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The Future of Business is Regenerative Business, by Giles Hutchins

August 30, 2021

Organisations able to thrive amid today’s complexity will be tomorrow’s success stories. Those who hold-on to yesterday’s mind-set will be old news.

Time to Transform

Rapid digitization, new ways of working, disruptive innovations, system-shocks like COVID and climate change, rise of robotics, block-chain, AI, fragile supply-chains, volatile market-prices, an aging society, social-shifts, Gen Y/Z, the search for purpose and meaning through work, life-time learning, career mobility, corporate responsibility, diversity and inclusion, agile ways of working, are just some of the issues facing all businesses regardless of sector and size.

Amid all this, there is rising stress in the work-place. According to a recent global Gallup poll, we have never been so stressed out before as we are today.   

One global CEO that took part in Tomorrow’s Leadership report  uses the impactful metaphor of leadership these days being like flying an aeroplane into a storm, having to retrofit the plane in mid-flight, while keeping the ground-crew, the in-flight crew, and all the customers on-board happy. Change upon change upon change – volatility, complexity, uncertainty.

Unceasing transformation is the new-norm and it demands a new way of leading fundamentally different from what we are used to.

‘In times of turmoil the danger lies not in the turmoil itself but in facing it with yesterday’s logic.’ – Peter Drucker

A Shift in Leadership Logic

This metamorphic moment is hallmarked by a shift in logic:  Linear to Systemic

We are shifting from the linear mentality of organisation-as-machine to be controlled through hierarchies of bureaucracy and carrot-and-stick push-pull levers.   Such a linear mind-set is based on an outdated Newtonian worldview of separateness and control-predict methods of management that no longer serve the complexities, interdependencies and volatilities of the day.

Enter a new mind-set that thrives on complexity and learns from living-systems dynamics to enable agile, anti-fragile, responsive and responsible business. Enter the Age of Regenerative Business, where we see the organisation-as-living-system that thrives amid uncertainty by adapting to change.

‘It’s not the strongest species that survive, nor the most intelligent, but those most able to adapt to change.’ – Charles Darwin

This shift in mind-set requires a transformative journey for leaders and employees.  The good news is, this transformative journey has an evolutionary imperative that seeks harmony with life while tapping into the essence of our humanity.    The Logic of Life (rather than the logic of the machine) creates conditions that allow our employees to flourish, to bring their whole selves to work, to become self-responsible adults, while contributing to organisational missions and value propositions that enhance life.

Regenerative Business

Clearly there is a rising zeitgeist around the word ‘regenerative’.  So let’s clarify some definitions.

What is ‘regenerative’ – regenerative means to attune with the way life works; to cultivate conditions that are life-affirming.  This involves healing and renewal, and a shift from separateness to interconnectedness, which involves an understanding of how life works: ranging from complex human systems such as team dynamics and value propositions (regenerative business) through to non-human ecologies (regenerative agriculture).  In learning from nature’s 3.8bn years of R&D we find principles and processes that help us become regenerative.  Essentially, life thrives through relationships and banks on diversity. The more we enliven relationships and diversity within our organisations, the more entrepreneurial, agile and future-fit we become.

What is ‘regenerative business’ – a business that is committed to the transformative journey of becoming life-affirming in all its facets: culture, operations, strategy, value propositions, stakeholder relations. This covers both its ‘inner’ dimension (how employees experience working in the business culture) and the ‘outer’ dimension (how wider stakeholders from customers and suppliers through to society and the environment experience the impact of the business through its value propositions and wider activities).  This is, therefore, much more than Sustainability/CSR/ESG, or even ‘net-positive’, as it is holistic, encompassing every facet of how the organisation shows-up in the world.

What is ‘regenerative leadership’ – a way of leading that cultivates life-affirming conditions. It is a shift in consciousness from a reductive/mechanistic way of leading into a systemic/living-systems way of leading that encourages the transformative journey towards regenerative business.   This requires a shift in consciousness within the leadership team, and therefore may require some support through regenerative leadership coaching.

To be clear, this is not a complete departure from the traditional methods of focusing on the bottom-line. Tight financial management is vital for survival. There is good evidence showing how companies that mimic life consistently outperform their mechanistic counter-parts.  I have spent many years coaching leaders on the ‘business case for regenerative’ to help meet the scepticism it can initially invoke. Yet, this is not just about survival, it’s about thrival – to attract and retain high-quality talent, to unlock brilliance and innovation, so as to out-perform, adapt and evolve in increasingly volatile times. This is simply good business sense, especially amid a societal shift that seeks a deeper sense of meaning, purpose, engagement, entrepreneurialism and creativity in the workplace.

Exemplars

The good news is, there are already many organisations on the regenerative journey we can take inspiration from.

For instance, Vivobarefoot is a foot-wear company operating in a highly competitive global market. Through its commitment to the regenerative journey it has been enhancing the regenerative potential of both the inner and outer dimensions of its business.   The ‘outer’ shift is through developments in the sustainability of its products (e.g. using natural biodegradable ingredients and sourcing sustainably), and the shift from products to services (circular design-repair-reuse methods) and the cultivation of communities with education around health, wellbeing and nature-connection.   Vivo actively attends to the ‘inner’ shift by embedding regenerative leadership throughout its culture, shifting from parent-child hierarchy into adult-adult self-managing agility, and nurturing a culture of regenerative feedback, learning and evolution that is diverse and inclusive. The company not only has high levels of employee happiness and engagement, it also has strong customer satisfaction, solid profitable growth, and the ability to attract some of the best talent from across the industry.

Ditto for Houdini, a global provider of clothes for the outdoors, again operating in a highly competitive market. As well as nurturing a healthy adult-adult culture where people are encouraged to bring their whole selves to work, it also aims to be regenerative and circular across its entire product range within a few years, and is working on global collaborations to enable attractive and regenerative lifestyle solutions. It shares its pioneering sustainable designs openly, even with competitors, through Houdini Open Source a platform for sharing knowledge on sustainable methodologies, technologies and solutions worldwide. It also sees its responsibility to educate and empower customers to become more sustainable and responsible when being outdoors.

Ditto for North Star Housing Group, a UK Housing Association.  North Star has a culture that encourages employees to thrive while delivering best-in-class services to their clients so that they can thrive.   Respectful relating across the culture within and beyond the business, where all stakeholder relations are conducted in adult-adult ways, with a coaching-culture that enables a blend of hierarchy and self-management to work in flexible ways.  As a result of this, North Star consistently out performs in its market and wins awards for customer service and employee culture. Due to this focus on regenerative ways of working, and in the midst of a very difficult business climate, its organisation grows while others in the market contract.

Ditto for Triodos Bank, an international bank that aims to make money a force for good. Triodos’s mission as a business is to provide finance for enterprises that enhance quality of life through providing benefits to society and the environment. It has 4 core values that are shared across all of its international businesses: Transparency, Entrepreneurship, Sustainability, Excellence.  Through a mix of global and local activities these values are embedded into day-to-day behaviours. There is a global values workshop held three times a year where people from all countries are invited to attend three days in the woods for deep connection with the values, personal and organisational sense of purpose, and company mission.  This helps cultivate resonance between people’s personal purpose and the organisation’s purpose.  In terms of its value propositions, it has been ground-breaking in its openness and transparency across the banking sector. All its investments are openly disclosed to the public, and all have a clear impact on helping shift society towards regenerative futures.

In Regenerative Leadership we list many more business examples. The reality is, it does not matter whether you are a footwear or outdoor clothing company, a bank or a housing association, the regenerative journey is about future-fitness through transforming the ‘outer’ dimension in ways that enable every stakeholder to thrive, and transforming the ‘inner’ dimension so that every employee can thrive.  Why would we wish for anything less? This is simply good business sense, and it’s fast becoming the new reality in business. Welcome to the Age of Regenerative Business.

Giles Hutchins is a pioneering practitioner and senior adviser at the fore-front of the [r]evolution in organizational and leadership consciousness and developmental approaches that enhance personal, organizational and systemic agility and vitality. He is author and co-author of several leadership and organizational development papers, and the books The Nature of Business (2012), The Illusion of Separation (2014), Future Fit (2016) and Regenerative Leadership (2019). Chair of The Future Fit Leadership Academy and Founder of Leadership Immersions, co-founder of Biomimicry for Creative Innovation and Regenerators, he runs a 60 acre leadership centre at Springwood Farm, an area of outstanding natural beauty near London, UK.  Previously held corporate roles – Head of Practice for KPMG, and Global Head of Sustainability for Atos (150,000 employees, over 40 countries). He provides executive leadership coaching at individual and organisational levels for those seeking regenerative futures. He is also a keynote speaker on the future of business.

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