Kevin Hancock, president of Hancock Lumber. Behind him is his company’s sawmill in Casco, Maine, and company land with stands of Eastern White Pines.
Brian Fitzgerald Kevin Hancock, president of Hancock Lumber. Behind him is his company’s sawmill in Casco, Maine, and company land with stands of Eastern White Pines.

The loss of his voice, and a trek out West to visit the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation, home of the Oglala Lakota tribe, brought Hancock to a new understanding of working together that changed the way he thought about himself and his business, and led him to write a book about his experiences, Not For Sale: Finding Center in the Land of Crazy Horse


Loss

I lost my voice in 2010, but it took a year before I received a diagnosis of spasmodic dysphonia (a neurological condition that causes involuntary spasms in the larynx during speech, resulting in a whispery, strangled sounding voice).

First, I was really stuck trying to think how to lead the company and business without the consistent, comfortable use of my voice. For the longest time, I couldn’t sort this out. Parallel to this, I felt that possibly why this came on was because I had gotten too consumed by my role in the company and had lost sense of my own sense of self with my business and my life. That’s where Pine Ridge came in.

 
Quest

In 2012 our youngest daughter had just gone off to college, and Hancock Lumber had successfully worked through the housing market collapse. I could see that the company was on a strong path, and that everyone in my family was on a strong path, so I felt it was a good time to do something different just for me. I had always loved American history and the American West. I was particularly interested in the second half of the 19th century when America’s western expansion ran into the Plains Indians.  In August of that year I picked up a copy of National Geographic and the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation was the cover story.

I read the article and told my wife Alison that I wanted to go visit that reservation and see what modern-day life was like there. At the time I only envisioned a one-time trip and a desire to see if I could help with their housing issues in some small way. I had no idea what was about to unfold. I started emailing people there, contacting organizations connected with housing, and eventually one of them got back to me. That was Pinky; she runs a general store and a nonprofit that helps homeowners achieve financial knowledge.
 

Listening

The Lakota have a saying, ‘The spirits will meet you halfway.’  My voice disorder forced me to slow down a bit and when I did, I began to hear myself a bit better, as funny as that might sound. I was so tuned into my roles of serving others that I lost track of listening to my own soul. But every soul needs to be served on an individual level. The Lakota knew this. 

I think some people thought this was a crazy thing, but one of the reasons I kept going back was because my family and the people I worked with were so enthusiastic that it reinforced the fact that I was on a path that I should keep following. The people who live at Pine Ridge, for example, see the world in a certain way because of the experiences of the tribe they were born into.  So do I. So do you, most likely. So, it all made me think a little bit more about who I was on a soul’s level, and a little bit less about the public roles that I played, such as being president of Hancock Lumber. It was a subtle adjustment in thinking that made a big difference for me.
 

Kevin Hancock holds his book, “Not For Sale: Finding Center in the Land of Crazy Horse” about his experiences on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation and with the Oglala Sioux tribe.
Brian Fitzgerald Kevin Hancock holds his book, “Not For Sale: Finding Center in the Land of Crazy Horse” about his experiences on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation and with the Oglala Sioux tribe.


Self Discovery

At Pine Ridge I was able to serve sides of me that weren’t really called upon in the lumber business.  At Pine Ridge I learned that I was a bit of an activist, a writer, a photographer, a storyteller, and an artist. Pine Ridge created a venue for those elements to express themselves—all of which strengthened my ability to do my job. It all made me a better manager, business leader, and person.

I have learned a lot from my time at Pine Ridge because it became a place for me to stop and think. After a series of trips there, I saw the blessing or calling of my voice disorder, and that was an opportunity to make everyone else’s voice stronger.

The world of work and roles is so busy that it can be all consuming.  I have developed a passion for putting the work back in its place, where it is important but not all consuming.  Not just for me, but for everyone at Hancock Lumber. I thought, what if this came to an organization where everyone led and everyone had a voice and their opinion and perspectives mattered. That would be more powerful than an organization where just a few people led. Hancock Lumber has always been an organization where people’s opinions were valued, but we have taken that to another level.
 

Lessons Learned

Our company has done a lot of work with ‘Lean’ process improvement skills. There is a lot of waste in any business. Once you learn to see it, it’s everywhere. As a company becomes more accurate and efficient, it frees up time. Some of that time can go back into doing more work, but not all of it should. Some of that time should go to doing less work.  I call this the “higher calling of Lean,” where the goal is actually to do less, not more. It’s a bit of a foreign concept in our “bigger, better, more” American culture.

Since I began traveling to Pine Ridge, we have been able to reduce the average work week for hourly employees from 48 hours to 41 (for managers and sellers we have targeted 50 hours as the goal). In addition, we have been able to increase pay on average by nearly 5% per year.  We have done this by raising base pay levels and introducing bonus plans for all employees that share the benefits of becoming more accurate and efficient. None of this produces gigantic changes in people’s lives. But if people can work just a little bit less and earn just a little bit more, that’s progress. It helps balance lives.

 
Full Circle

I think I will always stay connected to Pine Ridge. There is a story there that needs to be told, and people there who need to be acknowledged and respected. Columbus did not discover a new world, as we were all taught in elementary school. People actually lived here. It’s not okay that the descendants of the native peoples are now often the poorest, most isolated, most disenfranchised members of our society. The people of Pine Ridge have some really important questions to ask themselves. What is the future of a ‘reservation’ 25 or 50 years from now? How are the people of Pine Ridge going to return to that core value of individual strength as the path forward?

Pine Ridge is a very government-centric community. It was set up that way and it still is that way. The last time the Lakota flourished, the government was small and the individual was powerful. That’s the path forward for Pine Ridge, I feel. So really, my book is about ‘strengthening voices.’  In business, how do we lead differently to make every employee’s voice stronger? At Pine Ridge, how do we make the individual voice stronger? Finally, on a personal level, how do we transcend the pull of our own tribe, be it Pine Ridge or a lumber company, and listen more closely to the whispers of our own souls?

The Lakota have a saying, Mitakuye Oyasin, which translated means ‘we are all related.’ This is true when you think about it. If you back up your view far enough, the planet is a neighborhood and everyone on it is related.  I think every company needs to be about something more than just itself, and Pine Ridge is one way for me to do that.

Hancock's Journey

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Kevin Hancock's photos from his visit to the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation

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Take a look through the slideshow at left to see photos from Kevin's visit to the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation.