New business goal: Make the workplace great for the workers

I spoke at a “Lean” conference on Friday. Lean is a way of doing business where you do everything you can to run a business efficiently while still deeply respecting the people you work with. You’re making improvements that may help the bottom line, but your focus is on creating a better workspace. This conference was a great fit for me!

The last speaker was my favorite. His name is Kevin Hancock. He’s the President of a huge lumber company here in Maine, Hancock Lumber. As you can probably tell from the name of the company, he is family – 4th generation. What was fascinating about Kevin’s talk is that he hardly has any voice. He suffers from a rare ailment that makes his throat spasm when he talks. He’s been dealing with this for a couple of years, and while it was painful in a way to listen to him, he assured us it doesn’t cause him pain – it’s just hard for him to communicate.

So what was cool about Kevin is that like many survivors, he says that losing his voice is the best thing that happened to him as the leader of a large company because it forced him to listen more and talk less. It also gave him a new mission – to help others who have lost their voice in society. He sees his physical limitation as a gift and a calling.

“There are a lot of ways to lose your voice in this world.”

Over the years, what he saw at Hancock Lumber, which is similar to many companies, is that employees who didn’t feel they were being authentically heard were much less engaged with their work. And that this was true for about 60%-70% of the workforce! In his new quiet-mode, he decided to listen more to make sure everyone at his company felt as powerfully connected to their work as he did. This started with a new mission statement: His #1 corporate goal now is to provide meaningful work to enhance the lives of his employees.

This is an amazing change to make in a business environment because it meant their former #1 corporate goal – which was to always put the customer first – had to be bumped to #2. As they explained to their customers, they were still a “wicked close second,” and that if the company was taking good care of their employees, employees would, in turn, take great care of their customers.

They also walked away from measuring success from a shareholder’s perspective. A good return on investment is now an outcome and not a goal.

Of course, they still wanted a way to measure how they were doing, but it turns out measuring productivity and profit are much easier to track than employee morale. What they do now is have employees fill out a simple survey every three months that asks two things: How engaged are you with your work? And how excited are you to come to work each day? They’ve watched those scores jump from 60%-70%, up to nearly 100%.

They’ve done this by changing management’s focus to daily improvement of the workplace v. focusing on processing lumber. Leaders lead by listening. They swap out ego for self-awareness to create change first from within. And they disperse power rather than collect it.

“Change happens inside a company one person at a time, and one situation at a time.”

When your goal where you work is balance versus working crazy hours and making yourself sick, you have to trust that your work will be better. And your life will be better.

Isn’t it interesting when trouble in life becomes a cool opportunity to change? And that losing your voice can help you find a whole new voice?

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