In this Expert Interview, AdvancingWellness CEO Mari Ryan is joined by Corporate Anthropologist, award-winning author, and sought-after speaker Dr. Andrea Simon.
Mari Ryan: Welcome to the Workplace Wellbeing Essential series, I’m Mari Ryan, I’m the CEO and founder of Advancing Wellness. It is my pleasure to welcome you today to this expert interview where we explore topics that impact employee wellbeing. My guest today is Dr. Andrea Simon.
Dr. Simon is an international leader in the emerging field of corporate anthropology and is the founder of Simon Associates Management Consultants. By applying tools of anthropology to business environments, Andi enables CEOs, senior executives, and nonprofit leaders to see their companies with a more observant eye, to achieve “a-ha” moments, and to discover new and profitable opportunities.
Before founding Simon Associates in 2002, Andi held executive management positions in both financial services companies and health care organizations. She’s also taught as a tenured professor of anthropology and American Studies at Ramapo College in New Jersey and as a visiting professor of entrepreneurship at Washington University in St. Louis. Andi is the author of two books. Her first book was On the Brink: A Fresh Lens to Take Your Business to New Heights and her most recent book is Rethink, Smashing the Myths of Women in Business.
Andy, I’m so excited to have you here for this conversation today.
Andi Simon: Oh, Mari, it’s really such a pleasure. It’s so much fun to share with you. Thanks for the opportunity.
Mari Ryan: Oh, that’s good. It’s not every day that I get to talk to an anthropologist, much less one who works in the same realm that I do in the world of business. So we want to look at this idea of anthropology, which is that study of humanity that encompasses human behavior, culture, and societies, all of which exist within the business world. No doubt this is going to be enlightening on many aspects of those topics. Andi, I’m curious, tell us about this marrying of anthropology and business.
Andi Simon: Mari, it’s a very interesting question. People ask me all the time. I thought anthropologists study small scale societies. I ask them, what makes you think a business isn’t a small scale society? I mean, maybe you don’t think there’s a lot of kinship going on in there, but I have a hunch there’s a whole lot of ritualization. There’s certainly a culture and people share. Remember, we’re herd animals as humans and when we join a place, an organization, we do so because it feels like we belong and humans very much want to belong.
So when you take the tools that we developed to study clearly unknown, probably islanders weren’t well known. Growing up in Samoa, Margaret Mead was studying things that really hadn’t been done before. But when you begin to apply that to things we think we know, what we realize is that people go about their daily lives, the habits take over, and they really don’t know what they’re doing. Just ask somebody, how did you get that baud on that computer? And they’ll tell you we’ve done this, and they’ll tell you the process they go through to buy something on the Liz Claiborne site, and then you watch them actually do it. You video them. It has nothing to do with what they thought. What they thought is what they’ll tell you. But what they did is a habit that’s well-honed and really interesting from the perspective of whoever our clients are.
So it was interesting to me because I spent 20 years in business as an executive. They weren’t quite sure what to do with an anthropologist. So I didn’t I didn’t push that Ph.D. out there much. But I watched a lot, and I was there to help change organizations, from banks going through deregulation, health care going through managed care, and what we learned is that if we could observe people doing things, we could help them see themselves, but we could also help them see what they were not doing and what they had to do.
And so if you were a customer service rep in a bank, didn’t take too long to video you doing your sales that didn’t sell or your cross-sell that you never spoke about and the things that you said, of course I did, you didn’t at all. If we’re going to get to where we need to go, we need to be able to show people what they are actually doing. And in fact, now we can begin to help them change. So I developed my expertise in how to help people change using the methodologies. My first book, On the Brink, A Fresh Lens to Take Your Business to New Heights, won an award. It was a book about how a little anthropology could help your business grow. And there were eight case studies in there, companies that were stuck or stalled, and they came marching in saying, I tried this and I tried that, but I can’t figure out how to reignite change. And that’s what we do. Does that help clarify?
Mari Ryan: Thank you. That’s wonderful, and it just makes so much sense because we often think of businesses and organizations as systems, but thinking of them more from that societal perspective, I think is what’s the new lens that I really appreciate there. But you’re also encouraging this self-examination. So looking at our behaviors and mirroring or reflecting back to people what it is they’re doing and I think that process in and of itself has got to be fascinating because how often do we really, as you’ve said, understand what our behavior is and in the context of a business, if we take that to linking to purpose or tying it to values, how does our behavior really tie to those core elements?
Andi Simon: Well, one of my favorite stories was told to me not long ago by a woman who’s an executive and very powerful woman in an insurance company. She said I was the proverbial hat lady, the coat lady. And I said, really? She said, yes. It didn’t matter what meeting I was in, the guys came in and gave me their coats to hang up. And I said, oh, now this is in the context of rethink and smashing the myths of women. She said, yes, even when I was the speaker, in the event they came in and assumed I was the woman who was going to get them coffee, going to clean the table and hang the coats up.
She said I was going to a large presentation at Lloyds of London, and I came in with my colleague and the guys, they gave me their coats to hang up. He looked at me, I looked at him… So she learned a very interesting way of getting men to reflect on what they were doing. She said, I did it. I hung up the coats, and then I got in front of the room and I said, let me tell you … and this company that we’re going to invest in and how we’re going to do it together. And they all sunk back in their chairs having an “ah-ha” moment. You introduce me with “ah-ha” moments. I will tell you that unless you have those “ah-ha” moments … as I was doing my research, attorneys would tell me partners in law firms, they would come to a meeting and their colleagues would ask them to get them coffee. And they would say to them, one of two things, of course, or get it yourself, but they never quite figured out how to change the attitude and behavior of expecting the woman to be the nourisher and the men to be the strength.
And I have a wonderful story in there by Andi Kramer, who was told when she was a kid not to be a lady lawyer — they don’t like them — and became a very successful one, like when she was on the compensation committee — and I’ll go back to your question in a moment, because it all ties together – she went to the compensation committee and she was reading the performance reviews and the men had all climbed the Empire State Building to save the damsel in distress. And the women had all talked about the team that had collaboratively solved the problem for the clients so that the client never had distress. And she said and the men got promoted, Andi got partner, and the women just hung around — they were the number twos.
So we have a lot of work to do, understanding in the system. And you’re right, it is a system, a society, a culture, a rules of the past now need to be changed to the rules of the future because if not, there are 400,000 attorneys staying in the same category and only 26 percent of them are partner, equity partners in law firms. The talent is abundant. And now we’ve got to figure out how to turn the fellows into allies of the women as opposed to enemies, and they are not the barbarians at the gate. They are your friends coming to help you build better in a very different fashion. And the leadership styles of women are different. They don’t always, but they are different. So even your wellbeing is a wonderful question about how do we build well into our organizations. And even that concept of well is different in different cultures.
Mari Ryan: So true. So true. And your stories are so enlightening about behavior and assumptions and the way these function within an organization. You have been a huge advocate for women and certainly the work that you’ve done with your Rethink book is fabulous on that. The pandemic has been particularly hard for women, especially in the workplace and especially mothers. What can employers do to support mothers and families?
Andi Simon: There was a neat article that was sent to me by my PR firm about a gentleman in Stanford, I believe, who had done research before the pandemic advocating remote work. Now he’s advocating that women shouldn’t remotely work if they want their careers not to be silent. And I said, how interesting that what was good then is bad now. What has changed your point? Your question is an important one because the value of that woman at home caring for a daughter or son, child, is essential to our society. So why doesn’t business, business leaders begin to see the value in that and review it and think of it as a positive instead of a handicap? And because this requires a team to begin to see what you’re doing as really wonderful, as opposed to how soon can you come back into the workplace? Women who work remotely will tell us, and I’ve been doing a good deal of research, that it’s really cool to be able to take care of the kids, get them going on their learning, take care of the wash, take care of a call with a client, take care of the project you’re working on. Everybody has a different place in the house. We’ve learned to systematize the house so we know who works where. But it’s amazing how we became a business in the house. Women are a lot of sole entrepreneurs.
Think about it. There are 12 million women-owned and run businesses in the US today.
It’s almost 40 percent of all the businesses, but only two million of them are real businesses. Ten million of them are sole entrepreneurs, and half of them aren’t making $10,000 a year. In December, all of the new businesses were basically formed by African-American women who are leaving corporate careers or losing those careers, and were setting up either the necessity businesses or entrepreneurial ones — and they aren’t the same. Side hustles aren’t the same.
But there’s something going on where there’s an energy and need and it’s not always that simple. Consequently, there’s something going on here that’s extremely transformational for our society. So going back to your question, what do the business leaders need to do? Look in the mirror and start to rethink how can we capitalize on the value of these women in the home instead of penalize them? This isn’t a penalty box. This is a game. Yeah, follow the puck. This isn’t going to change. Every time that COVID comes back and people go back to remote — and I had a client who was desperately trying to bring everybody back in only to have COVID resurge, the department got COVID, two other people got COVID, everybody went back into their homes and said, I’m not coming back and not for a while. What are we going to do.
Mari Ryan: It’s interesting that you apply this concept of adding, really identifying the value of women and not only their value in the home and in our society, but the value within an organization where women bring different viewpoints and different experiences and different strengths to the workplace in a way that changes in some ways the way that workplace or that micro-society functions.
Andi Simon: Yes. Well, you know the numbers. When you have a diversified board or diversified management team, the performance of the organization goes up geometrically, not arithmetically. It’s not a little it’s a lot. And cognitive diversity. You can talk about gender diversity, you can talk about racial diversity, but the cognitive diversity that people bring adds a flavor to our thinking, if you’ll hear it — and the woman isn’t just the coat hanger — but if you begin to really tap into it and open your lens, you can begin to see, ah, that’s a new perspective that … remember, 80 percent of the buyers out there are women and they spend a lot of money. So if they’re your customers, wouldn’t it be cool to better understand them by having people like them on your management team? You know, what are we missing?
Mari Ryan: Given that so many women have exited from the workforce, I’m curious about what your thoughts are as to whether those women who have left the workforce will return, because that, again, for all of those reasons, we want those women in the workplace. Do you think they’re going to come back?
Andi Simon: Yes, maybe, no. I think that it depends on the woman and her circumstances. Remember, 40 percent of the children born in the US today are born to single parents. That’s a whole lot of women who are the wage earner. About thirty five percent of the wage earning are women who are the sole breadwinner, and you add a bunch more [inaudible – 0:14:26]. Now the question becomes, who are those who lost or left and what are they missing? Care for the children. Inability to balance the care for the children, the education for the children and what’s going on in the workplace, the meaning of the job.
So when I said yes, no, maybe, I think that I’m watching some women who are anxious to get back in, some who are starting their own business, not necessarily knowing all the trade, all the stuff you need to do to do that. But they know they need to make a living. And then the other side is what does business now offer them? Remember, there was a huge shortage of talent before this all started. That shortage of talent has gone away. And many of the women have great capabilities. Before the pandemic I was fascinated by the demand for coders and they were re-entering women by having coding training, boot camp for women who want to re-enter the workplace and be able to learn how to code.
That could really give some women a very flexible work style and we still need a whole lot of coders. There are industries like cybersecurity that women haven’t gone into. We all talk about the STEM that could, But I do think there’s a time for rethinking — forgive me for pushing the book — but there’s a time to rethink what women can do and be. While you’ve highlighted the problem, they’ve left the workforce. I’d like to turn to the opportunity to re-engage them in a new workforce. And but I also think that men need some new ways of earning a living as well and what was disturbing to me was how many women were the breadwinners while the guys had one client who had a house, and as long as the guy wasn’t married, as long as the guy had a job, he could stay there. And when he lost it, she pushed in and said, I’m not going to share my snacks with you if you’re not going to contribute. There’s some value changes going on and are very interesting.
Mari Ryan: There are certainly a lot of changes going on. And no doubt we’re going to hear a lot, lot more stories like that. You know, of late you’ve been focusing some of your work around the concept of self-care. I’m curious from your perspective, when you think about self-care, how does this translate to a leadership skill?
Andi Simon: Self-care is such an interesting topic. As you know, we launched a 30-day challenge to “take care of you.” We did that in part because clients kept saying that they would take care of themselves. We do a lot of executive coaching and the thing they want to do more of is care for myself. When we launched the challenge we were hoping to find a way to help people to pay attention to their self-care because if you can’t care for you, how will you care for others?
You and I both know Kon Apostolopoulos, and Elia Gourgouris, who had this wonderful book on navigating the crisis and Elia, who really loves to focus on happiness, said the first thing you must do is self-care. And I said this when … I’m a dot person, when hear three dots there’s something going on. As I read the book, I said, there’s self-care there, there’s self-care of my clients, my large clients in a multi- hospital system and I have a leadership academy. And I realized that the things during the pandemic, important that we talked a lot about, was taking a walk, continuing to exercise, eat well, build that into your children, begin to see the positivity because we know that positive organizations do far better. I’m sure those who are well and focus on the health care and the wellness and the happiness do far better than people who aren’t. And that’s your expertise. I tap into it because I do think that we’re whole people. And if we can’t, we can’t have self-care, then how will we do our jobs well? Then life becomes most uninteresting.
Mari Ryan: I so applaud your emphasis on this area right now, and especially for leaders because I think people get to a certain point where they think I can keep going, I’m invincible, I can just do all this, until they can’t. Then they just collapse and they’re of no use to anyone. Suddenly there’s these wake-up calls and we shouldn’t have to go to the brink — pardon the pun. We shouldn’t have to go to the brink for these wake-up calls to learn to take care of ourselves. I often use that metaphor of put your oxygen mask on first, and too often I see leaders forgetting about this.
Andi Simon: Sometimes our own personal experiences become models for life. Many years ago I was trying to get my publishing done as a professor. I had two young daughters. I had done research in Greece. I came back, I was working weird hours. I’d get up at 2:00 in the morning to get writing done. I was invincible. And then I got pneumonia for three months and it was a very bad case of pneumonia for three months. I had that epiphany that said, if you don’t take care of you, how are you going to take care of your children, your husband, the work you’re doing? This is also important. You better start bumping stuff. You need to not do so much. It’s okay. You don’t have to go off the cliff to show that you’re talented. That was really important. I vividly remember that wake-up call because it makes me say a good night’s sleep is far better than working it. Sometimes I push myself a little bit, but then I go, uh-uh, nope, nope. Come back.
Mari Ryan: I think we all do in setting those boundaries and knowing that the importance of those boundaries and that you’re not saying no to things, you might just be saying not now. So, all so important. You often talk about in your work change is your friend and I’m curious about why it’s important to make change your friend.
Andi Simon: Oh because you hate change. Humans hate it. The human being, the human mind is very happy when it doesn’t have to have unfamiliar things inside it. The mind does exactly what it thinks you want it to do. It loves the familiar. It loves the habits. It’s very efficient and it follows your own story. So things change. The pandemic was a perfect illustration of how we can in a moment, we go all remote. My clients, healthcare clients, we can put everybody on remote care. A mental health client of mine completely — thirty thousand people in a moment, so we can change.
But the brain literally creates cortisol when it’s learning something new or has to change and then it hangs around for 26 hours and it feels awful. What we’ve learned is that you can make change your friend if you stop that pain by turning your mind from “oh this is bad” to “oh this is good.” I often, when I do a workshop, this is just managing your mind. I say every time your mind says no that’s not the way we do it, say yes, that’s a good idea. Change the voice, change the location, begin to see the possibilities of the new. And then you need a team, because to do it alone is very lonely. And if you start to lose weight or exercise more and your family’s all looking at you while they were eating and you’re not, that’s not going to work. The whole world you’re in has to begin to shift this.
Well, before the pandemic, I would tell my clients, don’t hire me unless you’re ready to have a crisis or create one because if not you’re not going to pay attention. So the first chapters in my first book were all about clients who were on the brink, literally, and they came marching in because this didn’t work and that didn’t work. So what do we do? And part of it was that they were a crisis moment. No new clients coming in. The business has stalled and they couldn’t hire and keep people. It’s an interesting catalyst. They’re catalytic moments. But if you make change your friend like entrepreneurs tend to do, the things on the edges, your mind says, oh, that’s interesting. And when you start to say that’s a great idea, the more ideas you have, the more likely you’re going to have great ones. Your mind will pull them together at night while you’re sleeping and you’ll wake up in the morning and go, oh, that’s what I was thinking about. And you literally have REM time at night where your mind can sort stuff, but if you have no ideas in there, you won’t do anything with it and you’ll stick.
I often tell my clients, wake up in the morning, say it’s a good day and how can I change, and turn from I’m not going to use the same toothpaste or shaving cream too. I’m going to use my breakfast or take a walk and then begin to see how it makes your oxytocin in the brain say, ah. This is a love hormone. I love the new unfamiliar, but humans survive because we don’t like change too much, and now it’s a good time to learn how to embrace it, particularly as you go back to work, however you go back to work, it’s a new work day and not too bad, is it, and you learn to change.
Mari Ryan: Well, you know, it’s so interesting because I think if we reflect on what we’ve been living through for the last year-plus, we’ve all experienced aspects of change that we never anticipated and we built new behaviors. We wore masks and we didn’t go places. Now we are in a transition again, or still, we thought we were getting to post-pandemic and we’re not really post-pandemic yet. And as you look out over the next few months and think about this in the context of all the changes we’ve been through, what are your thoughts about the next phase of transition that people will be going through?
Andi Simon: You’re asking the big question. People ask, what will be the new normal? And I said, well, what if this is the new normal? You’re expecting to come out of this to an imagined future, past, whatever. So what we’ve learned about the brain is that we’re futurists and homo prospectus is really not homo sapiens. Sound good, but homo prospectus is really what we are. Now, the question for you is, imagine the future you’d like to live, and then you’ll begin to find yourself beginning to live it. If you can see where you’re going, humans have an ability to live today as if that’s where they’re going. Is this hard? Yes, but so is what you’re doing now, which is frustrated about I can’t go back to what was. You may not go back to what was.
I had a gentleman in Detroit who wanted me to come and speak. Three good workshops, etc. in January. I said only virtual. He said you won’t come? I said no. I have no idea what the world’s going to be like, but I’m past that. And so I just got an email yesterday that said, can you do it virtually? Yes, I said. So my new normal is to say no to things that take me to a place I don’t want to go back to.
I used to do 129,000 miles a year on American, 2019 was sort of a banner year, really. And I don’t want to do that anymore. I actually have never spent so much time with my husband in our 53 years of marriage. We are having such fun. The only thing we have is time and we both were in very successful careers traveling and unless there’s a reason for it, we are really changing and enjoying the transformation and beginning to see a new normal for us, which visualizes a future where a whole travel less and do it virtually with great, great fun. And you and I are doing this virtually, but you have no idea. I’ve done about 30 workshops this year virtually, and I haven’t missed a beat. My scores haven’t been dropped and people will now see that maybe this isn’t so terrible.
But I do think that if you can imagine what you would like for your future, your new normal, it’s a healthier way to think about it because everybody else out there is doing the same thing. They’re trying to create a new and it’s not … and there are all sorts of things.
Mari, I’ll add two things to this. One of which is my work with the Women’s Business Collaborative. One of the areas is diversity, equity, and inclusion in the workplace. I heard some folks talking before a workshop at how hard this was. They took three months to recruit this black woman, she only lasted three months, and how will they ever diversify their workplace? What new normal? One guy actually said, I guess I’ll have to go to a black church to understand how to bring them into my company. And I said, where do we begin? How many things are going to be changed?
Then on the other side, folks in Idaho said Amazon and others are coming into Idaho to steal our people at higher prices, higher salaries. So we have to now recruit from South Carolina folks to work for us remotely as this new normal. I don’t know. But I can share enough dots to make you think that the whole world is in change. So try and imagine what do you want? What do you want? And I do think the wellbeing of our workplace is important, but I do think they are looking and not quite sure if they want, what it is they want to do with this right now. It’s an interesting time for all of us.
Mari Ryan: Yeah, it certainly is. I certainly appreciate your insights about taking that time to envision what it is that you want for yourself and in your life and then be able to go and create that. So important. I love it. Andi, if our audience wants to learn more about you and the work that you’re doing, where can they find you?
Andi Simon: Well, I have two websites. The book and many of my programs are on AndiSimon.com, and that’s with an “i,” and then our business is SimonAssociates.net. There’s a huge amount of videos and white papers and other resources. We blog and our podcasts are available on both Andisimon.com/podcast is where you can find “On the Brink with Andy Simon.” And our new program, “Rethink with Andy Simon” is on [inaudible – 0:28:58] and you can find it at all our sites, and it’s a time for learning all kinds of stuff. And my book.
Mari Ryan: And your fabulous book. Your fabulous book.
Andi Simon: Well, you’re very kind and the reviews have been wonderful and it’s on Amazon, Barnes and Noble, all kinds of booksellers. And what’s most touching to me are the guys who are reading it and giving it to their daughters and saying, I got to give it to my 25 year old daughter who is coming back from Germany. I have to give it to my 16 year old daughter. There’s something here to inspire women to become the best they can be. And thank you for promoting.
Mari Ryan: Well, my pleasure, and thank you for helping create a world where more people are the best that they can be. Thanks, Andi.
Andi Simon: Been a pleasure, Mari. Thank you.
[end of audio]