock

The Seventh Power

What is shared leadership? After his spasmodic dysphonia diagnosis, Kevin Hancock, CEO of Hancock Lumber Company, had to learn how to lead “while doing a lot less talking,” which sparked a transformation in his leadership style and eventually, his company. Now, he’s brought what he’s learned to his book, The Seventh Power. Discover the strategies he developed to talk less and listen more, why we should rethink the idea of winning, and the benefits of re-investing profit.

About

Get the book, The Seventh Power from Amazon here:

Learn more

Bio: Kevin Hancock is an award-winning author, speaker, and CEO. Established in 1848, Hancock Lumber Company operates ten retail stores, 3 sawmills and a truss plant. The company also grows trees on 12,000 acres of timberland in Southern Maine and is led by its 550 employees. Hancock Lumber is a six-time recipient of the ‘Best Places to Work in Maine’ award. The company is also a recipient of the Maine Family Business of the Year Award, the Governor’s Award for Business Excellence, the MITC ‘Exporter of the Year’ award, and the Pro-Sales national dealer of the year. Kevin is a past chairman of the National Lumber and Building Materials Dealers Association. Kevin is also a recipient of the Ed Muskie ‘Access to Justice’ Award, the Habitat For Humanity ‘Spirit of Humanity’ Award, the Boy Scouts of America ‘Distinguished Citizen’ Award, and Timber Processing Magazine’s ‘Man of the Year’ Award.

Video

https://youtu.be/FeL7OQGkSTU

Transcript

This transcript is unedited.

Peter:

With us today is Kevin Hancock. Kevin is the CEO of Hancock lumber company. It’s one of the oldest and best known family businesses in America. He’s the recipient of the ed Muskie access to justice award. The habitat for humanity, spirit of humanity award. The boy Scouts of America, distinguished citizens award was the timber processing magazine person of the year award. We can go on and on. He’s written most recently, the book, the seventh power, one CEO’s journey into business of shared leadership in 2012, Kevin was diagnosed with spasmodic dysphonia S D as it’s otherwise known. It’s a rare neurological speaking disorder that made communicating difficult. And you’ll hear a little bit of that challenge in, in this podcast though. You’ll be able to understand everything that, that the two of us talk about, and it’s this partial loss of his voice, which initially was a real challenge and considered a hindrance that eventually became in his view and in the way he led a gift and an invitation and calling to lead differently. So I’m delighted to have Kevin on the podcast, Kevin, welcome to the Bregman leadership podcast.

Kevin:

Hey there. Hello. Thanks so much for having me. I’m happy to be here.

Peter:

Kevin, can you share with us a little bit the, you know, your story, I guess you know, in brief, because we’ll go into it, but you know, how did you get into the CEO role? Let’s start there.

Kevin:

Yeah, so our company is family business that goes back to 1848. So before the civil war, part of it, six generation of my family to work for the dad run the company before me died quite young in 1997. And I took over the company at the age of 31 and 31 year olds tend to think, I was sure I was perfectly ready for.

Peter:

And you maybe describe a little bit, you know, just in a couple of sentences, the way you led when you first became CEO?

Kevin:

Yeah, was very traditional. I was always present, always speaking. I quite literally the voice of our company.

Peter:

And then you became sick. You got SD in 2012.

Kevin:

Correct it a little bit earlier around 2010, right at the peak of the housing and mortgage market collapse, which was a really difficult time for our company and industry is sure you can imagine.

Peter:

Did you consider leaving the role of CEO?

Kevin:

I never, that’s interesting question, that thought never crossed my mind, but it did throw me off at first because, and I laugh about this now, Peter, but I said to myself, well, what possible good could a CEO who can’t talk all the time, but it ended up bringing me kind of forcing me into a very different approach to leadership that I’ve come to really love and promote.

Peter:

And so, so, so I’m, I’m very curious to talk about that. And, you know, originally when you first got in the role from what I’ve read in the book, you really defined yourself by your role, you were CEO, and that meant a whole bunch of things to you. What did it mean to you in that moment?

Kevin:

Yeah, I think when you grow up in a family business and your own name is tached to the business, that it’s quite easy for your personal identity to become lost in the business itself for you to really wake up one day and feel like, well, the performance of the business is really the, the measurement of myself as an individual. I’ve just gotten that intertwined with the company. And it’s actually, I think why I got sick when the company really went through that difficult period with the housing mortgage market collapse. I don’t think I could distinguish between a wound to the company and a wound to myself. That’s how intertwined to have gotten.

Peter:

And was becoming sick, how you escaped that sort of role definition.

Kevin:

Yeah, because it forced me to stop and to think and to re assess, and, and I GaN during that period to do a lot more personal inquiry. You know what, it’s hard to talk. You talked last, when you talk last year, quiet more when you’re quiet, more, you think more when I thought more that pulled me inward, that kind of launched a what turned out to be a really, for me kind of glorious and bent juror and, and Renaissance said, I can’t quite thankful for, but I didn’t see any of it coming at first. It was just you know, voiced it sorta threw me off balance.

Peter:

So Kevin, I’m so interested. I want to get to the point where you have this sort of blissful acceptance and, you know, inner depth that you drew from the, the disease and, and where you are now, before we get there. I’m so interested in those very challenging, difficult, or if they were challenging or difficult, it sounds like they were transitional moments. Like I want you, I wanna, I want you to bring yourself back to the place where your CEO, you know, you’re, you’re running this thing you’re on, I don’t know if you’re on the top of the world, but you’re certainly at the top of the company, you know, you, you lead by speaking and then that’s taken away from you. Like what in those moments is going on for you?

Kevin:

Yeah. I’m not a very competitive person. So initially I just like again, and kept like fighting. The challenge was which is not the case today, but then it was really difficult to talk, took like a major athletic feat, push out just a few short senates. So what I really had to do was figure out how to lead while doing a lot less talking.

Peter:

And you don’t feel that now, meaning it’s not, it’s not a physical feat.

Kevin:

I’ve done a lot better. My condition is considered incurable today, but one of my personal goals has been to help prove that it’s not. And you can tell when you hear me, my voice is a bit unique, but I can talk and talk today. And it doesn’t really bother me in any way. So I’ve actually covered quite a bit across the course of a decade.

Peter:

Okay. So I guess what’s important for me to know is I’m not putting you through a bunch of pain by asking you a bunch of questions and having you answer them.

Kevin:

That’s correct. Yes.

Peter:

Good. So, so you, you lose your ability. It’s not like you went through this personal transformation and change your leadership. You lose your ability to lead the way you don’t lose your position, but you lose your ability to lead in the way that you’ve always led. Correct. And how do you begin to figure out that that might be an advantage?

Kevin:

Yeah, I think same way. Anyone else is when, when a real unexpected shock or change shows up, it’s I would say really by trial and error is what happened initially, when it’s hard to talk, you quickly develop strategies for doing less of that. And my instinctive strategy, Peter, was leading answer a question with a question, thereby putting the conversation right back on the other person. So if I might do a quick bullet example, people would come up to me at work because I was the CEO or the boss and ask question historically, I would have provided an answer, but I now started saying, well, that is a good question. What do you think we should do about it?

Peter:

Were you afraid that you would lose credibility? Were you afraid that it would reveal that you didn’t know an answer you know, where you, what did, what, what was the emotional relationship to shifting in that way?

Kevin:

Yeah, I didn’t have any of that, I think. And when, think about it, if, if that happened to you, how would the people around you who love you have responded to that? They would have been super, super supportive, and that’s what happened to me. So I, I didn’t experience really any anxiety that way. I just had to talk a lot less.

Peter:

Right. You know, when I, when I was a NOLs instructor, I went very quickly. Nols is national outdoor leadership school, and we ran 30 day expeditions teaching leadership on them. And we I went very quickly from never having camped before in my life to suddenly leading camping trips. And, and I found that I can answer any question that everybody asked me with one of three things, which is put on a hat, drink more water. And then if it wasn’t something that could be answered with, put on a, how to drink more water, I merely just said what do you think? And then let them figure it out. And it turned out that those were also very highly rated leadership characteristics born from my own ignorance of, of being able to answer those questions. But I guess the answer is, it doesn’t matter because people want to, people have ideas, people think things, and, and they ended up getting more ownership when they, when they answered their own questions.

Kevin:

Yeah, exactly. And that’s what I experienced, what struck me after months and months. So answering a question with a question was, people already knew what to do. This is what really thinking differently about leadership. They didn’t actually need a top down management centric directive to the vast majority of questions and challenges that they faced during the core civil work day. They already knew what to do. All they really needed was the confidence and the courage to trust their own judgment and voice and a safe work culture to know that that would be okay to make a mistake or have thing that chose to do not go perfectly.

Peter:

I think that’s so profound, Kevin and, and I, you know, I could twist it and in more of a negative way, which is not usually my style, but like people ask you questions because they don’t want to take ownership of the consequences of their actions. And then if you say, you know, yes, go do this and they could do it. And then they’re not self responsible. And, and when you, but, you know, I sort of prefer the way you’re saying it, right. Which is that we need to help people have the confidence and recognize that they’re, you know, that they, that people generally act in good faith and that if, if they fail, they’re not happy about that either. And by the way, they’re a lot less happy about it. If they’re pursuing their own idea, then if they pursue your idea, then they could say, well, Kevin’s idea. Didn’t work.

Kevin:

That’s so well said. So what happened in our company over time, as you can imagine, is that countability actually went way up because suddenly free buddy was making their own leadership decisions. So when a leadership changes towards the perspective of sharing power versus collecting it, it does then change followership to the point you were talking about. And the one safe thing about followership, is it things go wrong. It wasn’t your fault because it was someone else’s idea. So the, the cultural approach of sharing power, dispersing leadership, really, I found strengthens accountability because people are making and owning their own choices. And then we try to do that in a safe way, which is if it doesn’t work out fine, we’ll go back at it and, and fix it or make it

Peter:

Right. It’s great. I love it. So it requires a couple of things I think. And I’m kind of curious how you manage that one is it actually requires competence and good AF good faith effort and capability among the people who are answering their own questions. Right. Meaning that confidence isn’t enough. You also need competence. Yes, because if you build confidence without competence, you’re buying yourself a lot of trouble. And, and then the other question, and the other piece of it is if everybody’s making their own decisions, but they’re not clearly unified behind a common vision and objective, and they don’t all know the language I use is big arrow. Like there’s, you know, like everybody’s these little arrows and they’re moving in all sorts of different directions. And unless there’s a really clear cogent, big arrow, like what is the most important thing for us to achieve? How are we achieving? What are our values, but that, that can guide people in making those decisions. Then you, you, you risk NRG, you risk an organization where everybody’s making any decision they want to make, and everything’s all over the place. How do you manage those two elements that are required? And is there anything I’m missing that’s required to make that happen? And I know you have a seven process model, which I really liked. So, you know, we can go through that as well. That’s a lot of questions.

Kevin:

Yeah. So glad you brought that up though, because the fear is that this approach of a shared leader ship and dispersed power will mean chaos or lack of organization and people all over the place doing whatever they want to do. And what we found is just the opposite. First to your point, a company must have a really clear set of values that are super clear guideposts and a really clear mission that serves as a guidepost. And then next, though, our focus has been to include employees in discussions around the most important choices that affect them. But that never means that every single opinion or answer carries the day, if we’re sitting in a circle with a work team, talking about an issue, there will be a variety of different opinions, and they won’t all carry the day about what the immediate outcome is going to be. But what we’ve found is that if people feel they aren’t being included in a transparent, authentic process of making decisions, that they are much more apt to support those outcomes, our safety director is fond of saying that people support that, which they help to create. So we’ve actually seen by having authentic dialogue is that discipline to core systems and best practices actually improves it. Does it weekend or fray? It actually strengthens.

Peter:

It’s great. You know, it’s actually interesting. I was in a conversation with someone in a business and I asked them to do something and their answer was, yeah, I think that’s the right thing to do. I need to ask permission. And I think if you’re ever in a situation where you have to ask permission, you’re probably in a, a leadership environment that is more sort of prohibitively closed in a way that prevents people from showing up in their maximum potential.

Kevin:

I totally great. I think that that the great opportunity and work cultures in the 21st century to make them safe for people to actually say what they think and for people to learn, act, react, and, and grow and grow and keep making the culture safe really is re to reign. One of the things thesis in my book is that throughout human history leaders, those who have the most power have often overreached gone too far taken too much control, exerted, too much influence. And I suggest in the 21st century, overreaching opposite is what’s needed, which is leadership restraint, which I define as having the power, but having the patience and the discipline and the trust for humanity to not always use it. It’s actually about managers learning counterintuitively, Peter, to do a bit less, not a bit more, which is a very tough kind of conceptual transition for people to make. Cause we’re all ingrained in this idea of men is get up earlier, cover more ground, talk to more people, supervise more outcomes. And we’re really trying to go in a very different direction from that.

Peter:

So I want to read you something from you and then ask you a question around it. The truth is great. People are everywhere. There’s a sacred light that dwells within us. All everyone has valued to contribute. And the ability to lead the idea is to turn the corporation inside out in the old model, employees were commodities that sacrificed and served the organization in the new model. The organization becomes a conduit for serving individuals within a company. For example, self-actualization one employee at a time becomes the goal profit while enhanced is now the outcome of a higher purpose. And I love that paragraph. And, and I have a question about it, which is the profit being enhanced part. That’s sort of a leap of faith for leaders, right? I mean, if we say our job as leaders is self actualization of our employees, where are we sort of crossing our fingers and hoping that that self-actualization will lead to enhance profits and a smoother running organization.

Kevin:

Yeah. Perhaps, you haven’t done it. That would be the concern. So I’m really glad you asked that question. So we’ve been at this now for about a decade. It turns up this cultural transformation along the lines of quote that you just read and it could well be coincidence. But in that decade, we earn more profit than we add from 1848 to 2000. And now I, our Ray Smith in our own company was more in that decade, 2010 to 2020, that eight 48 to 2009. Our productivity metrics, our accuracy, our fishing safety went through the roof. Now those things are Schultes. Someone could argue, there’s not a link, but we spent a decade at this at our results changed dramatically as now the outcome that to your point, important outcome of a, of a higher calling.

Peter:

So maybe the leap of faith for leaders is more of an emotional courage. One, a willingness to let go of control and trust. And, and I guess if, if your people aren’t competent, they, they really shouldn’t be there anyway, whether you’re guiding them or leading them or not. And if they are, then you should give them direction and unleash them to do what they do best.

Kevin:

Correct. Totally. And this is a tough leap to make because that Mo meant out leaders have led for thousands of years, it’s counter to this. It’s been about you build empires by collecting power. You put power into the center and the power you can pull to the center, the bigger, better your empire becomes. So this model is advocating for the opposite, but here’s the thing we have to remember humanity evolves. So this is not an indictment on the traditional model for the time that it was in place. This is simply saying it is now the 21st century humanity’s evolving and individual understanding of, of our own sacredness on an, on a personal level is I think the dominant theme of the 21st century and organizations are going to have to adapt their leadership approach in order to keep pace with the way humanity’s changing.

Peter:

I’m curious about how you think of profits in the organization as the leader, and whether you, you know, this might be a delicate question to ask you, but you know, you’re still, you’re still a hundred percent the owner,

Kevin:

Well, our family is yes. Correct.

Peter:

So, you know, are you so on the one hand, you know, we’re, we’re talking about sort of leadership serving the organization and that, you know, the, the goal is not to have people who are, you know, commodities sacrificed and serving the organization. On the other hand, there’s a way in which all of the workers are serving you in the family. And I’m kind of curious to know how you think about that and how the family thinks about that.

Kevin:

Yeah. So I guess I would say that’s my feeling about profit is that it is super important outcome, super important outcome of it, higher calling. I think about it as the fuel that powers a company’s ability to do good. The more profitable we are, the more fuel we have to go move, do at change. And I’m also a big believer in being really transparent with society about what happens to profit. So, you know, 95 cents out of every dollar we make or more is either going to go it taxes to government, or it’s going to be reinvested right back in the company. And when you really show people what happens to profit, I think people’s acceptance that profit is actually a universally beneficial objective goes, w we’ll go, we’ll go way up. Everybody in the organization is better off when the company does better.

Kevin:

And everybody in the organization is worse off when the company does worse. And, and if I might just add there, I think we’re really in a time when we’ve got to think differently about winning and losing, you know, that traditional model winning has meant someone has to lose, you know, workers versus corporations, buyer versus empire, religion versus religion. But in this new age, we’re in where this planet is so connected. There’s no, there is no winning anymore that doesn’t include everybody. And the idea that corporate success doesn’t benefit everyone and shouldn’t benefit everyone to me is an outdated way to think about corporate performance.

Peter:

Do you know, again, this might be an awkward question, but it’s really coming out of this place of curiosity of how the, the sort of leadership philosophy plays out. Do, do people do workers in the organization, do people know how much you and the family make?

Kevin:

We are very transparent about the profit performance and everyone in the organization has incentives tied to the profit performance. So everyone’s income moves together and our ability to keep improving the workplace through re vestment moves with it as well. I find it’s better to be transparent about all of that, then protective or secretive, cause that really fits again, the shared leadership approach. Everyone really needs to see and understand these things that used to be like the secret corporate center, black box box books for the company that stuff needs to be out there and shared.

Peter:

Have you, have you had, have you faced employees who are resentful of what you are making or, you know, or know that, that, you know, it’s, it’s more of a shared experience.

Kevin:

Yeah. I mean, you know, there is I, I’m not so naive to think that every single person always thinks it’s great, but you know, our engagement levels now are running close to 90% and cut DRI where engagement is below 33%. So nearly nine out of 10 employees will, self-define their experience at Hancock lumber as being super meaningful to them. And that’s really what I go by. What is the seventh power? So the seventh power, the idea it’s the Juul human spirit. It’s about turning inward to find strength, every human being turning inward to find solutions. It’s an individual centric approach to communal health. And it’s about leaders thinking about individual goals for the entity itself. Now where I saw this, I’ve spent a lot of time on the pine Ridge Indian reservation in South Dakota. It’s a place I’ve been over 20 times.

Kevin:

And one of my early trips there, I had someone show me that Lakota medicine wheel, which honors the six great powers the West, North, East, South sky and earth. But that individual then showed me that those who still remember the old ways of the SU know that at the center of that wheel, a seventh power exists and that seventh power is you. It is me, it is the individual human spirit. So the seventh power to me is like that iconic route. Your Kipling line, the strength of the pack is the Wolf. And the idea that every individual, it speaking with their own true voice and being their authentic self and living in a way that makes that person light up. That is the best way to make a family, a community, a company, a state, a nation, or a planet thrive.

Peter:

And you have in your book, the seven lessons for the age of shared leadership is that you know, the, the, your format is not East West, North, South earth sky individual, but are those seven lessons in some ways reflective of those the sort of seven directions?

Kevin:

Well, they are. Yeah. So I had, you know, I had a bit of a personal awakening thanks to my boy’s condition. And we then turned that into a bit of a corporate awakening. I’m like, well, could this actually be applied to an entire company, went at that for a decade, concluded it could. Then I said to myself, well, got greedy in the best sense of the term. Well, could this be applied to an entire planet? So this book is a bit of a travel adventure that goes out in search of kind of validation or further learning about this idea of disperse power. The book begins on the Navajo reservation. He stepped Flagstaff on the edge of the Colorado plateau, and it makes seven stops ending up in Kiev, in the Ukraine of all places where at each stop, I pick up what I believe is a different lesson or fundamental component of the age of shared leadership.

Peter:

I love that. And and so one of the questions is, you know, you had this awakening because of SD and how it impacted your voice and your ability to lead in the way that you would always lead. What you’re hoping is other people can have this transformation without necessarily getting SD or without getting sick or without having, you know, some something that they consider to be an essential element of who they are taken away from them. Have you found that to be the case, meaning 10 can, can the rest of us, you know, is it reasonable to think that the rest of us can go through this, you know, whatever transformation we need to go into without necessarily going through the illness or the suffering or the challenge, you know, of, of something dear taken away?

Kevin:

Yes. I believe that is the case have seen it time and again now, but also believe that leaders buy my book. In some ways it’s really a call to leaders. Leaders can really, really help transform the planet by creating a new culture within their organizations that encourages the individual human spirit. And that makes it safe for people to look inward and to find their own strength, that voice, and to pursue it, that we really can accelerate this by leading differently,

Peter:

We have been speaking with Kevin Hancock. He is the CEO of Hancock lumber and also the author of the seventh power one CEO’s journey into the business of shared leadership. Kevin, thank you so much for your openness and generosity and the journey that you’re on and your willingness to share it with us.

Kevin:

Well thank you Peter I’m really appreciative of having me on it and helped me to share my voice. Thank you.

Peter:

Well, we’ve enjoyed your voice. Thanks for being on the Bregman leadership podcast.

Kevin:

Thank you.

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