Change the world right beside you. Looking globally at the challenges humanity faces is overwhelming. Our ancient ancestors never had to carry that torch. For much of human history the world you could see was all you knew. There is value in transcending the 24/7 news and social media and focusing on improving the world right in front of you.
As part of our series about ‘5 Steps We Must Take To Truly Create An Inclusive, Representative, and Equitable Society’, I had the pleasure to interview Kevin Hancock.
Kevin Hancock is CEO of Hancock Lumber, one of the oldest companies in America and a seven-time recipient of the ‘Best Places to Work in Maine’ award. In 2010, at the peak of the national housing and mortgage market collapse, Kevin acquired a rare neurological voice disorder called Spasmodic Dysphonia (SD). When his own voice became weakened as a result, he developed a new leadership style based on strengthening the voices of others. He is now a champion of a work culture where everyone leads and every voice is trusted, respected, and heard. His new book, THE SEVENTH POWER–ONE CEO’S JOURNEY INTO THE BUSINESS OF SHARED LEADERSHIP, shares the philosophy, values and strategies Hancock Lumber Company has embraced on its journey toward becoming an employee-centric company — where leadership responsibilities are broadly shared rather than power coming from the top down.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Before we dig in, our readers would like to get to know you. Can you tell us a bit about how you grew up?
What a fun question to revisit! I grew up in a small town in Western Maine. It was, and still is, a blue-collar area and a place where most everyone knows each other. We played lots of sports but this was before programs like AAU — so it was up to all the kids in the neighborhood to self-organize. It was a pretty perfect place to grow up and I have lots of good memories from my childhood. In Maine, everybody works hard and people take care of each other.
Is there a particular book that made a significant impact on you? Can you share a story or explain why it resonated with you so much?
Bury My Heart At Wounded Knee by Dee Brown is a book I have read several times across multiple decades. It’s was the first non-fiction book to accurately depict American history from the Native American perspective. Before reading this book I had only a glamorized, ‘Hollywood’ view of the Native American experience in the American west. This book caused me to pause and really think about our national story and how the indigenous communities of North America were so poorly treated in our nation’s quest to fulfill our ‘Manifest Destiny.’ It was a stark moment for me when I recognized that genocide occurred here in this country.
Do you have a favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Do you have a story about how that was relevant in your life or your work?
My favorite life lesson quote comes from Mahatma Gandhi who said, “Be the change that you wish to see in the world.” I’ve come to believe that becoming the change is the only way to create sustained positive transformation. Change, it turns out, is an inside job. By way of example, a number of years ago I decided that I wanted our company to adopt a culture of listening without judgment. I wanted our company to be a place where it was safe for everyone to say what they authentically thought. At first, it felt a bit overwhelming to contemplate creating that kind of culture shift across multiple work sites and hundreds of employees. So I decided to just focus on improving my own listening skills. I made a concerted effort to become a better listener to everyone on our leadership team. Once I was able to sustain this personal change, I literally watched our executive team pass the same gift on to the people below them. My personal listening transformation rippled across the company.
How do you define “Leadership”? Can you explain what you mean or give an example?
To me, leadership is about giving away power, not collecting it. Great leaders make others stronger. A decade ago I acquired a rare voice disorder called spasmodic dysphonia. Suddenly speaking became extremely difficult at times and I was forced to do less of it. As a CEO, my voice was my primary work tool so not having consistent access to it was transformative. In time, however, I came to see my voice limitations as a blessing and an invitation to strengthen the voices of others. This led me to become an advocate of creating a work culture where power was dispersed, leadership was shared, and every voice was trusted, respected, and heard.
In my work, I often talk about how to release and relieve stress. As a busy leader, what do you do to prepare your mind and body before a stressful or high stakes meeting, talk, or decision? Can you share a story or some examples?
So this is a really interesting question. I can’t actually remember the last time I found a meeting or work decision ‘stressful.’ My voice condition really led me to introspectively re-examine my relationship to my role at work. When I did this, I realized I had let my ego interfere too much in my career. My view of my success and self-worth as an individual had become too deeply intertwined with my role as a CEO. I then went through a multi-year personal journey to re-connect with my own essence beyond my roles. When I did this my CEO role became much easier to play and the stress that had typically accompanied my job melted away. Work shouldn’t be stressful. If it is consistently so, then something is wrong.
Ok, thank you for all that. Now let’s move to the main focus of our interview. The United States is currently facing a very important self-reckoning about race, diversity, equality and inclusion. This is of course a huge topic. But briefly, can you share your view on how this crisis inexorably evolved to the boiling point that it’s at now?
I’m pretty passionate about this subject. As a society we got to this boiling point because across time leaders of established organizations have often ‘over-reached.’ By this, I mean that those with the most power often abuse it and go too far. We saw this play out, for example, in America’s ‘winning of the west.’ We destroyed the native communities in our national path to reach from ‘sea to shining sea’ and that act of over-reaching has consequences that are still playing out to this day.
The good news is that much of the current social tensions we are witnessing can be reversed by leaders simply learning to exercise the power of ‘restraint.’ Restraint, to me, is having the most power but not using it. We need leaders that are focused on using their positions to advance humanity broadly. In the 21st century, winning isn’t truly winning unless everyone comes out on top.
Can you tell our readers a bit about your experience working with initiatives to promote Diversity and Inclusion? Can you share a story with us?
Both words, ‘diversity’ and ‘inclusion,’ are exceptionally important and, in many ways, they go hand in hand. Let’s focus for a moment on the power and potential of inclusion. First, it’s essential to understand that ‘inclusion’ is a perception. Imagine a world where everyone feels included and then imagine a second world where lots of people feel excluded. The outcomes of those two worlds would be dramatically different. This subject reminds me of my favorite social transformation question: What if everyone on earth felt trusted, respected, valued, and heard? What might change? I think everything might change.
Leaders, for me, are by definition people who make others feel included by taking the time to honor all voices. Celebrating diversity of thought is essential in order to create an inclusive society. Voices are unique by design.
This may be obvious to you, but it will be helpful to spell this out. Can you articulate to our readers a few reasons why it is so important for a business or organization to have a diverse executive team?
I would sum this question up by revisiting the concept of ‘truth.’ When it comes to human perception there is no single truth. For example, our company has 550 employees and therefore 550 unique perspectives about the Hancock Lumber work experience. The key to creating a great work culture is to honor all of those perspectives and to transcend the limiting thinking of ‘right’ and ‘wrong.’ There are no ‘wrong’ perspectives about our company. Each perspective is real to the person who has it. When leaders give up the idea of molding everyone to think the same way or say the same things they allow their company to enter a fresh zone of authenticity where it becomes safe for people to say what they honestly think. This quest for diversity of thought is essential at the executive level and every level of any company that wants to demonstrate respect for all voices.
Ok. Here is the main question of our discussion. Can you please share your “5 Steps We Must Take To Truly Create An Inclusive, Representative, and Equitable Society”. Kindly share a story or example for each.
Wow! What a challenge this question represents. I’m sure I have lots to learn here but since you asked, here it goes…
#1. Make peace within yourself. I don’t believe we can engage others from a position of love until we do the uncomfortable work of looking inward and really investing in knowing, loving, and honoring ourselves exactly as we are.
#2. Recognize that social change requires everyone to make a move. I’ve never seen a dispute between two parties be resolved without BOTH parties being willing to contemplate how they can contribute to the change they seek.
#3. Listen for understanding, not judgment. There’s a lot of judging going on right now in our country when simply learning to listen for understanding is all that’s required.
#4. Rethink ‘winning.’ In the old world order someone else had to lose for you to win. In a globalized world that recognized our connectivity a new definition of winning is required. No one has to lose for you to win.
#5. Change the world right beside you. Looking globally at the challenges humanity faces is overwhelming. Our ancient ancestors never had to carry that torch. For much of human history the world you could see was all you knew. There is value in transcending the 24/7 news and social media and focusing on improving the world right in front of you.
We are going through a rough period now. Are you optimistic that this issue can eventually be resolved? Can you explain?
Yes! I’m actually quite excited about the 21st century. We’ve entered the Aquarian Age and the epoch before us is going to see the emergence of the individual human spirit as the dominant force in human society. For eons, society has been empire centric. Individuals have long been indoctrinated into the art of followership and sacrifice before the King, the pulpit, and the CEO. But the truth is every soul is an empire unto itself. Every individual is sacred and holy. This awareness is spreading and budding across the planet and it’s going to reinvent the way communities organize themselves. The place of work, for example, will be transformed. For centuries workers existed to serve their company. In the new world order, companies are going to learn to serve the people who work there in truly meaningful ways. This will, in fact, improve corporate performance but that improved performance will now be the outcome of a higher calling.
Is there a person in the world, or in the US, with whom you would like to have a private breakfast or lunch, and why? He or she might just see this, especially if we tag them. 🙂
I’ve said this before and I’ll say it again: I’d love to sit down with Arianna Huffington. My mission of creating a healthier, more functional workplace environment is so aligned with her cause and I feel we would really hit it off!
How can our readers follow you online?
The best way to follow me is at my website — www.kevindhancock.com. I love to hear from people all over the world that have read my books so please feel free to reach out! For me, responding is both a pleasure and an important obligation.