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Dr. Dana Ardi - Corp. Anthropology Adv.

Dana Ardi

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Leisa interviews Dr. Dana Ardi, Ph.D. founder and CEO of business management firm Corporate Anthropology Advisors. Dr. Ardi built her consulting firm around the term “corporate anthropology,” which refers to a company’s culture, personnel, interpersonal relationships and holistic attitude. Her latest book, “The Fall of the Alphas,” explains her philosophy.

Video and Full Interview Text

Leisa: Hello. I'm Leisa Holland-Nelson, and this is the BusinessMaker's Show, brought to you by Comcast Business, built for business. My guest today is Dr. Dana Ardi, founder and CEO of Corporate Anthropology Advisors. Dana, welcome to the BusinessMaker's.

Dana: Hello. How are you? It's so nice to be with you today.

Leisa: I am so glad to have you in Houston. I'm so excited about your new book, The Fall of the Alphas, and the first thing I want you to do is tell us about The Fall of the Alphas and Corporate Anthropology Advisors.

Dana: Okay, that's great. Corporate Anthropology is a phrase that I coined to describe the way I work with companies. When I go into a company, I think about what is this organization about? What are the cultures that people operate in? Who are these people? How do they treat each other? What's the communication style? What do they believe in? What's the belief system? What are their morals? What are their mores? How do they value things? What are their products? What are their brands? And what is the diversity of the organization and how is that respected? And on and on and on and on. And just like Margaret Mead would go into a culture and start to look at it in a holistic way, that's the way I analyze companies. And I do it for the purpose of helping the organization to transform, to grow, to embrace innovation, and to really connect the team in deeper and more meaningful ways.

Leisa: I know you've been doing this for a lot of years before you started this business, so I'd love for you to share a little of your background. Then we're going to talk about Corporate Anthropology, why you chose to go in through the people side.

Dana: My background is I'm a doctor of education psychology, trained in psychoanalytic thinking, and I've always wanted to work on the personal side of business. I felt that businesses were assets, but they were also connections between people, and if you could find a way to create community, then people would really work together and take pride in the organizations in which they work, and work to find joy and happiness in what they do. And so, that was my main attraction to going into business. And I found that it was very, very fun to put the right people together and watch the magic happen.

Leisa: So, in the world of entrepreneurship, you've been involved with some major companies, so I'd love for you to just drop some names, tell us about your involvement, the earliest stages of it, and the different companies. I know there are a lot of venture investment funds that you've been part of, as well.

Dana: Early on, I was very attracted to talent and I still work and coach and help highest potential talent. And so, in the early days of technology, I became a partner at Flat Iron Partners, which was a boutique venture firm in New York that was growing web 1.0 companies, in the days where the Internet was the Wild, Wild West and no one knew exactly what to expect or where it was going. It was the most exciting time in my career, and it was a time where putting interesting people together and helping them grow their ideas was really possible, because there had never been new economy companies that embraced technology the way they did now. And so, some of the companies we grew were a company called GeoCities, that was really the first social network that then became Yahoo. And we grew companies that did all sorts of things in ecommerce. I was involved in Shopzilla, I was involved with big companies that were looking at the Internet, the New York, in the early days, a company that was documenting that, the Industry Standard, which was the magazine of the time, where I wrote a successful column. And then over the years, I continued to work with enterprise. I became a partner at JP Morgan in their private equity group, CCMP Capital, and we grew all kinds of companies, energy companies, consumer companies, companies that were in the industrial sector, distribution, as well as technology. So, the nice thing about my practice, and what's very exciting to me is I help big companies think small and nimble and entrepreneurial, and I help entrepreneurial companies grow big and become mature enterprise. And the thrill is in watching both happen.

Leisa: So tell me about The Fall of the Alphas. First of all, describe the alpha to us, and then why are alphas falling? I have this horrible fear that I may be an alpha, so tell me.

Dana: So, it's really interesting. In my practice, I would sit in my office and these amazing talented executives and entrepreneurs would come in to talk to me. And as we would engage in our dialogue, they loved what they did, they loved the profession that they had chosen, but they were all frustrated, and they would say, "Dr. D, find us a different place." And when I delved, it wasn't that they weren't satisfied with their output, they were frustrated by the organizations, the way they were treated, the politics, the hierarchies that stood in their way of really being innovative and being creative, and finding that happiness at work that we're all entitled to. And so I wanted to know why are so many people so unhappy? And so I looked and I realized that hierarchies generally in our society are falling ways to networks. And in business, it's one of the few places where these very, very certain chain of command hierarchies still are taking place and they are preventing people from exercising leadership at the level that they would like to, because we're all leaders and followers, but these artificial systems - and I realize that everything is changing, except the way we organize at work. And so I called the old model, the hierarchical model, the alphas, and I called the new model, the network model, the betas. So think of it this way, the alphas are like the old military model, and in my book, I chronicle what happened in World War II when the soldiers came home and why that model was adapted into business. And it wasn't challenged for a very long time. But then, with technology, with the self-awareness movement, with gay rights, women's rights, new kinds of families, new economy technologies, globalization, things started to change. And now, these companies that are networked, that are flatter, that are more collaborative, that are more like - where leadership is more like an orchestra where you have a leader and the leader picks among the crowd and finds the most talented people in the organization to embrace the opportunity. And sometimes the leader is the leader, and sometimes the leader becomes the follower and lets someone else in the group lead because they're the most capable. So, that's what I call the betas. And in my book, I look at the alphas and I look at the betas, and I talk about the positive aspects of both.

Leisa: So, can you describe or give me an example of a current beta company that you're encouraging even at this point?

Dana: I just came from Las Vegas, visiting Tony Hsieh at Zappos, which is very much a beta company, where leadership is flat, where he is moving to a model that he calls "holocracy," where there are no titles, where people work in groups, where he creates co-work spaces and opportunities for entrepreneurship to collide. And so Tony is sort of one of the leaders of that kind of model. But my point is you don't have to be at the extreme or the forefront of breaking down the hierarchies. Even within hierarchical companies, how do you organize to let people do their best work and to appreciate what everybody brings to the party? And so, I'm not a black or white person. It's not good or evil. I like the gray area. How do we begin to allow people to exercise their judgment, to chime in. You know, there are only good ideas that come out of bad ideas, and so how do you brainstorm together, how do you work collaboratively to get to the right answer? When people are told, they don't follow. When people are consulted, they really chime in. And that kind of democracy is what we're trying to get. Not that everyone decides, but that everyone is entitled to a point of view, and those points of view are valued by the organization, and that we open up these ecosystems around companies and we don't silo people and we don't create that internal competition that is very destructive to any enterprise.

Leisa: I know that you have been engaged from the beginning of the whole - I think I said this already - the "Innernet" as I call it. I mean, whatever, you know, interactive age, whatever. I mean, I remember when I first met you years ago, I think you were involved with AOL. But what I would love to hear from you is what's your favorite project you've ever been involved with?

Dana: My favorite project? Hmm, nobody has ever asked me that. I really think that one of the things I like the best is my work with Spring Board. Spring Board is an organization that helps women entrepreneurs get their ideas ready for market. And being a woman in private equity and venture capital, I recognized that very few women were making pitches. And when I started to talk to my friends who were entrepreneurs, they hadn't had the consciousness of going out and raising money. They pieced together their business. They didn't want to be approached by the shark tank. They called it the shark tank. They didn't know how to do that. So, at Spring Board, they call it the dolphin tank. It's a little gentler way. And we really work with tremendous entrepreneurial talent and we help them get ready for market. And some of the companies have grown and scaled, so that's one of my favorite projects, and it's where I'm spending time today. But generally, I think, you know, working and having the privilege of working in venture capital and growing companies from ideas to very big ideas to change the world ideas is probably the most thrilling part of my life.

Leisa: So one last question.

Dana: Sure.

Leisa: Imagine we have a young business woman with us because, granted, we're both women. This is my favorite question to ask anyone. What advice would you give her to achieve the success that you've achieved?

Dana: I think there are a few things, but the best piece of advice is the difficult we do immediately, the impossible takes a little longer. So, be patient, listen, find people that can help you achieve your dreams, and be flexible, and keep learning all the way along the way.

Leisa: Thank you very much for being with me today.

Dana: Thank you. I really enjoyed it. Thank you so much.

Leisa: Thank you. That wraps up my interview with Dr. Dana Ardi. This is the BusinessMaker's Show, brought to you by Comcast Business, built for business.

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