Skip Navigation
Episode #193
Andi Simon

From Anthropology PhD to Consulting CEO

Subscribe On
Summary

An anthropologist is someone who studies the aspects of humans in past and present societies. How do you combine that into business? Corporate anthropologist, Andi Simon, has the answer. Andi is the Founder and CEO of Simon Associates Management Consultants. She is also the author of Rethink: Smashing the Myths of Women in Business. In this episode, she joins Michael Zipursky to share why she decided to go to the corporate world and how she bridged anthropology and business together. Also, Andi takes us into how she runs her business, with webinars, workshops, and speaking events being a primary focus. There is so much to business than meets the eye. All you need is to see things through a fresh lens. And Andi has got you covered with Anthropology.

I’m here with Andi Simon. Welcome.

It’s a pleasure to be here. What fun.

I have enjoyed our conversations to this point, Andi, and one of the things that caught my attention early on, probably in our first conversation, was that you are a Corporate Anthropologist. I want to explore more about that at this moment. You focus a lot on cultural change. You are a speaker, podcaster and author. You have a PhD in Anthropology and you are the CEO of Simon Associates Management Consultants. You have been running that for many years so by no means is being a consultant new to you. You have been featured in many publications, including Forbes, Yahoo, CEO, World Magazine and others. Let’s start, for a lot of people, I certainly wasn’t very aware of this or didn’t have a clear understanding. What does a corporate anthropologist mean?

It’s interesting because I am an Anthropologist or Cultural Anthropologist and I had done most of my research on how people immigrated, adapted and changed. Most people understand anthropology as studying small-scale societies, how people live their daily life and what they don’t they understand and we are curious. When I left academics and went into business, I spent twenty years as an Executive in financial services and healthcare. When I went to launch my company in 2002, my PR firm said to me, after listening to my story, “You are a corporate anthropologist that helps companies change.” I said, “Bingo,” so we made it up and I’m perfectly happy creating a new market space. There are many business anthropologists now. It’s becoming much more in vogue inside academic organizations to train people but thinks about it. What is the difference between a small-scale society, Samoa and a business with many societies within it or a family firm, which is often one culture and one society in it?

These were organizations that use culture the way humans do to create the essence of who they are and to help them live every day in a very similar fashion. When we work with mergers and acquisitions, which we often do, the clash comes from two different cultures and they get fast that these are small-scale societies coming together. I enjoyed the journey for years, in part because people say, “What does an anthropologist do in corporate worlds?” I said, “We help them see things through a fresh lens,” and that’s what we were doing in a small society.

Businesses are not much different from small-scale societies. Click To Tweet

It sounds like these days, there are a lot more understanding the marketplace of what a corporate anthropologist does or a business anthropologist as you called it as well. When you started years ago, that wasn’t a clear understanding of that term. For everyone who is with us now and is thinking, “Maybe I’m not a corporate anthropologist but I resonate with that because the work that I do and the area that I focus on is not truly understood by clients. Maybe the problem that I’m solving clients don’t think they are having that problem, but that is the core of the problem that they are seeing it differently.” I’m very interested to know about your journey. What were the early stages and steps that you took to educate, to make sure that those that you want to have an impact on understood what a corporate anthropologist was and how you are suited to support them? I think that will be helpful for others who are maybe facing a similar challenge.

It’s very interesting to break that into two new phases. On the one hand, when I’ve got into the industry and to financial services during deregulation or healthcare during managed care, I was very comfortable and things were not static and certain, like going through change. If a business environment was going through change, I began to realize how hard it was for people to do and how my job as an executive was to help lead them in some fashion. Sometimes manage them, sometimes tell them but clearly, I needed to understand how to get them to see what was going on, embrace it and change their behavior, which is very difficult. When I launched my company, I picked up clients almost immediately, not because of what I did but in fact, what they needed to change. Marcal Paper became a client almost overnight. I had Centenary College, Montefiore Medical Center as a client.

I worked my network and I said, “I have launched myself as a corporate anthropologist to help companies change.” They say, “Help us change.” They didn’t ask what does an anthropologist does. Quite frankly, when I was in the industry, in banking, I didn’t pull out the doctorate very often and in healthcare, I could pull it out more often but I was a different doctor than those other doctors. You were careful about what brand you were articulating and how that meant something. When I launched the business, I was bringing a perspective that people needed because they knew they were stuck or stalled. That wasn’t going to be easy if there wasn’t some authority expertise experience that would provide a fresh perspective. My first book, called On the Brink: A Fresh Lens to Take Your Business to New Heights has seven case studies in there of clients, all stuck or stalled.

A little anthropology could help them grow and that’s what the book is about. How long can anthropology do that? Usually, I take them out exploring with me. I said, “Come on, let’s be an anthropologist together.” Other consultants, you do similar stuff, I’m sure. You have no idea how fascinating it is. We go inside their clients and we see the same things going on the manufacturing floor, in their offices or watching them use their products. We walk out, we would write down everything we saw and they would see one thing and I would see enough.

It didn’t take long for them to say, “You are looking for gaps.” That’s true and you are looking to fit the box. My job is to get you to see opportunities where you could play a role that isn’t easily articulated by the client. If you were an observer, you can step back and see what they can’t and as someone who’s in the business, it’s difficult for you as well. That’s the approach. I, quite frankly, have become pretty comfortable telling people, “My job is to help you see, feel and think in new ways through a fresh lens because it’s all around you but you can’t see it.”

I think one thing that you mentioned early on there, Andi, is so key it’s that, you did not try and convince or persuade people to see things or the focus wasn’t on corporate anthropology because that’s not what they were thinking. You met them where they were, which is they knew that they had an issue or they were interested in navigating change and so that’s what you focused on. I do very similar comments or have many conversations with clients who are consultants who are navvy in that same issue. It’s often so powerful to say, “You are an expert in A but if your client wants C thing that helps you talk about C, how can we make the focus of C?”

Once you start that conversation, you can get them to see the power of A but don’t try and push A because that’s not what somebody wants. It sounds like that’s what you did as well as part of that journey. I’m interested to know what gave you the confidence that you could go from being in academia to translating the success that you had there and the learnings you had there to create a successful consulting business? Was it an experience you had a conversation? When did you know and have the confidence to go out and start your own business?

CSP 193 | Consulting Anthropology

 

The question is, “Do we ever have confidence?” I know we have confidence but I also know that as many times as I have had short and long-term relationships with clients, I’m always very respectful of the value that we play. They are paying us to help them solve problems, a little like a doctor in the emergency room at times. The confidence comes from the fact that they have tried this or that. My job is to be humble enough to know that I have a role to play for them. The confidence, in some ways, I have always been confident that what I brought was a fresh perspective.

Where did that come from? When you were in academia, what gave you the confidence or where did it come from and you say, “I’m going to now venture out and start my own consulting business?” Where did that happen?

I’m not sure. I grew up in a family firm. We were entrepreneurs. I’m very entrepreneurial. Even going into the world that I did inside academics, I was bridging American studies and anthropology. I’m a gap filler and abridger. I think part of it is knowing who we are. When I launched the company, I talked to people. To your question about confidence, I built my network and I said, “Can I talk to you about what I’m doing? You might know someone who needs it.” I was very quiet about selling. I don’t think people are going to buy me. They are going to engage me in a problem that they have and it still goes that way now. I’m going to tell you how I help companies change. If this works for you, then let’s talk about how I can help you.

I think you have a book about this as well. If I keep pushing it into their zone, then the conversation leads to the way, in which we approach something how it might help. It’s very much collaboration at the very best. Confidence is an interesting word, though, because after 20 years in this, 10 years in academics and being a visiting professor and all of that, every day it’s like, “How can I help somebody?” If I can, then I have a pleasant, wonderful gift to give and I enjoy the journey. It’s cool when you watch their eyes open up and must have seen it also and they go, “You don’t have to work so hard.” That’s it. The head has an epiphany and that’s joyful.

I want to bring you back to the actions that you mentioned that you took early on and I’m interested to know if you continue to do this to this day, which is to reach out to your network to let people know what it is that you are doing without the idea of trying to sell but more that they are aware of it. If they need that they can, then further engage in conversation or they may know somebody who does have a need. Let me break this down into a few parts. Are you still doing that? Do you have a routine or a habit around that?

Yes and no. I have done about 500 workshops and speaking engagements since 2007. From the time of launch in 2002 until about then, I was swamped. I was very busy. I was introduced to this stage into tech, into other organizations and I began to do speaking engagements, workshops, keynotes, all flavors. I found that that was a very healthy way to show people what I could do without selling it. I let them taste it as if it was a cookie. You don’t know you want to buy the box until you taste a little, so in a three-hour workshop, it became quite valuable. I did a lot of webinars to use that methodology.

I like to share. I use my network very intentionally and I stay deliberately engaged with them, sending them material, the podcast, chapter from the new book, something you might find useful for your customers. I’m always thinking about how it will help them do their job and often, it comes back with, “You ought to talk to so-and-so or hear somebody.” We are content marketers. We are HubSpot folks. We truly believe in the power of search. I love social media but I get most of my leads from content marketing.

I want to break a few of those things down. It sounds like a lot of your business, the lead flow, the impact has been through workshops, webinars, content that you are putting out there. Earlier stages before you were delivering workshops consistently, that the initial opportunities in your business and clients came from your network. You reached out to them. You still do this now but for example, is it like every Tuesday at this time you send some messages? Is it once a week, once every two weeks, once a month? Is there any cadence or routine to when you reach out to people?

If you have a wonderful gift, share it with others because it will give you joy. Click To Tweet

No, and there was no cadence or routine to my life. That is not my strength if that’s supposed to be a strength. It’s not a weakness either. I also have a staff person who handles a good deal of that content creation, the circulation, working my emails systematically. In my podcast, I do one day a pretty rigorous month, then I have more than enough now for 3 to 4 months. I like that rigor because I have somebody who manages it for me. I have staff in the support roles and they allow me to then create the material and they ended up moving it out. There’s one gentleman, we saw him for the first time post-pandemic and we were talking about our experience together.

From the day I launched my company, he’s brought me 3 or 4 clients. I have tried to bring him as well. They understand what I can do and how to bring us the right match. I understand for him as well. I have been blessed that the mix of things I have done and thought about it outside, not in what I do but what they need, has led me to a steady stream of very cool clients. One client, I’m working with him for three years. I met him at a conference where I talked about culture change and he was in the audience and he said, “Can we have drinks?” The next thing I know, I was doing a two-day retreat, then it turned into a full year and it’s another year and that’s expanded. Those are the clients that I can’t work hard enough for.

For those who are going, “This all makes sense. I would love to do more workshops, webinars, get in front of more clients,” there’s the power of leverage. I talk a lot about how it can take a while to build up your own brand and if you don’t have a lot of traffic coming to your website, you can do social. To find organizations, professional associations and so forth that already have access to your ideal clients, this is a great channel. You have done a fantastic job of that. What advice would you offer to people if someone now has the expertise, good at what they do but they haven’t done a lot of speaking, many webinars or written articles for other sources of information like professional associations or groups? What advice would you offer them to begin reaching out, build those relationships or land those opportunities?

I will break that also into boxes. Let’s start with the easy part. What are the keywords that you want to be found for? Remember, what Google has done is made content marketing the marketplace. If you google a corporate anthropologist, I should come up on the first two pages. Relation strategy expert, I’m up there too. If you wanted the culture change, the search went up 130,000% over 2020 but what is it people are looking for and what are the keywords you want to be found for? How do you write content with those in it so you become the authority? Let Google help you match up with people. Think about the buyer’s journey. The 1st or 2nd thing somebody is going to do is google.

I’ve got introduced to this fish through a client and I had no idea what I was doing. I gave a three-hour workshop. I’ve got high scores and they introduced me to someone else who went on chair net, who went on somebody else. Is that a way of going? I have no idea. They are a very great organization with 25,000 members, who are my target audience. In 2021, I have 30 of them. I’m very careful to figure out where in a house so I can bundle them together. By and large, it has been a wonderful association for me with them and their members who look to me for certain things I focused and I recommend focusing on.

What do you mean by the word focus? That’s an extremely powerful word but in the context of somebody who wants to get in front of more of their ideal clients through sources like Vestige, TAC, any association or professional group, when you say focus, what you mean specifically there?

What do you want to be known for as the go-to? I did this at the beginning of the Blue Ocean Strategy. I fell in love with it. I became a practitioner and Renée Mauborgne reviewed my last book. I’m a devoted fan of creating markets, not competing in them. When I did my first one, I then became the Blue Ocean person. I will tell you that of the 500 workshops I have done, 75% of them are on Blue Ocean. The others are in culture change or innovation and I have allowed those to become secondary because the Blue Ocean is rich, particularly now but it has been for years. The book was done in 2005. We are looking at many years of thinking about not competing but creating.

When things were nice, I was entertained. I’m good scores but a few people were paying a lot of attention. After the 2008 recession, there are a lot of attention. As we came out of that, it became a little more entertaining. I like to entertain. Now it’s become almost passionate. People are panicky. I always say, “If you want to change, have a crisis or create one.” I didn’t expect this crisis but I have allowed the positioning of myself, not as an anthropologist but as someone who can help companies change. I use this methodology as an approach. What I loved about it was this very anthropological. It was not hard to figure out how to co-brand myself and once I’ve got my practitioner certification, I was easily co-branded.

CSP 193 | Consulting Anthropology

 

To my focus point, what do you want to be known for? How many things can you be known for? With my new book, I have been doing rethink sessions for the two keynotes. It’s a little different about smashing the myths of women in business. How you rethink women in your business? That’s a place we are migrating, too, because I think I’m more interested in it now. I also think that there’s a C change in how women are moving into business and what we can do as a result. I like moving into the vacuums that have to be filled to change. I’m looking for that as my new focus.

That’s a perfect segue into the next question I wanted to ask you, which is based on your expertise and experience around anthropology, culture and change. I’m very interested to know your perspective on the differences between and what you have noticed of men and women in how they operate, especially if we could connect that to the world of consulting or running your own business. Any advice, something specific that you might offer to women on things that maybe come up more often, like maybe we’ve got to start? Are there any big challenges or areas that you think they feel some resistance around that you have encountered in and you feel you have a better path forward and you could offer?

You have asked three questions.

Let me break it down. Common mistakes or challenges that you see women entrepreneurs, women consultants making? Let’s start with that.

The first thing that I think women consultants should think about is, are they consultants or women consultants? I heard somebody say, “I don’t want to be your diverse person. I’m a talented leader and I can handle the job so think about that consultant as a consultant.” If you need to put a qualifier, are you going to put a qualifier around a male consultant? The first thing that I’m urging organizations and society to stop doing is qualifying in some fashion. Expecting something special or different, better or worse, not freeing them up from a gender. The same thing with a black consultant or a black woman. All of the adjectives or descriptors reflect our culture more than what you are buying. Now, it could be you are buying them because they come with a particular perspective, approach, other expertise or experience but I would rather you buy me as a corporate anthropologist.

I didn’t say I’m a woman corporate anthropologist. I like to be successful on my own in that category. What I do know and I write about often is women are different than men and that’s good. If you can appreciate the difference, they see things through different lenses often. Those can either be viewed as better or worse because of how you value it, not because of what it is. It’s not inherently better or worse. It’s what your value system is. As I have been working with women leaders, they are thinking about team collaboration, empowerment, engagement. I’m not going to say in most cases, they are less on a competitive control command side. It’s a different balance but when I have worked with men who are CEOs of multi companies, the commanding control comes through we study culture and they can’t quite figure out why their subsidiaries aren’t always performing well.

They are killers and sellers as opposed to collaborators and engagers. Different styles. The right style, the right time are important, whether it’s a guy or a gal. The other thing that I often find is that women have like Jane Fraser, who was brought into Citibank, worries me. She has done three turnarounds for Citibank so by hiring her into that role, I wondered, whether the next Citi banker, are they ready for a turnaround? Do we put ourselves into that turnaround room? As I studied women who move into healthcare CEO positions, higher ed CEO positions, I can only tell you how many times they say, “The guy before me didn’t do such a good job they brought me in to see if I can fix it and turn it around.” I’m working with a couple now and this weird sexism isn’t necessarily healthy for either the organization or for women leaders, consultants or others.

I could also say not to take advantage of it and see how to do it. I have a friend, an attorney, who tells us a story about being on the compensation committee of her law firm. She was a partner. The reviews came through and the men said they had climbed the Empire State Building to save the damsel in distress and recover the $500 million for the client. The women said that they had worked with so-and-so in the team and they were able to never have a client lose $500 million but to save it before it ever happened. A whole different culture and perception of how we go about doing things is either better, no, but are they different? Yes. Now the question becomes for you, whether it’s your company or whatever, what kind of culture do you want?

I have one friend and she’s a chapter of my new book. Jamie went in to take a company that had been three years, no growth and in nine months since then is growing again and manages it differently. She leads it differently and is now building one of the most diverse, equitable, integrated, inclusive belonging cultures. I did a panel for her company called Edmentum and it was fascinating to listen to the men and the women talk about the transformation going on and how she leads through collaboration. She has her three objectives for the year. We focus on our purposes and we all combine and get done. It starts at the top of it, goes down and comes up again.

I think it’s very powerful because, as you said, it’s not necessarily about one thing being better than the other it’s different, regardless of what your view is, who you are or what you believe. If you are looking to build a business, start first on getting clear about what your values are and what you want to communicate. Also, understanding from a marketing perspective and a content perspective like knowing who you are talking to. One message in terms of priorities, if that’s folks for, let’s say a male CEO it might be a completely different set of priorities for a female CEO. Both could be great. They are just different. Understanding that is a very powerful way to differentiate because maybe another consultant, your competitor, likely isn’t doing that differentiation or isn’t being so thoughtful about their content or their marketing.

A workshop is a healthy way to show people what you could do without selling it. Click To Tweet

If you can do that and you can have that focus, as you said, Andi, that is a powerful way to create more distinction, differentiation and to have a message that better resonates with those you truly want to build a relationship with. I think that’s fantastic. Are there other mindsets or anything else that you found that typically confront women or are more challenging, let’s say, for a woman than for a man? Anything else that stands out? I know we have a lot of female readers as well and I would love to hear your perspective on this.

When you work inside a company, to put it into the context of what I do, to help them change, it is interesting to see, which among those that you’ve got to work with are open, responsive and looking for insights on how to. Those who sit there like this are resistors. We do know that resistance to change is a human phenomenon. I’m not going to say the guys are more comfortable with the habits they have and more fearful of the unfamiliar than the women. I often find that to be the case. I find the women trying to move the guys along. We become collaborators on how to make the changes comfortable and familiar. Remember, the mind likes the familiar. It likes the story that’s in there. It’s less about which gender you are than your mind.

I also noticed that some are much more open to the unfamiliar and others are much more resistant to them and I forgive their minds because the minute I go in to change them, they nearly shut down. The cortisol gets flowing through and they say, “That’s not the way we do it.” I say, “We have to change.” Often, they even say, “We do,” and they are not changing anyway. It’s an interesting time. One thing that I do and this is half an answer to your question, is that I tell people, “This is like theater.” Their organization is a platform and a stage. Everybody has got a role to play. Take a look as if you were the audience and who’s playing, which rule and how because the metaphor makes it less of a sting and more of an experience.

How would you like to change? What do you want the women to be playing? You want them to be stereotype roles or into collaborative roles? You want them to be leaders? What are the guys going to do? How has the conversation to be intelligent so that they can hear each other? Where are they going to stand and sit? The cubicles are good and bad. If you are all in cubicles, watch the dynamics of who hangs out with whom. I have had too many meetings where there’s a solo woman and nobody talks to her and she has to figure out how to get engagement. When the guys are all sharing their war stories over the weekend about, which teams won, which games, did you see the guy who has got hit with a bitch, broke his nose, and the gals are watching the dynamics and trying to figure out, “Who can I talk to?”

The dynamics of human nature make gender important for us to intentionally understand, and then as a consultant, begin to understand how to work with that organization to help it change. I have not had penalty boxes too often but I did have one client, a great guy, who I knew quite who hired me and put me in a closet for nine months. Finally, I said, “I quit.” He said, “Why?” I said, “There’s nothing you are going to change.” He said, “I hired you.” I said, “That’s the end, not the beginning.” When I swung this way or that, his entirely male staff, finally he changed, and then everybody else did. It’s a difficult job.

This resonates with me because when we had a business in Japan and I went over and open up the branch office there, I found myself being the odd person. I was the one white guy, typically the youngest person in the room. I was surrounded by much older Japanese businessmen, presidents of companies and so forth. That resonates with me in terms of the conflict or thought process going on in my mind around how do I jump into this conversation and the dynamics I found to be very interesting. One more question here, Andi, before we wrap up. I’m very interested to know what changes you have made in the structure of your business? You have been in business for many years. You started as a solo independent consultant. What does the structure look like? Have you, at times, added a lot more team members, remove team members? Walk us through the progression of how the structure of your business has changed over the years, if at all?

CSP 193 | Consulting Anthropology
Rethink: Smashing The Myths Of Women In Business

Yes and no. It has and it hasn’t because I had run organizations with 2,500 people. I decided early that I didn’t want an HR person hiring people. I didn’t think it was necessary that people were hiring me and how did I then support the job that had to be done? We have a team of outside support from those who have built websites for my folks, who do social media for my folks, write content for my clients. My husband was a serial entrepreneur and he sold his business in 2017, joined mine and became a fan of HubSpot and became an inbound marketer. We are HubSpot partners. We have added that to the toolkit. He and I went to Brussels and studied Innovation Games. Mostly because I had met Luke Hohmann, who created it and I was fascinated with how games could free people’s minds.

We spent four days in Brussels studying games with a bunch of Europeans who spoke four languages, that was interesting so we added that into our toolkit. I added Blue Ocean Strategy when I met Naima Bond, I have added tools to an anthropologist approach to help companies see things through a fresh lens and then do something. My last thought is part of it is understanding what you need and then helping them do it. Often, I have been with a bunch of hospitals for 3 to 4 years to help them implement it. We moved from being the consultant to help them strategically understand it and develop the new story to then implementing it. We have built a good deal of neuroscience tools into this to help them see backward. I became a John Mattone Executive Coach because I was doing so much executive coaching for my clients. I’m not sure I market that but I’m not bashful, John Mattone is leading this executive coach or at least thinks he is. I love this approach. Those are the things I added on as my business needed them and I grew them but I have been very careful not to employ people.

What I’m hearing from you, Andi is that you have been very intentional in adding tools to your tool belt as opposed to adding people. The way to grow has been finding different certifications, programs or an ability that you can provide without having to provide a lot more or build up more infrastructure, add a lot more people. For you, that model has worked well. I would imagine it has kept you very lean, profitable, nimble, flexible, a lot of freedom with that model. Is that correct?

That is correct on all of those points. It’s by design. Before the pandemic, we went away every three months and if not, we thought we could work until the last day of our lives and we weren’t going to do that. We love to travel. We did as well so I think we have been to 35 countries. Every 90 days, it was time for us so we became quite intentional about living, not just working.

Talk to me about that for a moment. As the business is running, you are doing well. Every three months, you are taking how much time off to travel?

Sometimes it was a week, a weekend, sometimes it was two weeks. We have been to Africa three times. Vietnam was a two-week tour.

Will you be working at that time as well or you complete checkout for, let’s say, that one week? As entrepreneurs, it’s so much hard to check out.

If you want to change, have a crisis or create one. Click To Tweet

I’m amazed when I’ve got done in Vietnam because of the twelve-hour difference. 6:00 in the morning and 6:00 PM here. When we were in Normandy, we took care of clients’ stuff. We never missed a beat and I have tried to make it almost irrelevant to where I am because people don’t know where I am and they work here.

The business is operating regardless of where you are. The term has become more popular these days. You are like a digital nomad to a degree or at times. We have certainly taken a very similar approach in traveling with the family. I love seeing the world and cultures of different people while running a business. That’s fantastic. Andi, I want to thank you so much for coming on here, sharing with us some of your journey and story. I want to make sure that people can learn more and go deeper into that. Where’s the best place? If there’s one website, one address for them to go to, where should they go so they can learn about all of your books and everything else that you have?

CSP 193 | Consulting Anthropology

 

I have two websites but the one that captures our business, SimonAssociates.net. My books and all the other material are on, AndiSimon.com and they are connected. Those are the best places. The contact place there can get it to, [email protected] comes right to us. A lot of the content, the white papers, videos and all the rest are on SimonAssociates.net. Our new programs are coming up. We’ve got two. One is an online course called Rethink Your Journey with Andi Simon and the other is a 30-day challenge on time to take care of you. This all came from my curiosity to have how to help people in a new way.

Andi, thank you again so much for coming on.

You are a great interviewer. Thank you so much.

Important Links:

Love the show? Subscribe, rate, review, and share!
Join the Consulting Success Community today:

Leave a Comment, Join the Conversation!