Forced to Talk Less
My name is Kevin Hancock, and I am the CEO of Hancock Lumber, one of America’s oldest family businesses. Our company, located in Maine, was established in 1848, and I am part of the sixth generation of my family to work there. We grow trees, manufacture lumber, and distribute building material, led by the 550 people who work at our company.
In 2010, at the peak of the national housing and mortgage market collapse, I began to have trouble speaking. It turns out I had acquired a rare neurological voice disorder (spasmodic dysphonia) that affects only speech, with no known cause or cure. Quite suddenly I was forced to develop a new approach to management and leadership that involved a lot less talking.
In 2012, I somewhat serendipitously began traveling to the remote Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota, a place I have now visited more than twenty times. There I met an entire community that didn’t feel fully heard.
The combination of these two events led me to realize that there are lots of ways to lose your voice in this world. It struck me that perhaps the partial loss of my own voice was an invitation to lead differently, in a way that dispersed power and strengthened the voices of others.
Answer a Question with a Question
When it’s hard to talk, you develop strategies for doing less of it. My method was to answer a question with a question, thereby putting the responsibility for speaking right back on the other person. When someone came up to me at work with a question, I would respond by saying That’s a good question. What do you think we should do about it?
In time, what struck me about this exercise was that people already knew what to do. They didn’t actually need a CEO-centric solution to the vast majority of problems and challenges they encountered during the course of an average workday. People already knew what to do; they just needed encouragement, confidence, and a safe space to act. With this knowledge in hand, I got really excited about creating a work culture centered on the notion that everybody can lead.
What was required to give everyone a bigger leadership role in the organization? The answer, I concluded, was RESTRAINT. Executives, managers, and supervisors simply need to show a modicum of restraint when issues arise, giving those on the front lines the first—and best—opportunity to make decisions and solve problems.
In most organizations the boss gets first dibs on all the work. As CEO at Hancock Lumber, for example, I can decide when we meet, set the agenda, and talk all I want. I can make as many decisions as I like. Everyone else downstream allows their managers to occupy whatever turf they desire. In this way, power is typically collected into the center of an organization.
In my case, racing from meeting to meeting and speaking all the time was no longer possible—I was forced to change. Soon, however, the transformation became voluntary. I began to double down on the notion of shared leadership and the idea of giving everyone a bigger voice.
Like the Lakota community I met at Pine Ridge, we reorganized ourselves into circles. Huddle systems were created across the company, designed to give everyone a greater opportunity to speak, lead, and be heard. Managers became facilitators, recording employee action plans and asking questions. Some might worry that this decentralized approach could lead to a lack of focus or systems discipline, but in my case, just the opposite occurred.
People support what they help to create. The more we share decision-making responsibilities, the more focused and disciplined we become as an organization. At Hancock Lumber, our key corporate metrics started to soar, and our employee engagement scores were soon approaching 90 percent. In a country where less than one-third of all workers describe their work experience as “meaningful” or “engaging,” nearly nine out of ten Hancock Lumber employees were describing themselves as engaged.
What was driving this? In my view, it was simple: We were giving everyone a bigger voice. We were inviting everyone to lead.
Today I have come to see my voice condition as a blessing. Leading an organization is much easier when everyone does it. Sharing leadership broadly and giving everyone a voice at work will improve product quality, customer experience, and corporate performance—but all of this is merely the outcome of a higher calling.
While planet Earth is filled with amazing people, each one capable of leading with their own unique and never-to-be-repeated voice, many organizations don’t tap into this innate potential for shared leadership. The traditional model of power located at the center and leadership delivered through the voices of a few is deeply entrenched. It took an unexpected shock to my own personal health to see this. But now, having heard the many voices of shared leadership in action, I feel blessed to have traded in a piece of my own.
For more information, see The Seventh Power: One CEO’s Journey into the Business of Shared Leadership or visit Kevin’s website.
Image credit: Mohammad Metri.