In “Man’s Search for Meaning,” Dr. Victor Frankel drew a compelling description of the source of energy required to sustain performance and life itself. As a prisoner of war, Frankel observed hundreds of others walk through the doors of the WWII concentration camps. New prisoners looked around the camp and knew what might lie ahead. But the inspiring part of this tragic tale is Frankel’s description of those who found a sustainable source of meaning from faith or family.
In many ways, the role of learning professionals is to help others find the intersection of personal and organizational meaning that advances the interests of customers, shareholders and employees. The most energetically productive environments I have seen are those in which people are learning and growing. The desire to understand, to master a concept and to make improvements is at the heart of genuine learning and is the creative spark that sustains performance in a manner that is impossible without a deeply felt sense of personal meaning. Meaning and learning are inextricably linked.
Several years ago, I experienced a powerful example of this principle in action. The setting was a large company with international operations. The senior team meetings lacked vitality, and the leader wanted to bring these meetings to a new level of synergy, performance and fulfillment. Through interviews, it became evident that the senior team was a team in name only. It was more of a collection of different businesses and functions that came together merely because the most senior leader felt that they should be a team. There was no shared meaning or clear interdependence between the members of this group. The team members indicated that they were unclear about the strategic direction of the company and the points of overlap between the respective units each of them led.
We embarked on a collaborative process to clarify the direction of the company and engaged some of its highest-potential junior associates to facilitate the task. We started by collecting critical data associated with areas such as market dynamics, competitive movement, technology innovation, consumer trends, financial drivers and the internal perspectives that were driving current operations. Each senior team member sponsored one of the data teams and oversaw the preparation process. After a few months, the teams came together to present their findings and to learn from others’ results. What emerged exceeded the expectations.
The teams of high-potential contributors were extremely energized by the task. Although at times it seemed overwhelming, they viewed the importance of the effort as crucial to the business. Their response in this environment was decidedly positive. Even more surprising was the degree of meaning and value that the senior leadership team found in the project.
Senior leaders in many organizations are often expected to know it all, but most don’t attend development sessions and are not a part of the ongoing educational efforts of the company. In this case, some of the most powerful learning occurred among the senior team members. Frequently, it was the junior team members who were helping a senior team member to learn. What had started as a project to make the senior leadership team meetings more meaningful had become a way of energizing key organizational segments, creating shared commitment to the future and advancing the learning agenda.
The subsequent stages of the project were cumulative to the first. In phase two, the teams were reconstituted and the project evolved from observation to the implication of the data gathered. In the final phase, the project was applied as the senior team identified the initiatives and determined where to properly allocate funding.
The project played an important part in helping to make the senior team meetings exponentially more productive. It accelerated learning, increased engagement and improved the performance of the organization. Today, the organization is still reaping the benefits of the program through successful new products and operations.
It is meaning that sustains our best efforts. When we create the conditions for people to learn and develop meaning from their work, we kindle enthusiasm and promote engagement required for improvement. The cultivation of meaning should always be at the core of the curriculum.
Fred Harburg is senior vice president of leadership & management development at Fidelity Investments Company. Fred has held numerous international leadership roles and worked with several Fortune 100 companies, including IBM, General Motors, Disney, AT&T and, most recently, Motorola. Fred can be reached at email@example.com.