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Regenerative Leadership in practice: tough times

Tom working in nature greenheart business life Half-circle stamp style image with 'Greenheart for greener futures' caption
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Recap of Regenerative Leadership Chapter 1 

To recap briefly, in the last ‘chapter’ I talked about the life experiences that led me to start exploring regenerative leadership as the operating system for Greenheart Consulting. In this next installment I had fully intended to dig deep to remember what we did in the early days…all those months ago. You see, the pace of change has been so rapid it honestly feels like we’ve been doing this for decades.

I promised last time that this series would be an honest and open reflection of my experiences, so in full transparency it’s a poignant and challenging time to be writing this. Interest rates, Putin’s war, Brexit and Covid fallout and all that – they’ve conspired to create more uncertainty in the UK economy than I’ve known in my career. So after three years of rapid organic growth this year has noticeably slowed down and we have a degree of cost vs revenue tension to navigate.

Well, thanks for the sympathy – I know you’ve heard it all before. So have I. I know this is temporary, also that we came into this year in a really strong position and it’s healthy to have a bit of pressure from time to time. I also know this was an inevitable (even necessary) part of the flow of Greenheart’s life, but that hasn’t made it easier.

A return to growth 

A return to growth is looming and the business is undoubtedly more efficient and professional as a result. But I’d be lying if I said it didn’t at points challenge my regenerative resolve really hard.

So in a change to the advertised schedule, I just want to reflect on the challenges of the path we’ve chosen in the context of a challenging business environment:

  • As a leader, especially an owner-leader, when you hit turbulence every instinct screams at you to grab hold of the joystick and fight until you’ve regained control. It’s also very tempting to close down the information flow so as not to concern people. When you operate an emergent self-managing system you can’t do any of that without breaking the inherent trust on which you’ve built the culture. Instead, you need to communicate more and trust more, but ensure that you’re providing the support, advice and frameworks for everyone to work to best effect. There is a very blurry line between that and direct top-down management and we definitely don’t always get it right. Equally, once you’ve empowered everyone to pull their weight, they need to do so and that’s not always a given
  • Most people outside the business don’t know what you’re talking about – I’ve had a number of conversations this year with senior commercial people and/or prospective partners who just don’t get where we’re coming from. ‘Why are you so obsessed with nature? Where does that fit into the business model? You’ll never sell to a serious corporate client with that attitude.*’ In a worst case scenario (e.g. if we’d had to get lifeline funding) we could have been forced to choose between our values and our survival
  • Sometimes people inside the business aren’t quite sure what you’re talking about either – this is a new way of working for most people and it requires both support and guidance as they break out of the traditional management paradigm

*This is a valid and real tension of this model and we explore it internally the whole time. Ultimately, we are deeply pragmatic commercial operators but we choose to draw learning and inspiration from nature’s four billion years of R&D and our people are passionate about a living systems approach to business.

  • Increasingly your team DOES know what you’re talking about – and recognises that surrendering into the flow of life takes the sting out of the harsher realities. Example: around springtime we had a discussion about what we were calling the ‘commercial conundrum’ (a slower than expected Q1). We laid out the facts, neatly reduced in a good old fashioned left-brain way, and watched the blank faces stare back from the GoogleMeet screen. Then I put up a slide (below) asking ‘what would nature do’? Blow me down, not only did the faces light up but the ensuing discussion provided both concrete ideas and reassurance to people that we’d find a solution. (Side note: the discussion itself was fascinating but a topic for another chapter. If you’re interested, ‘Teeming’ by Tamsin Woolley-Barker is full of insights on this question.)
  • Because our style of regenerative leadership encourages collaborative innovation and creativity as normal behaviours, everyone is primed to expect – and deal with – the unexpected. As a result, a bit like a shoal of mackerel turning in sync from a threat, we can move quickly and together. We are naturally agile and this is incredibly helpful during tough times
  • Some other features of a regenerative culture contribute to our resilience (features, by the way, on which we now measure ourselves every season – with a score out of 10 showing how much the team recognises the feature in the business):- having an abundance mindset – our people, even this year, are excited by the possibilities ahead for the business and don’t spend too much time worrying about ‘what-ifs’ or obstacles (7.7)- seeing bigger picture interdependencies when making decisions – we do not act in isolation or purely out of self-interest (8.2)- optimising rather than maximising – living within our means, storing value for quality innovation rather than putting all our energy into rapid growth for the sake of it (8.7)

Most importantly, the sense of trust and togetherness that comes from doing things slightly differently is probably the most valuable asset at a time of scarcity. We forage together, always guarding each other’s backs, with the shared priority of keeping the ecosystem healthy. As an owner-leader, it is this that pulls me through the challenging times.“

Leadership falls woefully short when it seeks to merely cope within the constraints of the day rather than challenge the status quo.”- Giles Hutchins from the book: Leading by Nature: The process of becoming a regenerative leader.

Hear my conversation with Giles Hutchins about regenerative leadership on his Leading By Nature podcast here.

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