How do you train managers and supervisors to manage and supervise less, not more? As the CEO of Hancock Lumber Company in Maine, I’ve been pursuing the answer to this question for the better part of a decade.
What led me to this goal? It was the outcome of three personal experiences, which included a rare voice disorder, a remote Indian reservation, and a walk in the Arizona desert at sunset.
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 called spasmodic dysphonia. When it’s hard to talk, you develop strategies for doing less of it, and mine was to answer a question with a question, thereby putting the responsibility on the other person. Someone would come up to me at work with a question or problem, and I would respond by saying, “That’s a good question. What do you think we should do about it?” What struck me over time about this exercise was that people rarely needed a CEO-directed solution; they knew what to do.
In 2012 I began traveling to the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota, a place I now have visited more than 20 times. Pine Ridge is the largest, most historic, most traditionally disenfranchised, and today, the poorest of all the Sioux reservations on the northern plains. Like all human beings, the people who live there are amazing. They are kind, resourceful, proud, and highly capable. So why all the poverty and statistical social dysfunction?
The answer, I concluded, was the reservation system of governance and leadership imposed on this community since its inception in the 1870s. Their community was to be governed from away (in this case, Washington, D.C.). Rations would be provided. Important decisions would be made elsewhere. Money would be allocated and dispersed by others. It was an extreme example of the outcomes created by the systematic deprivation of individual control. At Pine Ridge, I met an entire community that did not feel authentically heard.
These first two experiences inspired my mission to create a new leadership model within our company that disperses power rather than collects it. Everyone is capable of leading; everyone has an important voice to share. But how to effectively reverse the established leadership paradigms of command and control? For power to become dispersed, leaders would have to do less—not more.
Ultimately, we changed our leadership model in three simple but meaningful ways:
1. We changed our mission. The new mission of the company became the employee experience itself. Across America, while approximately 160 million people were working prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, only one-third of them described that experience as meaningful or engaging. From my perspective, this is because people at work often do not feel fully heard. What if all employees—or simply, all people, across the world—felt trusted, respected, valued, heard, important, and safe? What might change? Everything, I concluded. With that in mind, we began developing systems designed to give each employee a stronger voice within our company.
2. To support this new path, we began doing annual employee engagement surveys, asking our managers to make driving our engagement score their top work priority through the use of huddles, focus groups, and follow-up action steps. The idea was to start the flywheel of success at the employee level. If the employees were having an exceptional experience, we believed a world-class customer and corporate experience would follow. And they did.
3. What we did not do became the final important ingredient. We did not send our managers and supervisors to training programs designed to standardize how to disperse power and make the voices of their work teams stronger. We felt this was an inherently understood human capability, and we wanted each supervisor to create change authentically and organically. Once the values of shared leadership were clearly established, it was easy to uncover the tools for empowering our employees. It was almost as if we were cleansing centuries of power-to-the-center leadership dogma and restoring a more-natural order of respect for all voices.
My third personal experience unfolded unexpectedly several years later, walking alone in the Arizona desert at sunset. In a moment of clarity, five simple words came to me that provided universal context to this endeavor. In nature, power is dispersed. I stopped in my tracks, surveyed the scene around me, and began contemplating a series of organizational leadership questions: Where is the capital of this desert? Where is the home office—the corporate governing center? Where are all the managers and supervisors? Which cactus is in charge of all the others?
In that moment, all became clear. The leadership power of the desert (and, thus, nature, and, therefore, the Universe) was scattered and diffuse, living in all of its parts and pieces. And humans, who are a part of nature—not above it—ultimately aspire to organize in this same way.
This explains the ease with which our managers and supervisors soon became adept at sharing power and giving others a voice. When you work with the fundamental order of the Universe, the current will carry you forward. All it took in the end was a new vision of leadership, a few tools to measure the employee experience, and then time to break with old patterns of centralized command-and-control centuries in the making.
A Work in Progress
Our company will always be a work in progress, but today, our engagement scores are high. Nearly 9 in 10 people who work at our company describe their work experience as meaningful and engaging. Correspondingly, our customer experience has strengthened, and our corporate performance has soared to new heights.
My conclusion? Training is self-evident when that which is being created is in sync with the long arc of humanity’s aspirations. Sharing power, it turns out, is easier than collecting it.
Kevin Hancock is the CEO of Hancock Lumber Company, one of America’s oldest family businesses. His book, “The Seventh Power: One CEO’s Journey into the Business of Shared Leadership,” is available online, wherever books are sold. For more information, visit www.kevindhancock.com.