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In to the Woods

March 17, 2022

As the Spring Equinox beckons in longer days and winter falls away for another year, I thought I’d share this lovely article written by writer Mark Hooper who came to explore and write about my leadership immersions at Springwood Farm, for Hole & Corner magazine’s 2022 edition, and in partnership with the natural lifestyle and barefoot living brand Vivobarefoot

From his own Sussex wood, Giles Hutchins is using nature to show businesses a more regenerative way to flourish and grow…

Following nature’s lead, suggests Hutchins, allows us to develop more responsive ecosystems within business, and allows companies to evolve, adapt and flourish

Hutchins is respected author, executive coach, keynote speaker, and TED-talker who has developed a consciousness-shifting coaching-based concept of ‘regenerative leadership’. Formerly a Director with KPMG Consulting, as well as Global Head of Sustainability Solutions for the multinational company Atos Origin, he has developed a radical approach to business by offering on-site and virtual leadership coaching experiences that are immersive in the truest sense.

Hole & Corner heard about his work through Galahad Clark, co-founder and CEO of the footwear brand, Vivobarefoot. Clark mentioned that he was working with Hutchins to help grow the roots of his brand and to deepen the connections of his team to nature, and to the wider world. Clark was so impressed by Hutchins’ ideas around transforming business models to make them more in tune with nature and the planet and less motivated simply by profit and growth that they have started working together.

‘The only excuse for creating more stuff in the world is if products help us connect more closely with nature, help us be more healthy and ‘human’ and or help address important ethical or environmental issues,’ said Clark. ‘But by 2019 while we were making great progress in the way we made shoes, something didn’t feel right in the hierarchy of the organisation. So, as we came out of the woods in business terms, we went back into the woods with our people.’ Over 100 members of the Vivo team have spent time in Springwood in the past year. Intrigued, we arranged a walk in the woods with Hutchins to find out more.

Having bought Springwood Farm near Haywards Health, just before the Covid pandemic struck, Hutchins has tapped into something that all of us discovered in some degree during the global lockdown: the restorative power of nature.

Walking through the woods, there is an overwhelming sense of serenity, solitude and calm. At one point, as we step into an atrium like space under the shade of a canopy of trees, the temperature noticeably drops, producing a physical chill that literally sends a shiver down the spine. Hutchins grins as he spots my reaction. It’s a deliberate, dramatic demonstration of the power of nature – and of our connection to it.

Photo taken by Julian Anderson

Hutchins uses the trees themselves to explain his theories – sometimes through metaphor, but often going deeper than that, showing how we are a part of the nature that surrounds us, bound by the same laws and processes. As companies are beginning to finally understand and fully take on board the need for sustainability, so he is trying to help them to realise that any meaningful change has to be internal as well as outward-facing.

‘To start off, I was quite selective and only wanted to work with companies that I felt were already on this journey,’ he says. ‘But now I realise you have to work with everyone. It’s about changing our mindset by deepening our consciousness.’

Key to Hutchins’ theory is that companies tend to adopt what he describes as a ‘mechanistic’ approach – an unwieldy, top-down structure that compartmentalises individuals and activities in silos. This hierarchical system makes things easier to control, but it comes with a massive downside.

‘It objectifies things and splits us off,’ he explains. ‘Often when companies talk about “purpose”, it’s some brand mission statement.’ It has the effect of de-humanising the people the company relies on – treating them as mere ‘resources’, when in fact they should all be seen as vital – and equally important – parts of a greater ecosystem. ‘It’s quite fragile, it’s not very creative, it’s disempowering, and you can’t adapt. It should be about asking, how are people showing up in the workplace?’

This is where the woodland metaphor takes root. Studies have shown how a complex system of mycelium in the soil helps trees to share resources – a symbiotic relationship that allows different organisms to thrive rather than working in competition. Similarly, Hutchins suggests we need to develop more responsive ecosystems within business organisations, allowing the individuals and the company as a whole to evolve, adapt and ultimately flourish.

All of which is great in terms of theory – but Hutchins’ mission is to demonstrate these ideas by helping us get back to nature in the purest sense. It’s often an emotional experience and one that resonates deeply. He talks of CEOs with tears in their eyes. And in explaining how businesses can be run better, the focus often shifts to how we can become better people.

At another clearing, Hutchins takes me to a length of rope coiled into a simple figure-of-eight shape, and encourages me to walk along it, thinking about anything – work, relationships, life – as he explains how it mirrors the natural cycle of the seasons. As we follow a curve representing spring turning into summer, he suggests that we have become too hung up on thinking that the paths of our lives, as well as business, should always be about following an upward trajectory – chasing a need for everything to constantly improve, always wanting more. But this isn’t how nature works. Instead, the curve leads us back downwards, as nature and then winter take hold. Typically, these are seen as negative stages in business or personal growth: a time shrinking, where we are less productive or efficient; and consequently something to be avoided.

Regenerative Leadership

But trees don’t avoid winter. It’s just another stage in the process – where leaves are shed, providing nourishment for the soil, helping new shoots to form during the rebirth of spring. Equally, this can be a daunting time, where we face new challenges in terms of growth.

Hutchins lets me walk the route at my own pace in silence, and it’s a genuinely moving experience – the realisation that the process of letting go (‘letting your leaves fall’) is an important step for all of us.

The setting helps of course. As the pathways and clearings lead us through subtly different environments, we are frequently confronted with deer, stags, muntjacs and other woodland creatures – who stand momentarily startled, before crashing back through the undergrowth. ‘I don’t want to talk too much about the auspiciousness of different species, because it can sound too shamanic,’ says Hutchins, ‘But often interesting things happen while we’re walking. Just this morning, a gentleman was sitting by the lake, sharing something quite insightful that he was just beginning to reveal, when a kingfisher flew straight past. That felt really special.’

I get a sense from Hutchins that the actual process of path making was a restorative one for him – sometimes finding and expanding natural holloways and clearings, other times finding the path of least resistance.

As we walk, Hutchins points out the surface underfoot – a raised, chipped wood carpet (created from the trees cut to create the path), often laid over a base of wooden stakes – and you get a sense of the sheer effort that has been put into Springwood.

He stops and grabs a handful of soil, and says, ‘There are more organisms in that than there are human beings on the entire planet. So it’s about making people aware that they are in life: and that life is continuously interrelated.’

He elucidates this thought by talking about the ‘inner’ and ‘outer’ aspect of our lives. For any organisation, there is an ‘inner’ culture – its way of being and values – a well as an ‘outer’ strategy, which can by anything from the supply-chain to customer and stakeholder relationships. The key, he suggests, is to create a balance or coherence between these two aspects. ‘It’s not just external – the way the company is showing itself to the external world, through its products or its relationships. It’s also internal. We work with a lot of people who have a great sense of purpose, but they need to change the culture.’

This equally applies to the individual, and much of Hutchins’ coaching centres around helping leaders to understand their ‘inner’ nature, giving them greater authenticity and purpose, and their ‘outer’ relationship with the environment, helping their personnel to trust each other and thrive.

‘I take them on a bit of a journey around regenerative leadership,’ he says. ‘Asking them what does wellbeing mean to them, and helping them to move to an adult-adult ecosystem rather than a parent-child one.’

For example, his ongoing work with Vivobarefoot. ‘I’ve worked with Galahad Clark, coaching him one-on-one,’ explains Hutchins. ‘But then we’ve also had the leadership team coming here, having meetings, sleeping overnight, and then we had the whole organisation coming through in these pods, where people from different parts of the organisation come together and have a connection. We’ve also had webinars with them, talking through the book, Regenerative Leadership. It’s all about using that as a text to help them to become a more regenerative culture. So that’s been more inward, but I’ve also touched on how we can help them in terms of educating people, so it’s not just about the product, it’s about creating communities around wellbeing.’

For Clark, the work is only just beginning, but already he has noticed a significant change in the way his business is organised, a shift, he says, ‘to networked communities that collaborate across the system, foster entrepreneurialism and nurture the barefoot/regenerative culture’.

Hutchins is the best advert for all of this: he has an air about him of quiet satisfaction: a man who has found his calling, hewn from these beautiful woods. If you build it, they will come.

Thank you to Galahad Clark, Vivobarefoot, Mark Hooper and Hole & Corner for this lovely article that has managed to capture some of the essence of the nature-inspired regenerative leadership coaching I take leaders on both in-person at Springwood and also on-line through bespoke programs of leadership and organizational transformation.

Hole& Corner magazine is published biannually, dedicated to stories of craft, beauty, passion and skill.    It is distributed internationally, with stockists including Do You Read Me ?! in Berlin, Athenaeum Niewscentrum in Amsterdam and 300 Barnes & Noble stores in the US.

I love Hole & Corner – there is a tranquility to all the subjects it specialises in that is very much needed.

– Sir Paul Smith

If interested in attending an immersion, there is a special one-off open programme immersion at Springwood Farm on Friday 17th June this summer. Places are limited – you can email Giles at giles@ffla.co or through the Leadership Immersions website

For more on Giles Hutchins’ work, visit his website here

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