Giles Hutchins on helping leaders to recharge through nature
Chartered surveyor-turned-business coach, and CA Summit 2022 speaker, Giles Hutchins leads stressed CEOs to reconnect with nature and turn over a new leaf. He reveals why he left corporate life to “live his truth”
One Sunday evening in 2006 a young director at KPMG settled down to watch a David Attenborough documentary. The programme in question, Can We Save Planet Earth?, would bring letters of complaint from climate sceptics. Yet it had a spellbinding effect on the man from KPMG, who felt the broadcaster and national treasure was speaking directly to him. He started to question what he was doing. Shouldn’t he be making good on the promise he had made when younger, to try to put things right from inside the system? “Something was happening,” Giles Hutchins says. “It was blurting out of me.” By the time the end credits rolled he was in tears. “I just allowed myself to cry for five minutes,” he recalls. “I remember getting up in the morning and thinking: ‘Right. I’m going to make good on this.’”
The past few years have brought a sea change in business – or perhaps a series of little earthquakes. In the face of everything from #MeToo to urgent klaxons about the environment and a looming mental health crisis, leaders are increasingly starting to transform their thinking; a paradigm shift that has gained momentum during the Covid-19 crisis. Conscious capitalism and soft skills are in; Gordon Gekko-style mantras about the goodness of greed are out. And for those stressed-out CEOs looking to shrug off some outdated methods and mindsets, and embrace a more harmonious way of thinking and working, Hutchins has some solutions.
In a nutshell, he guides leaders, singly or in small groups, through Springwood Farm – 60 acres of ancient woodland in Sussex – for a transformative reset. In this perfectly secluded spot, via activities such as fire-circles, wild swimming and meditation, clients are urged to examine their old mechanistic, stress-inducing styles of leadership, where value is measured in profit and share price, and instead invited to embrace what he calls “the logic of life”, taking inspiration from nature; a regenerative mindset that allows leaders to adapt, flow and evolve.
“It’s a life’s work,” says Hutchins. “I had some profound moments when I was a child, where I understood the interconnectedness of nature. Nature is all about sensing and responding. As we walk through the woods, it’s aware of us: the birds, trees, everything, the mycelium, sensing and responding. And living organisations are like that.”
He dates his own wake-up moment to the day his teacher showed the class a video of live animals being tested in laboratories, while others were packed off to factory farms. “It shocked me so much I went off down a particular path,” he says. “I started exploring why these things were going on. I came across all sorts of other topics such as child slavery and rainforest destruction. Why hadn’t my parents told me about these things?”
He quickly realised that a lot of activism is fuelled by blame and anger. “It didn’t feel right to be blaming people, whether it be the doctor or the person driving the bulldozer in the rainforest,” he says. “There seemed to be something much more pervasive going on. So I made a promise to myself to go into business and find out.”
After taking a degree in property finance law, Hutchins became a chartered surveyor – “useful for understanding how the system works”. He also took a master’s in business systems at Cass Business School, which led to an opening at KPMG, where he acted as a consultant during the dotcom boom. He was in line for promotion – before his conscience (with a little nudge from Attenborough) “started knocking”. He did indeed attempt to change his department from within, focusing more on charities such as Greenpeace and WWF.
Four years as Global Head of Sustainability at Atos followed, before he set up a collaborative consultancy called Biomimicry for Creative Innovation. “But back then, no one was really interested in sustainability,” he says. “I knew it was really important to form a relationship with nature, because we’d lost a sense of connection with it.” He started running workshops for leaders, and became an ambassador for Kew Gardens: “We had all sorts of companies there: Unilever, EDF… People were interested in it, but it didn’t necessarily mean they were going to do anything about it. The idea of business inspired by nature was very cutting edge.” And then he decided to leave corporate life altogether.
Considering he had no job to move to, this was quite the plunge. “I’ll never forget my bosses saying to me, ‘Where are you going?’” he recalls. “I said, ‘Well, I’m not going anywhere – I’m having a life change.’ ‘Well, go and have a life change, but please come back, take a year out.’ And I said, ‘No, I need to completely change, I need to have nothing to distract me.’ They just couldn’t understand it.” All except one, a German boss, who’d been quite frustrated at Hutchins handing in his notice. “Right at the end of the conversation, after he’d tried to persuade me, I remember just as I was putting the phone down, he said, ‘Oh, by the way, Giles – good for you. I wish I could do this.’ It made me realise how, actually, a lot of people wanted to change things,” he says.
In 2012, Hutchins published his first book, The Nature of Business: Redesigning for Resilience. “And I’ve been a coach and adviser and leader ever since,” he says.
“When you’re working with CEOs or CFOs, you need to make it powerful, deep, and really get to the crux of things quickly,” he says of his reset method. “We’re out of the woods by 4pm, but you can do a hell of a lot in that time.” An overnight session is even better, however. “I’ve just had a CEO who had come for quite a senior meeting in town. He slept in the woods, and then we had a session this morning. And he’s now going back into the fray, refreshed and deepened, with a clearer focus on what this is all about.”
What would he say to the sceptics? “There’s now a whole body of scientific evidence showing how being in nature has a significant effect on us and our brainwaves, on the way in which we see the world, on our empathic connection, on concentration levels, on our stress. So if the person needs some scientific evidence, there’s plenty there,” he says. More importantly, this is about inviting people to lay down their “armour” or masks for a while. “The woods and I are creating an environment in which they feel safe to start letting go,” he says. “If they want to cry, they can.”
Hutchins notes how the pandemic “has really accelerated things we’ve been talking about for a decade. The new world of work is now happening. People are wanting a deeper sense of purpose and meaning, questioning the places they work in. I think the move towards more agile, self-managing ways of working is a very important one. And that can be critical and quite dangerous for organisations to undergo if it isn’t done properly. So a lot of what I coach about is helping companies go through that kind of cultural transformation.”
He’s nothing if not humble, however. “I make mistakes all the time,” he says. “But I’m consciously trying to work on what is deeply connected to me. Things flow, and there’s a synchronicity that happens to life. Because I’m living my truth.”
Giles Hutchins’ latest book, Leading by Nature: The Process of Becoming A Regenerative Leader (£23.99, Wordzworth Publishing) is out now