Kevin Hancock led his family’s lumber company with a strong hand, taking charge of most meetings and directing strategy.
But all that changed a decade ago. Hancock, the sixth-generation CEO of Hancock Lumber, felt his throat tightening and found it difficult to speak or be understood. His diagnosis: spasmodic dysphonia, an incurable and rare condition that causes throat spasms.
“When I had my voice I could be really controlling and used my title and position to hold a gavel to talk forcefully to people,” said Hancock, 53. “People didn’t think it would be worth it to speak up. So I’d get my way and my way often didn’t work very well.
“This unexpected condition forced me to change,” he said.
He described those changes, which led to a distributed management style at his company where employees now have more of a say in operations, in his second book, “The Seventh Power: One CEO’s Journey Into the Business of Shared Leadership,” due out Tuesday.
The “seventh power” refers to the Lakota medicine wheel, which has the four directions, earth and sky as the six great powers.
“The seventh power is the Sioux way to honor the individual human spirit,” he said. “It is the essence of what this book is about.”
Adding to the stress of his diagnosis was its timing at the tail end of the Great Recession and the deep downturn in the housing market, which is Hancock Lumber’s core business.
Hancock, with his voice waning, had pushed himself nonstop to keep the company afloat through the recession. In 2012, he finally slowed down to take stock of his condition and how he’d continue leading Hancock Lumber, which was founded in 1848. The company has 525 employees, almost all in Maine, and $200 million in revenue.
He had read a National Geographic magazine story about the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota. It is located in the poorest county in the United States, and is the site of the 1890 Battle of Wounded Knee in which the U.S. Army killed hundreds of Lakota Indians.
Hancock said he felt a kinship with the Lakotas after reading the story, which to him showed they were not being heard. He decided to spend some time on the reservation to collect his thoughts, learn wisdom from the residents and help with the housing shortage there.
“For humans generally, there are a lot of ways to lose their voice in the world and not feel heard,” he said. “I was looking for lessons about new leadership power.”
One answer came to him as he was walking alone in the desert at sunset, he told a December 2019 TEDxDirigo audience.
“I noticed that in nature the power is dispersed,” he said. He took that lesson back to his company, where he told employees they were expected to speak up about ways to improve overall operations and their own jobs.
By then, Hancock had made adjustments to how he interacted with people so he could save his voice.
“I answered a question with another question,” he said. “I put the conservation onto the other person. I’d say, ‘Geez, that’s a good question. What do you think we should do about it?’ People actually do know what to do.”
That transformation to listening more made a big impression on employees when they were introduced to the new corporate culture.
“The authenticity about how he presented the concept of using your voice mattered,” said Kourtney McLean, marketing coordinator at the company’s Casco headquarters. “Right out of the gate, we could feel he meant that.”
Marketing director Erin Plummer, a 15-year veteran of the company, agreed the new management style has had a strong effect on the company.
“We lost about two-thirds of our business without losing a single customer when housing starts went down,” she said. “I don’t think we’d be as healthy, forward-thinking or agile as we are now without it.”
She said some people were not comfortable with speaking up or taking on more responsibility in the company and have left.
Kevin Hynes, chief operating officer of Hancock Lumber’s sawmill division in Casco and a 15-year veteran of the company, said the changes have had a big effect in manufacturing, where teamwork is important.
“If people feel worthwhile, productivity goes up 25 percent,” he said.
Mark Hopkins, chief operating officer of the company’s retail division in Yarmouth and a 24-year veteran, said the company also added a “performance gold” plan under which employees get a bonus on top of their hourly wage or salary.
“They work less hours but make more through being efficient,” he said.