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Danny Gutknecht Finds
Meaning At Work

By Carin Chea

An average person will spend over one-third of their lifetime at work. In an age of aggressive consumerism and competition, CEO and author, Danny Gutknecht, has discovered the key to reviving a sense of humanity in the all-too-familiar calloused and jaded work environment.

His book, "Meaning At Work," is a paramount tool in helping companies (and the individuals that comprise them) re-connect with their fundamental human core values to re-establish and sustain a sense of deep meaning within the workplace.

'Meaning At Work' book by Danny Gutknecht

I had the privilege of speaking with Mr. Gutknecht, whose presence is simultaneously reposed and inspirational.

Your focus is on finding a meaningful experience at work. What does having "meaning at work" look like?

Too many people have the wrong idea about meaning, they often think in terms of "Meaningful" or "meaninglessness" but those are just a symptom of your system of meaning.

Meaning is how you interpret the world and show up in it. If something is meaningless, it's not likely to have significance to you. It won't show up on your radar, and your values will not resonate. Therefore, you are not likely to take any substantial action (purpose).

If something is meaningful, it'll register or even jump out at you, it will stimulate your value system - depending on how strong those values are, and you will likely interact with it.

In our life experiences we encounter many different contexts today. In each of those interactions we develop a model that helps us familiarize ourselves with a given situation so we can improve every interaction with it.

For example, our work journey is different from our romantic journey, our spiritual journey and our parental journey - we have different "meaning models" that activate in those situations. These "meaning models" show up either unconsciously or consciously in our present context.

Meaning at Work is about addressing our system of meaning at work to experience a deeper connection and resonance to our work. We are unengaged and leave because we haven't properly addressed our meaning systems personally or organizationally.

We think that by manipulating external context we can fix it, but it's our models that need examined. When we take that step we liberate ourselves and begin to do the best work of our lives.

You have a book of the same namesake, "Meaning at Work." Tell me about that and what inspired you to write it?

I have always been interested in excellence and mastery from both a personal perspective and organizationally. I also had a deep curiosity about the personal journey of fulfillment, self-actualization or individuation - terms that are essentially the same thing.

None of these jived very well with my relentless pragmatism. Almost everything written is vague and difficult to understand. But I couldn't ignore my intuition. It was like a sore tooth. So I studied and applied models from these deep thinkers to my life and business.

For a long time I thought making money or social status was part of the equation to achieve self-actualization. I was trying to climb Maslow's pyramid. When I learned it didn't work that way, things got interesting.

When I stepped into the world of recruiting I had a living lab. I started applying those models to interviewing and team-building. It took over 20 years of experimentation and armies of recruiters who worked for me collecting data to begin to see the patterns emerge. I journaled obsessively and over time the journals turned into insights. I began to write papers about what worked and what didn't.

A friend of mine, Bijoy Goswami would often say, "when are you going to write a book?" After I wrote a paper called "Chemistry" about how we engage with companies and brands, Bijoy called and said, "You have to write the book and I am not taking no for an answer."

You are the CEO and co-founder of Pathways. Tell me more about your organization and what the mission of Pathways is.

We don't have a mission statement. When you relentlessly pursue excellence, you realize mission statements and other things like that are devised to satisfy the ego. Questions on the other hand, drive excellence and mastery. When you need people to think and interact with each other it's better to minimize the ego as much as possible.

The questions for Pathways examine how to enhance the relationship between employees and organizations. Problems like, "How do organizations become more self-aware?" and "What is the nature of our relationship with work?"

The ego likes to have things settled. It wants a static cookie-cutter solution, so we don't have to think or engage. Unfortunately, that's not the way people learn, grow or are motivated.

Investors need mission statements, employees need meaning. Meaning has its own terms if you don't understand the operating system it will run your organization and life as fate. It's essential to learn how it works and to use the right tools.

Remember, values are contextual. Different contexts and people at work will stir different values.

That's fascinating, especially that last part. Theoretically, one could totally apply that principle to dating: We should ideally gravitate towards those whose values align with ours, or partners who bring out the most attractive values in us.

Yes, but we can find resonance in the differences too. The term "shared meaning" is more powerful than "align." Aligning can infer someone is seeking to rule, which is not sustainable.

When companies seek out your professional expertise, what are some of the common issues they are looking to ameliorate?

Recruiting, retention and leadership development are all part of the organizational meaning system. Companies see them as separate activities so we will help where they are hurting the most.

What does creating a meaningful workplace experience entail?

You have to set up a process for meaning. Organizations are working towards this already but it's not as conscious as it will be in the future. We have approaches that attempt to understand the ongoing identity of the company and employees are. Personality tests and marketing companies have models they use in an effort to grasp its meaning.

My book "Meaning at Work - And Its Hidden Language" explains how meaning works, what tools you can use to effectively deal with it and it outlines the process an organization can engage in to wield meaning.

How has your work evolved as technology continues to transform the workplace? What changes have you had to make to your approach over the years?

In society today, a lot of the redundant job functions are becoming automated. What's emerging is the need for jobs that need ingenuity, creativity, and human interaction. We call them right-brain skills, empathy or critical thinking but all of these concepts are just symptoms of your meaning.

Developing your meaning skills, consciously or as a reaction to market need will be critical to maintaining marketability.

In one sentence, what advice would you give to a young entrepreneur with big dreams who is just starting out?

"Study the book, go to the sites: bootstrapaustin.org and humanfugue.com, and learn the models; it's a good way to understand your challenges and how to take your passion and turn it into a business."

If you go work with any organization, group, or cluster of people throughout history, who would it be? For example: The anti-prohibitionists, or maybe Enron, or the counsel that sent Jesus to the cross.

I am working on standing up a house of meaning with Bijoy Goswami who lives in Austin, TX and my business partners Jay and David, are helping organizations deal with this problem today. I can't think of anything in history that could be more exciting or synergistic for me. I am grateful for the all the geniuses who's bones I have used making my ladder, but I can't think of a better time or cause for me.

With all your knowledge and expertise, were you ever voted class president or "Most Likely to Succeed?"

[Laughing.] No. Not at all. I was an evolving student. I learn best by doing. My approach is to keep chipping away at every opportunity to advance my thinking and my company in every moment.

For more information on Danny Gutknecht and any of his upcoming workshops and seminars, please visit http://pathways.io and www.EssenceMining.com.


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