How to Make Shared Leadership a Reality

The Seventh Power: One CEO's Journey Into the Business of Shared Leadership

Kevin Hancock

272 pages, Post Hill Press, 2020

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In 2010, I was diagnosed with spasmodic dysphonia, a rare neurological disorder that makes speaking difficult. In 2012, I began traveling from my home in Casco, Maine, where I serve as CEO of Hancock Lumber, one of America's oldest businesses, to the remote Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota. There, I encountered an entire community that did not feel fully heard. These two transformational events combined to help me realize that there are lots of ways to lose your voice in this world and that leaders historically have often done more to restrict the voices of others than to liberate them.

This epiphany set me on a journey stretching over 15,000 miles, from my hometown in Maine, to the Arizona desert, and eventually all the way to Kiev, Ukraine, on a quest to find a new set of leadership principles designed to disperse and localize power rather than collect it. The unexpected journey was a puzzle filled with clues about the nature of "power" and how it might be used more carefully and shared more broadly. These encounters ultimately blossomed into a series of insights as to how CEOs and other leaders might elegantly break down the planet's entrenched, top-down governance model in favor of a new playbook for heightened human engagement, hallmarked by shared leadership, dispersed power, and respect for all voices.

Having found a piece of my own authentic voice, I wanted to help others do the same, and a lumber company in Maine became an unlikely platform where this could occur. The new goal: create a socially transformative work culture for the 21st century in which employee engagement soars because everyone feels authentically heard.—Kevin Hancock

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Dispersing power is not hard to do. It's about learning how to defer to the most fundamental laws of nature. But creating a culture where every voice matters does require discipline and intentionality. Humanity's modern thirst for deep change is real, but to get there, the established organizational rules must be thoughtfully deconstructed. At Hancock Lumber, deepening employee engagement is our number-one goal. We believe that if we get that right, everything else we care about will materialize.

At the core of our engagement system is the annual Best Places to Work in Maine survey. Every year all our employees go online and complete a questionnaire in which they are asked to describe their workplace as they experience it. Every answer is confidential, and no individual is ever connected to a specific response.

Here are just a few examples of the 80 work experience topics that our team members are asked to consider and evaluate:

  • "The leaders of this organization are open to input from employees."
  • "I feel I can express my honest opinion without fear of negative consequences."
  • "I am given enough authority to make the decisions I need to make."
  • "My supervisor helps me develop to my fullest potential."
  • "My pay is fair for the work I perform."
  • "My job provides me with a sense of meaning and purpose."
  • "Senior leaders live the core values of this organization."
  • "A spirit of trust and cooperation exists at work."
  • These are great prompts for conversation and inquiry as they get to the essence of a company's culture and work environment. At Hancock Lumber, we have chosen to make this survey the paramount measurement of how we are doing as a company. It's the voice of the employees made strong, and the annual engagement score that results is our most anticipated metric (more so even than our financial results). The survey is the annual kickoff to what we have designed to be a five-step engagement-enhancement process.

    Step 1: Survey

    The survey is completed, typically with 95 percent participation from our 525 employee associates.

    Step 2: Analyze

    The survey responses are sorted for us by mill, store, and age group. We then take that data and plot the trends from previous years to see which categories of engagement are gaining strength and which ones might be slipping.

    The data speaks for itself: Is engagement statistically strengthening? Where are the cracks and vulnerabilities in our work experience as defined by the people who work here? Are certain questions or themes scoring low? Where are the most important opportunities to improve? What are strong points to be celebrated? These are the questions that define Step 2 as we analyze the data and look for the patterns.

    Step 3: Huddles

    Each store and mill, at a local level, then identify a self-selected set of survey topics for deeper employee inquiry. These are subjects that typically have lower scores, but we also select those with fast-rising scores. Here is an example of a theme that scored lower than we would like in our most recent survey:

  • "Changes that affect me are communicated prior to implementation."
  • Once a target issue has been identified, we enter into small huddle groups where six to 10 employees at a location sit around a table with a few representatives from company management. The object now is to share the selected topic with the focus group in order to get deeper clarification and feedback: Does it surprise you that this subject scored lower this year than last? Why do you feel the score went down? If you alone were responsible, what might you do to improve people's experience and perception in this area? These are the types of questions that we ask in focus group.

    During this stage of the process it is critical not to judge or negatively respond to the perspectives the group shares. Initially, the mission of the huddle is not to change or fix anything; we are simply seeking to understand. No perspectives are refuted or rebutted in these circles. Every voice is respected. It's the world as our employees currently experience it. Like the Navajo peacemakers, the goal is to allow everyone to feel heard.

    One of the last acts of Step 3 is to ask the huddle participants what they would suggest doing in order to make improvements in the areas we are exploring. I call this moment the "answers to the test." What we have found time and again is that people are smart, and they care. They know what would improve almost any situation they experience; they have the answers and will lead the implementation if invited to do so. All leadership has to do is ask the right questions and then follow through.

    Step 4: Initiatives

    Step 4 is where the follow-through happens. Here, we launch initiatives. Typically, they are simple, inexpensive, and easy-to-deploy action steps. We look first for the small ways the experience can be quickly improved. For the most part, it's just doing what the focus group teams have already suggested. These initiatives come out of the gate with strong buy-in because we are simply taking the answers that were given to us and implementing them.

    Step 5: More Huddles/Feedback

    A few weeks (or months) later, we go back to the huddle groups and ask if they've noticed any positive changes as a result of the initiatives that have been set in motion. This leads to more feedback, either affirming that we're on the right path or making it clear that some additional (or new) approach is still necessary.

    By the time this five-step process has run its course, a year has passed, and we are eager to take another survey and collect fresh data once again. It's an iterative cycle that never expires—lean management principles applied to employee engagement—and absolutely the most important work we do at Hancock Lumber. Getting the culture right in the eyes of our employee associates is the number-one priority for managers and supervisors (especially the CEO).

    Recently, I was standing in our planing mill in Bethel as boards were streaming through the molder to be patterned and then packaged for their final destination. I was saying hi to one of the supervisors in the area when I noticed a legal pad under the metal conveyor chain at his side. The pages were a bit worn and full of handwritten notes. On top of the pad was the simple heading "Ideas for Strengthening Engagement."

    "What's this?" I ask, peering down through my safety glasses.

    "Oh, it's just the list of questions I want to ask the guys at our next huddle," the supervisor says.

    I put my hand on his shoulder and smile, ready to hug him right then and there in the middle of the shift.

    "That's awesome!" I reply. "I love this! It's exactly what I'm hoping every supervisor in our company will do. Great job! This makes my day. Thank you."

    As we shake hands, I can see the pride in his eyes.

    The questions, handwritten on that yellow note pad, were more valuable than the boards traveling above it:

    "What wastes your time?"

    "What changes might you make to improve the production flow and work experience?"

    "How might communication be improved? What would you like to know more about?"

    "What do you enjoy most about your work? What do you like least?"

    It's not the questions that are complicated. It's creating the right environment where the questions are asked at all and then answered honestly. It is essential that it's safe to speak the truth, otherwise people often won't.

    Under the right conditions leadership gets easy because the work of leading is shared by everyone. Employees who work on the front line of a business know best what problems exist and what the solutions might be. All management has to do is create a safe environment—ask the right questions—listen without judgment—confirm understanding—and then follow up and implement the changes.

    "Are staffing levels adequate?" This is a question in our most recent survey that scored lower than we would like. So we go into employee huddles and ask people to tell us more about their views on that subject. The conversation might go something like this:

    Manager: "Does it surprise you that this question scored low?"

    Employee: "No, it doesn't surprise me."

    Manager: "Can you tell me more about why it doesn't surprise you?"

    Employee: "Yes, I can. Every morning from 7 to 10, when the store and yard are filled with contractors picking up their supplies for the day, we aren't able to help everyone get loaded."

    Manager: "Thanks for sharing that. Are there other times of the day or week when perhaps we might have more people than we need? Could we shift some resources in the schedule?"

    Employee: "Yes. Typically, after 3 p.m. it gets pretty quiet in the yard. We could cover things with one fewer person in the afternoon."

    Manager: "That seems easy enough to try. I will shift some work hours forward from the end of the day to the beginning. Does that make sense?"

    Employee: "That does makes sense."

    Manager: "What else might help this issue?"

    Employee: "Well, many of our vendor deliveries arrive from 7 to 10 a.m. as well. If we could get some of our vendors to deliver in the afternoon, that would be beneficial." 

    Manager: "Thanks for sharing that. I will talk to Purchasing and see if we can make that happen. Next week, at huddle, I'll update you."

    When the culture is safe, the improvement discussions become very simple.

    My number-one wish for any organization is that it is a safe place for everyone to say what they think. Differing perspectives don't need to be hushed or refuted. When everyone is heard, magic unfolds and work becomes something more than just an economic exercise. It's a simple formula that any leader can follow, but it does require restraint and a new philosophy about listening. What you do as a leader when someone offers a view that is different than your own is pivotal. The culture of the company is ultimately defined by the way leaders respond to ideas that don't match their own view of the world.

    Perhaps leaders have traditionally resisted this approach because they fear they will lose control. But what we have seen at Hancock Lumber is that just the opposite occurs. When everyone is invited to participate in decision-making, the support for those decisions grows. People will own what they help create.

    Excerpted from The Seventh Power: One CEO's Journey Into the Business of Shared Leadership by Kevin Hancock. Used with permission of Post Hill Press.

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