As part of my series about the “Five Things You Need To Be A Highly Effective Leader During Turbulent Times,” I had the pleasure of interviewing Andi Simon, Ph.D. (www.andisimon.com), author of the upcoming book Rethink: Smashing the Myths of Women in Business, is a corporate anthropologist and founder of Simon Associates Management Consultants (www.simonassociates.net). A trained practitioner in Blue Ocean Strategy®, Simon has conducted several hundred workshops and speeches on the topic as well as consulted with a wide range of clients across the globe. She also is the author of the award-winning book On the Brink: A Fresh Lens to Take Your Business to New Heights. Simon has a successful podcast, On the Brink with Andi Simon, that has more than 125,000 monthly listeners, and is ranked among the top 20 Futurist podcasts and top 200 business podcasts. In addition, Global Advisory Experts named Simons’ firm the Corporate Anthropology Consultancy Firm of the Year in New York — 2020. She has been on Good Morning, America and Bloomberg, and is widely published in the Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Forbes, Business Week, Becker’s, and American Banker, among others. She has been a guest blogger for Forbes.com, Huffington Post, and Fierce Health.
Thank you so much for your time! I know that you are a very busy person. Our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your ‘backstory’ and how you got started?
I am an anthropologist, professionally trained. I began my academic career studying Greek immigrants in the US and return migrants to Greece. I was interested in how people changed their cultures as they adapted to new environments. Fortunately, I became a tenured professor of Anthropology and American Studies at Ramapo College in NJ (now Ramapo University). During my time at the university, I did two TV series for CBS and several Master Lecture series.
Then, through chance, I was introduced to executives at Citibank during the early stages of deregulation. They had no idea what an anthropologist was but I was invited to join them as a consultant, helping their staff earn how to change in a new culture of sales and service professionals. I took a leave from the university and became a banker for the net 14 years. During that period, I was senior vice president of Poughkeepsie Savings Bank running most of their consumer banking, and executive vice president of First National Bank of Highland, a subsidiary of M&T bank in Buffalo. Much of my focus was on the strategy and implementation of entirely new ways of doing business, from launching ATMs to making regional bank acquisitions. I was often the only woman in the C-suite. I learned as much about how to change my own “brand” as I learned about how hard it is to change other people.
As banking became regulated and commoditized, I was recruited into healthcare during managed care’s early stages. I was the head of Branding and Marketing at Montefiore Medical Center and then the VP for Marketing, Culture Change, and Branding at St. Joseph’s Regional Medical Center. Like banking, healthcare was going through dramatic changes, and helping doctors and nurses change was an exceptional education for me.
In 2006, I was a visiting professor at Washington University in St. Louis teaching entrepreneurship to Arts & Science students.
After 9/11, I decided it was the right time for me to launch my own business, Simon Associates Management Consultants (SAMC. I was that entrepreneur who wanted to fill a gap, namely, to bring the methods and tools of anthropology into business settings. Specifically, I wanted to use anthropology to help businesses change. Clients came rather quickly. They ranged from healthcare systems to Marcal Paper, colleges and universities to manufacturing and pharmaceutical companies. Each was struggling with how to sustain their growth through fast-changing times.
When I launched my business, I knew that I was creating a new market space. Little did I know that it was a ‘blue ocean.”
In 2006, I met Renee Mauborgne who had written a newly published book “Blue Ocean Strategy.” She invited me to become a blue ocean strategist. Since 2007, as a trained Blue Ocean practitioner, I have conducted almost 500 workshops, speaking and client engagements to help them redefine their focus by capitalizing on a blue ocean strategy.
SAMC has been in business almost 20 years. We continue to grow our scope or services by adding value in innovative ways.
My first book was published in 2016. Entitled “On the Brink: A Fresh Lens to Take Your Business to New Heights,” It won the Bronze Best Business book award from Axiom in 2017. I have a new book coming out this January 2021 through Fast Company, entitled “Rethink: Smashing the Myths of Women in Business.” I am developing a new program called Rethink Your Journey, designed to help women step back, reflect on where they are today, and help them craft a future that brings them a healthier combination of personal and professional purpose and happiness.
My podcast, On the Brink with Andi Simon, has been ranked among the top 200 for entrepreneurship and in an independent survey, ranked among the top 20 futurist podcasts.
Simon Associates Management Consultants was voted the top Corporate Anthropology Agency in New York during 2020 by GAE.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lessons or ‘take aways’ you learned from that?
Funny can mean amusing or unclear, strange or odd. Assuming you want something to illustrate a humorous event, I reflected on how I felt when I became EVP of First National Bank of Highland. I took over as an executive to help stabilize and grow a bank that the President, a friend of mine, had been running. It may not seem funny now, but the bank was a small, home-grown operation in the Hudson Valley, NY. When I arrived, after having been a consultant for Citibank and SVP of a savings bank, I realized that ‘home grown’ meant something rather “funny.” Nothing was operating in a manner that the bank examiners would think well of. In fact, the examiners arrived the day after I did, and they did not think the operations were “funny.”
I had to laugh, since I had no idea what I was getting into. If you don’t keep perspective, you can let the emotions take over. Here was a moment where I had to be cool, calm, and decisive — while laughing behind closed doors. For example, the bank’s finance department was located on top of Billy’s “Burp and Slurp,” a local bar. Corporate lending was in an attic of a building with so little room that you had to have people stand up to move around them. Teller turnover was so high because they seemed to enjoy the training, a few weeks to steal, and then they said goodbye.
Funny, well probably not. But at the time, I felt like this was a bad movie set and I was laughing all the time. Nothing was working and here I was coming in to fix it. If I didn’t laugh it was going to turn into a massive depression. So, my staff (mostly newly hired) and I laughed a lot.
What did we learn? Problems of any size are always part of an operation. Fixing them was part art, part skill, and part luck. You had to keep a clear and positive perspective, or you could not lead an organization. You had to find ways to inspire your folks, train and develop them quickly in easy to use skill development, and you had to celebrate small wins and do so often. It taught me how to lead and how to get others to follow you, regardless of the challenges. People were amazing and rose to the occasion asking for little and appreciating everything as long as they thought they were important and special. It worked. We cleaned it up. Turned it around, and the bank grew, merging into its parent M&T Bank.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story?
You may be looking for someone in business who inspired me. There were several. However, I would prefer to share with you the story of my amazing husband, Andrew (Andy) Simon, my business partner, father to our daughters, and best friend. We have been together 52 years. Along the way he has been a very successful serial entrepreneur and an exceptional business creator. For me, Andy had a wonderful way of always believing that regardless what I was doing, I would be terrific at it. When I was writing my PhD dissertation, he was my proofreader, but also my encouragement. He was not going to let me fail or fall. When I moved into business, he was a trainer/teacher and coach about the banking business. And as I grew in my positions and responsibilities, he always knew how to say the right things to support me — even when I had made bloops or missteps. When I was ready to launch my own consulting business, he was right by my side, helping me craft the new story, open the practice, grow the customers, and solve their problems. It didn’t matter if I was flying to Buffalo every week or heading out to New Jersey every day, he was right by my side, supporting my adventure, and ensuring that we both could raise our daughters even as we each had our careers to build and our lives to enjoy. People often ask the secret to our success. We laugh a lot. We see the funny side in serious things and make sure we can keep life and business in the right perspective. And, we have had the good fortune to be blessed with good health and wonderful family and friends.
Extensive research suggests that “purpose driven businesses” are more successful in many areas. When your company started, what was its vision, what was its purpose?
What a great question. When I launched Simon Associates Management Consultants in 2002, I was coming off 25 years as a successful academician and businesswoman working with organizations that needed to change. I was on a mission. I knew that people hated to change. Could we bring our expertise and experience to help them?
People and their organizations have a difficult time changing because their brains hijack any effort to see things through a fresh lens. We knew how to apply the theory, methods and tools of anthropology to businesses or corporate settings. People could better understand the changes taking place all around them when they actually visualized them, experienced them, and listened to customer talking about them. Every time I took a client “exploring” with me, they too discovered that opportunities were, indeed, all around them. Consequently, when I launched Simon Associates it was with the clear purpose of using the anthropological approach to help organizations, and the people inside them, to more easily adapt to change.
My purpose and mission were to help organizations do what they hated to do and rarely knew how to do it — namely change. Adapting to fast-changing times was essential if they were to thrive. Yet people became wedded to the way they had always done things. Change was literally painful. My job was to show them how easy it is to change and why “a little anthropology” could help their businesses grow. The award-winning book I wrote in 2016, “On the Brink: A Fresh Lens to Take Your Business to New Heights,” documents the stories of 8 clients, each of whom was stuck or stalled and seemed to be frozen. It is a testament to the work we had done that they each had reimagined their own possibilities and re-ignited their growth, again.
Can you share with our readers a story from your own experience about how you lead your team during uncertain or difficult times?
At the moment, I am a consulting firm with a partner, my husband, and several freelancers. Let me share some perspective on leadership because we have been working with clients for many years on how to develop their leaders and those who follow them.
We have several leadership academies that we have created for different clients. During this pandemic, the participants in the leadership academies learned quickly how to shift their styles of leading for uncertain times. In a moment, they had to furlough employees, change the way they conducted business, established new standards and measures for accountability, and responded to a remote workforce trying to stay engaged and productive, often without the support staff they usually depended upon. They were changing their leadership styles to adapt to these new environments.
I too learned a great deal about how to adapt to lead them. They were clients, but they turned to me, the consultant, to ask for help. How should they manage the challenges of communication? How should they help patients, if it was a hospital, or help clients if it was a service company? They required a different style of leadership than I had been offering previously. In the past, I was the expert, the consultant. Now I was a valued member of the team and they were looking for creative, inspiring ideas about how to adapt.
From my anthropological background, there are four major styles or archetypes of cultures and of the leaders operating within them: Market-Driven Competitive Cultures; Controlling Cultures: Collaborative Clan Cultures; and Creative Ad-Hoc Cultures. As an executive in financial services or healthcare companies, I learned quickly that, in their cultures, the “rules rule.” Or, to say it another way, they had processes and protocols and leaders were expected to keep people accountable for their compliance. As creative as I might like to be, I knew that adherence and compliance were essential to success. It was a command and control style that worked in those settings.
But, when I launched my business as a creative entrepreneur, I realized that I preferred to lead staff in my own organization with far more latitude, creative options, and the vision that I hoped would inspire them to achieve the quality that our clients expected from us. That is still the case and it is rare that I have to resort to a top-down, hierarchical leadership style. We don’t have a lot of “rules” but we have talented freelancers to work with us, creating exceptional solutions for each client’s unique problems or needs.
Did you ever consider giving up? Where did you get the motivation to continue through your challenges? What sustains your drive?
Purpose is a far stronger motivator than profits, at least for me. During the 2008 recession, business was slow. My husband had a successful business, the 5th largest in the K-12 summative assessment space. In some ways, I could have pulled the plug and forgot about a business at all.
Instead, we began to speak more widely, source clients from new venues, and market more effectively to fill our pipeline with good prospects. What we realized was that people needed us. They usually came when they had tried one thing or another and nothing seemed to work.
We quickly realized that regardless of the profits, the purpose was important. These clients had frozen in the proverbial headlights and needed someone, like us, to help them see the possibilities that were all around them. Then we helped them implement the changes to restart their growth engines. What a great sense of co-creating new success. They inspired us to sustain our growth as we were helping them do the same.
What would you say is the most critical role of a leader during challenging times?
I am a big believer in understanding the leader/follower roles if a leader wants to be effective in getting a team of people to the end goal. We preach to our clients that they must think about the brain and lead with the brain in mind. The brain is much more productive when we talk about “we” not “I” — producing a lot of the “love hormone” oxytocin. Too much “I need this” or “You need to do that,” and the brain hijacks the directions and creates a lot of resistance — the flee, fear, appease response.
When we co-create solutions and leaders inspire others about what “we” can achieve, and speak about the bigger purpose of their efforts, they can more effectively and easily mobilize others to follow them.
When the future seems so uncertain, what is the best way to boost morale? What can a leader do to inspire, motivate and engage their team?
The most critical role of a leader when things seem uncertain, unfamiliar, and uncomfortable, is to create a positive story and tell it often until those who are following the leader can tell others about their own vision for the future. That story is the key to moving a group of people forward. They want a story that they can understand and embrace. Draw or write it. Tell it often, and then live it. Celebrate the successes and don’t worry about the failures. Move forward as if you know where you are going. You are creating the new future and we need to have a visualization of the future to live today.
We often talk about the 3 things: See it, Believe it, and Act on it.
What is the best way to communicate difficult news to one’s team and customers?
First, outline what has happened. By setting forth the situation you honor them with the facts that set the stage for what has to happen next. Then explain your decisions on how to best proceed and why you, as their leader or their vendor have chosen this path. Authenticity is important. Trust is essential. Next, you can outline for them your plan for moving forward. People want to protect their status, have autonomy in the process, and feel they belong to something or someone’s group so they are not alone. The communication has to help them see that there is a path forward and that they are not alone. And, you are there to help guide or lead them.
How can a leader make plans when the future is so unpredictable?
The future has always been unpredictable. Yet we create illusions that give certainty to a future. When the current “certainties” are being disrupted, we begin searching for a new story that can once again give us the comfort that we know where we are going.
For leaders who are supposed to be the visionaries, the lack of certainty challenges their own capabilities to lead others. It is unfamiliar. And their brains hate the unknown and unfamiliar. Leaders must take control of their minds. Literally, this is a time when they have to learn to collaborate with their minds. They will need to create a new story about what the future is going to look like for their business or their department or their team.
Some tools we like to use include: Scenario planning is one methodology that is extremely useful to help a leader and his staff come together and envision a future. We often use Innovation Games to help our clients reimagine their futures and begin to backward plan to reach them. Storyboarding is another methodology. Visualization is key. The brain decides based on what it sees and how it feels, and then the logical mind begins to see some order to their thinking.
What we have found is that humans are far more creative than they think they are. They just need something to help their innovative ideas emerge from their own brain’s resistance to change. Leaders in fast-changing times will need to demonstrate that they can be agile, adaptive, and innovative. It may be their biggest test as leader.
Is there a “number one principle” that can help guide a company through the ups and downs of turbulent times?
Stay true to your core values, beliefs and the behaviors that make those come alive. Use these a a strength to help you adapt to the turbulence coming at you from all directions.
Can you share 3 or 4 of the most common mistakes you have seen other businesses make during difficult times? What should one keep in mind to avoid that?
- Failure to communicate clearly, consistently, and from the top down through the entire organization, over and over again. People only hear what fits their own story and during difficult times, you must control the story. If you don’t people will make one up for you. They will be the heroes in the story, and you will lose control of the business.
- Failure to be authentic. People immediately see through someone who is playing a game with them and their lives and livelihood. Honesty is at times challenging but essential.
- Failure to identify and engage the best talent in the organization. This is never a good time to lose the best of your team. Don’t think they know who they are and will stick by you. Tell them, over and over.
- Self-care is far more important than is often admitted. Sleepless nights, over-working, and failing to eat and exercise are injurious to individual well-being and to that of the entire organization. Not communicating that and allowing staff to burn out creates the illusion that hard work is going to win the game. Might not let you live to see the results.
Generating new business, increasing your profits, or at least maintaining your financial stability can be challenging during good times, even more so during turbulent times. Can you share some of the strategies you use to keep forging ahead and not lose growth traction during a difficult economy?
This is a time when you have to pivot. What has always worked to generate qualified leads might not work when people and their businesses are trying to protect their cash, manage their own cash flows, retain employees, and so forth.
To sustain our growth as a consulting firm, we found three strategies to work particularly well:
- our own clients have expanded their scope of work
- they have also been referring others to us
- and, we begin less vendors or external suppliers and more like part of their core business.
We are also developing new programs to launch shortly, publishing a new book, and setting up speaking engagements. While some colleagues have thought of 2020 as a wash out, we have been busy in unexpected ways, and we have used the time to effectively pivot our focus. One thing that has been very helpful is the shift from in-person workshops and speaking engagements to virtual ones. Without the burden of travel, we have been far more productive, and it has allowed us to develop our new program more quickly.
Finally, we remain convinced of the importance of content marketing. Google SEO is one key to the referrals that we get on a steady basis. We just shifted our content focus to be timely and relevant for the business environment of today. We have expanded our LinkedIn presence and are benefiting from systematic LinkedIn marketing and branding.
Here is the primary question of our discussion. Based on your experience and success, what are the five most important things a business leader should do to lead effectively during uncertain and turbulent times? Please share a story or an example for each.
- Be absolutely truthful
People see right through falsehoods. I took over a bank where the President had made an acquisition before his operations were ready for it. When I arrived, I had thousands of checks in suspense accounts and a staff who were over their heads. I had to be painfully candid with the bank president, who had also been a friend before I took the position. Then we had to speak to the staff with exceptional honesty about what they and we had to do together to fix the problems. And we all had to move far more quickly than anyone had done in the past. With the bank examiners arriving the day after I did, I had to be “absolutely truthful” about what had taken place and how we were going to resolve the mess. The result, as I quickly found out, was that staff rose to the challenge, worked exceptionally hard, learned new things very fast, and were willing to admit that they had, indeed, made a mess and were ready to fix it without placing blame on others or complaining about the hard work needed to fix it.
2. Have a strategy, preferably a Blue Ocean Strategy
Strategy is often a soft, elusive word that many leaders think is separate from the business itself. They meet over a weekend, assemble the troops, and think all is well when the strategic plan is completed and approved. But strategy is essential at all times and particularly in uncertain ones.
But not all strategies are the same. We have been Blue Ocean Strategists for over a decade and embrace the theory, methods and tools of a Blue Ocean Strategic approach. Some of the core elements include focusing on customer unmet needs, searching for non-users, and adding value in innovative, not incremental ways. This type of strategy is not about competing with others but about creating a new market space.
This was exactly what I did when we launched our business. While it was in 2002, several years before the book, Blue Ocean Strategy, was published, we were intuitively creating a new market space. We launched our business as corporate anthropologists specializing in helping organizations change. At the time, there really was no such category of corporate anthropology. Today there are lots of individuals and firms applying the methods to business. But at that time, we were very successful at building a business in a new market space.
We do about half our client work with organizations that need to rethink their business strategy to move from competing in very “bloody” red oceans to creating new value in unserved markets.
What is important for leaders and staff is to understand how to convert strategy into execution throughout the organization. In Blue Ocean thinking, strategy and execution are connected. Consequently, for leaders and their businesses to thrive, the entire organization must understand and embrace the strategy. And if they are going to create a new market space, they must understand that they must also create demand, not just compete to take clients from other firms.
3. Communicate, communicate, communicate in multiple-media and with greater frequency than you might imagine
We learned early in our career that if you don’t tell your story over and over again, your staff will create their own versions of that story, and rarely is it the one you want them to believe to be true. When I was an executive at a hospital, I realized that people were very creative. If they didn’t know why you were doing something, they made up a story about it and you had to spend tremendous time and effort undoing their myths. It was hard for the president with whom I worked to understand that a letter to staff would be poorly understood and rarely shared as intended. So, we had to create experiential communication events with a lot of over-telling the story and allowing people to tell their version of it to each other and to the leadership team in a variety of formats. Games were very useful. Videos that the staff made were of tremendous value. Since we were the first lay management team of a Catholic hospital, we had a lot to change — from the business model to the culture and the ways we treated patients, captured payments and retained physicians and nurses. You can only imagine the challenges of changing the core story of a hospital that had been around a long time that was going to find itself in financially difficult if it did not change its ways of doing things.
4. Make sure you have the right people for the right jobs in the right culture
This is one of the most important things a business has to address during turbulent times. Businesses are just people. If you don’t’ have the right ones doing the right things you cannot lead them anywhere. When I became SVP of Poughkeepsie Savings Bank, I realized that I had come into a bank that still thought of itself as “The Bank of FDR.” It was also a bank that had a lot of long-term employees. They thought that if they came to work from 9–12 and 1–3 and did steal, they had a job for life. Little did I know how hard it was going to be to change these lovely people who came to service their customers into sales staff who could expand the profitability of every customer. It was as if we were speaking differently dialects of English. But the banking environment was being disrupted through deregulation. And, this bank was being totally transformed by the leadership team. What we learned was how to enable people to embrace changes that seemed threatening. It was threatening every core value and belief that they had held in the past. But people can change and these people became advocates of the changes. That’s when I learned how agile people can be if you have the right people in the right jobs in a culture that encouraged trial and accepted error as people created a new world in which to work.
5. Be Brave
Courage is essential. Whenever the times are changing, people become the proverbial deer in the headlight, freezing or fleeing the unfamiliar. This is a time when you will see who can rise to the top, capture the moment, and build a movement to take a business forward. I remember so clearly the pain I felt as I merged our bank into its acquiring parent. I wasn’t sure if the merger would be better or worst for staff or customers. It was simply going to happen. So ,we dug deep into our hearts and inspired others to be brave, anticipate the unknown, and embrace the future. It worked but not without many sleepless nights and days filled with anxiety.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
Margaret Mead: “What I am demanding of other people is what I am demanding of myself.”
As an anthropology graduate student, I met Margaret Mead, read her work, admired her life. I realized as I grew in my profession, moved from academia into business, and then into my own entrepreneurial firm that I held myself up to a standard that I expected of others. And it was often much higher in my own mind’s eye, than in the expectations of others. It was often surprised by how my staff could exceed even their expectations. Aim high and others will as well.
How can our readers further follow your work?
I have a new book coming out in January 2021. And, I launch a program, Rethink Your Journey, to help women pause to think about where they are and where they are going through a fresh lens.
Readers can follow us on our blogs, subscribe to our podcasts, and watch our videos which are all on www.simonassociates.net. Our books are on www.andisimon.com. We also have a very popular newsletter and a Rethink with Andi Simon Facebook group. My LinkedIn profile is here.