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A Lesson in Leadership From the CEO of One of America’s Oldest Companies

After an epiphany sent him halfway around the world, Kevin Hancock has embraced a work culture where everyone can be heard.

Image provided by Kevin Hancock

“Leaders aren’t supposed to be perfect or flawless. Leaders are supposed to be reflections of their community and this requires humility and a willingness to be authentic and transparent.”

Kevin Hancock has a unique perspective on leadership. While a lot of people can make this claim, no one has gone through a journey of enlightenment and self-discovery quite like this. It’s not just that he’s the CEO of a 171-year-old business which happens to be a six-time recipient of the ‘Best Places to Work in Maine’ award. Or that he acquired a rare neurological voice disorder called Spasmodic Dysphonia (SD) in 2010.

What Kevin has is a story and a vision that he hopes will change the trajectory of traditional work culture and leadership from the top-down. After frequent visits to the remote Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota, Kevin found a community that did not feel their voices were fully heard. This led him on a mission stretching from the Arizona desert to Kiev, Ukraine to establish a new set of leadership principles that he could believe in and share.

Now Kevin's goal is “to create a socially transformative work culture for the 21st Century in which employee engagement soars because everyone feels authentically heard.”

I had the opportunity to virtually connect with Kevin recently, and ask him some questions about leadership, personal growth, and what it takes for organizations to last by building a better, more authentic work culture for the future.

Here’s what Kevin had to share.

What separates your leadership style from others in your industry?

While there are many similarities, there are definitely some distinct differences. Our industry is filled with highly effective, caring leaders and I have learned a lot about leadership from others in my industry. That being said, I think we all are shaped as leaders by our experiences. In my case, I acquired a rare voice disorder back in 2010 that made speaking quite difficult for me for a long time. As a result, I had to learn to lead in a very different way that focused on strengthening the voices of others.

This led me down the path of shared leadership and dispersed power. At Hancock Lumber our leadership approach is designed to give everyone a voice and to ask everyone to lead. This requires lots of focus on the employee experience and the belief that if the employees are having a meaningful experience that will translate directly to the customer experience and the overall performance of the company.

How important is good corporate citizenship to your organization?

Answering that question requires defining what ‘corporate citizenship’ means. To us, it means that the mission of the company is bigger than its own personal performance.

In fact, I believe that corporate profit performance is actually not a primary goal — but rather an important outcome of a higher calling. That higher calling is corporate citizenship which begins by making sure the people who work at the company are valued and that their lives are being enhanced through their work.

How can a leader use personal challenges to make a company better?

Adversity is really how human beings grow. When you think about the biggest challenges in your life they have also likely created the biggest opportunities for growth because we’ve been tested. Every challenge presents an opportunity for growth.

With that in mind, leaders need to make space for every individual in the company to face their own challenges and learn from them. Mistakes are essential for growth and a great company needs a culture that makes it safe for people to experience challenges and respond to them.

How can a leader empower others by listening, not speaking?

This really depends on how we listen. Listening must be for understanding, not judgment, in order for it to be empowering. At Hancock Lumber, we work very hard as a leadership team on listening without judging. This requires getting beyond ‘right and wrong’ and accepting all perspectives as they are.

The biggest wish I would have for any organization is that it is a safe place for people to say what they actually think. I call this the ‘answers to the test.’ When you allow people to safely say what they think you gain tremendous insight into the real challenges and opportunities of the company.

As the leader of one of America’s oldest companies, how do you stay on top of new innovations?

Seeking is the biggest step in finding. If you value innovation you will find it everywhere.

What issues do you find with traditional leaders?

The traditional leadership model has been primarily about collecting power into the centre of organizations. The new leadership model is about flipping that script and dispersing power. In this way, the top executives actually make their role a bit smaller so that everyone else’s role can become bigger.

Is it important for aspiring leaders to take an adventure or personal journey of sorts to find their voice?

It’s essential. The first person we must all serve and strengthen is ourselves. The gift we give others is to bring forth our best self. This means that we all need to learn to follow our own voice and do what makes us light up. This does require new thinking about leadership. Traditionally leaders have been trained to put all of their focus on others.

This new approach requires turning inward and working a lot more on ourselves. The person you have the most influence over is you and it is essential to first become the change you wish to see in others.

How can leaders of a company work to organically improve human engagement?

It’s simple really. All leaders have to do is make human engagement a higher priority and find mechanisms to measure that engagement through surveys, focus groups, and feedback loops. It’s actually easier to focus on engagement than to not focus on it.

Not focusing on it requires tremendous effort to hold an organization together through overbearing rules and policy. Engagement frees everyone in a way that simplifies management and leadership.

Do you view technology as a barrier to finding your voice or can we leverage it to enhance our voice?

Technology is an accelerator. It always magnifies what already exists.

Do you have any practices you use to make sure the voice of your organization/mission remains authentic?

One practice is to be open as leaders about our own faults and humanness. Leaders aren’t supposed to be perfect or flawless. Leaders are supposed to be reflections of their community and this requires humility and a willingness to be authentic and transparent.

One Last Thing

If you want to learn more about Kevin Hancock’s story and the concept of leading through listening, he has a new book titled The Seventh Power-One CEO’s Journey Into The Business Of Shared Leadership.





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