Colliding with the Unexpected with Gillian Tett

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So, Gillian, opening question – how did you go from studying wedding rituals and ethnic conflict in Tajikistan to being US managing director of the Financial Times?

Well, it’s certainly not an obvious career path and it’s certainly not something that I would ever have recommended or imagined could happen but essentially what occurred was that back in 1991, I was finishing off my Ph.D. while I’d been studying in Tajikistan and I went back to the Financial Times to do an internship for the summer, and while I was actually being an intern on the foreign desk, the Soviet Union started to break up and I turned out to be the only person who spoke Russian. So, I went from making the tea to writing pieces and then got sent out as a cub reporter to the former Soviet Union and basically, one thing led to another. And certainly when I joined the FT initially I was thinking, ‘Well, I’ll do economics and finance for a very short period of time,’ and then go on to something which I considered to be more important back then which was to write about foreign policy and small wars and things like that, but after spending a bit of time at the FT I realized that actually if you don’t understand how money works and how finance works you don’t really understand how the power structures in the world work. So, I’ve dedicated my life to trying to bring together my cultural perspective with an understanding of how finance and money works.

I’ll call it out, the PhD was in anthropology which we’ll come back to in a minute, but the first book in 2009 which you wrote, Fool’s Gold, it kicks off with this wonderful description of you at a banking conference in Nice in 2004 where you say you were kind of initially baffled by everything that you were hearing, and seeing, and observing, and then you were sort of overcome by déjà vu from your fieldwork. So, maybe you can just say for people who perhaps don’t know what anthropology is, what was actually going on in your mind? What was the déjà vu about?

Well, most people think that anthropology is about Indiana Jones-style adventurers who go off and look at cannibals or remote tribes in the jungle, or they think it’s about bones and exotic rituals or the kind of thing you see on the Discovery Channel, and in some ways that’s quite understandable because in fact the roots of anthropology as a discipline come from the Greek ‘anthropos’. It means to study mankind, the human condition, and originally Victorian academics did indeed tend to go off to jungles and exotic places, and even now in the last five decades or so many anthropologists have focused in the emerging markets or in seemingly far-flung areas, but what’s happened recently is that anthropologists have realized that their insights are not just valuable in the Amazon jungle but looking at the modern economy, even a company like Amazon, and increasingly the way that anthropologists define themselves is as academics who look at the human condition by trying to understand complete cultural and social systems. Effectively what they do is they look at the world bottom up. They study how people actually behave and the gap between what they say and what they do. Anthropologists try to look at all parts of society holistically not just individual elements, but above all else anthropologists try to think themselves into the mind of other people, imagining how alien they might be, not simply because doing that enables you to understand a different culture which is of obviously very valuable for tolerance and things like that but also because the sheer act of putting yourself into the mind of another enables you to look back at yourself with a fresh pair of eyes and new vision. So, the same kind of skills I used for my Ph.D. in Tajikistan looking at wedding rituals are just as applicable looking at say banking conferences or modern corporations. 

And the specific event in Nice, I think you said that the language that people were using, the artifacts, the materials, the sort of the cliques that were developing in the conference, you could read across directly to your anthropological fieldwork essentially?

What hit me between the eyes when I went into the banking conference in Nice is that it felt in some ways terribly familiar to the type of big, ritualistic weddings I used to go to in Tajikistan, and if you think about the core functions of investment banking conferences and weddings they’re quite similar in some ways. I mean, weddings basically pull together a scattered network, a family, a tribe, and there are a series of rituals which essentially restate the core values and social ties which bind that community together. Weddings reproduce societies both in a physical sense that they tend to lead to babies but also in a cultural and a symbolic sense in that you restate what your core values and your mental map of the world is through rituals, and in some ways, banking conferences do exactly the same thing. They pull together a scattered tribe, they have a series of rituals that force people to not just restate their loyalty to each other and their core shared identity but also their shared worldviews and they do that both through overt rituals like PowerPoints, or speeches, or conference agendas and things like that where the scattered tribe literally says, ‘This is what we care about,’ be that securitization or anything like that, but also through all the informal rituals that are just as important, and it’s all that sort of hovering around the bar together and talking, and one of the things you learn as an anthropologist which is incredibly powerful for any executive is that it’s not just what people talk about which matters, it’s what they don’t talk about. It’s what people call the social silences. So, the social silences that observed at the banking conference in Nice back in 2005 were actually just as important as the PowerPoints.

Interesting, and when you say social silence, is that the same as this concept – I was going to come to it but at seeing as you raised it – is that the same as the concept of the ‘non-dancers’?

Well, I referred to the non-dancers in a later book I wrote drawing on the works of a French intellectual called Pierre Bourdieu who was incredibly influential in my own thinking and I think is one of the most brilliant intellectuals that’s barely known outside the French speaking world but ought to be better known, and Bourdieu was a person who argued that it’s not just what people talk about in public or what’s deemed to be inside the area of accepted dialogue that matters, it’s the social silences, the blank spaces on the map that really matter, and early on in his career he went to a dance in rural France and was doing an anthropological analysis of that, and he noticed that the people who were really important were not just the people who were dancing in the middle of the village hall where all the attention was focused but the people who weren’t dancing, the people around the edge who were invisible because they weren’t dancing and yet actually their role within the bigger structure was very, very important, and as anyone knows inside any big company, any big market, any big institution or any big corporate function, all the attention gets focused on the part of the gathering that’s in the light but it’s the bits in the shadows, the bits that people like to ignore which are often really, really important.

Yeah, and we’ll come back to that book, the second book in a minute, Gillian, but one of the things that when we first spoke you said to me which really resonated because I, like you, have got a degree in anthropology, is that you’re doomed to be an outsider if you study anthropology. And you’ve been with the FT for many years and you do as you say attend lots of events. Tell me, do you still, when you go to a banker’s convention or when you go to Davos or whatever it is, are you able to continue to have that outsider perspective or have you gone a little bit native over the years?

That’s a very good question because a great anthropologist is someone who is an ‘insider-outsider’. You’re basically sufficiently embedded in a culture to understand many of the core rituals and above all else empathize with that point of view but you’re also an outsider in that you’re not of that culture and you can step back periodically and put it in a wider context, and in its best iteration anthropology is a bit like having a telescope in, telescope out. You empathize and then you step out, you empathize and you step out. In many ways, that’s what a good journalist should be doing as well. It’s fantastically hard and the reality is that one tends to either end up being too much of an outsider and not understanding what’s going on or too deeply embedded in the culture and essentially going native, and there’s been times in my life when I’ve had to realize that I was going native and had to step back and vice versa. So, it’s like the human condition. You have good days when you improve, you have bad days when you slip up. You have to try and keep a constant check on yourself to maintain that insider-outsider perspective.

Yeah. So, anthropologists are used in lots of companies like the likes of Intel, I think Tom Kelly the founder of Ideo puts a lot of the success of the company down to using anthropologists. What else can or do anthropologists bring to companies?

Well, anthropology was used by companies in the 30s and 40s a bit and then it fell very much out of favor in the middle of the twentieth-century partly because anthropologists themselves went on a very progressive track and didn’t want to work for commerce but also because many companies were suspicious of them, but one of the fascinating things in the last couple of decades has been that anthropologists have increasingly been courted by businesses and by consultancies and that’s really down to three key things. Firstly, that as the world has become come dramatically more global and companies have become more globalized and globally integrated, companies have realized increasingly that they need to look at their consumers in different ways and they can’t just assume that everyone around the world is going to behave as a twenty-five-year-old product designer in Silicon Valley, I presume, and that you have to look at consumers and get inside their minds and understand them. Secondly, as companies have become more global they’ve realized that actually their own employees are increasingly coming from diverse cultures and they need to think about the structure of their company, and how they interact, and how they communicate, and then again that requires an ability to be an insider-outsider and step out of yourself, and think about these structures in your company and the way that they can sometimes be very, very perverse. And the third point which fascinates me in particular right now is that technology has upended not just the way that many businesses work through incredible disruption but it’s also upended the way that we communicate and live as human beings, and what is fascinating and incredibly ironic is that most people think that the digital revolution has made social silences less important in some ways because computers are computers, and it’s all about numbers, and numbers and digits don’t appear to have any cultural affiliation. You know, a zero is a zero anywhere in the world, but in reality the more that digital technology upends our life and upends the corporate world, the more we need to think about culture because human beings input data into computers, they design the computers, they shape how they will be programmed and classify information, and then interpret what those computers say and human interaction is being changed in subtle ways by computers all the time. So, strangely enough at the very moment that social silences would seem to be being displaced by computers many tech companies themselves are scrambling to hire anthropologists to provide a social and cultural analysis to what they’re doing both in terms of how they design computing systems, IT systems, but also how they organize their employees and perhaps most importantly how those digital technologies interact with consumers. 

Interesting, and in the second book, The Silo Effect, you refer to a tech company and how they actually embrace or overcome some of the boundaries but before we get to that maybe we can just talk a little bit about where the idea for this book came from, The Silo Effect, because it is all about silos essentially and boundaries within organizations?

Yeah. My first book was about the Japanese financial crisis. The second book was about the American financial crisis told through the story of a group of JP Morgan bankers who helped to develop the derivatives product, and while I was writing about the JP Morgan story and the derivatives story what really struck me very forcibly was that one of the biggest problems in finance no one was talking about was fragmentation, the fact that the investment banks were so fragmented internally that the right hand couldn’t see what the left hand was doing and the regulators were so fragmented that often one branch of regulators wouldn’t know what the other branch was doing, and they missed a lot of problems as a result, and so I started thinking about this in the context of finance and then it hit me that actually it wasn’t just a finance problem, it was right across the modern corporate world and right across the public policy sphere as well, and it seemed to me like this terrible crushing irony in that we think that because we have these powerful digital technologies like the internet and smartphones that we are becoming more hyperconnected as a system around the world and that somehow we are all talking to each other. We can see all the information we want, we can act as an integrated unit around the world, we think we’re hyperconnected and yet the reality is that the great financial crisis showed that we are actually as fragmented as ever, in some ways if not more fragmented, and that’s not merely concealed by visual technologies. In some ways, digital technology is making us more silo prone than before.

And one example which is very powerful was the Sony example. I think the chapter around how silos crush innovation and here I think it started with November 1999, Sony had everything going for it in terms of this memory stick Walkman which nonetheless crashed and burned and they missed completely, I suppose, it was the iPod back then I guess, and also this word ‘silo’ I think was translated for the CEO as an octopus pot, I think. Am I right in saying that?

Yeah, I mean in Japanese the word ‘silo’ is actually “Takopotto” which literally means ‘octopus pot’ and that’s because in Japan octopus pots were pots used to catch octopi. These long thin pots that the octopus crawls into and then can’t crawl out of afterward. It’s a lovely image. I think it’s much more interesting than grain silos. 

And what went wrong with Sony? How did that fit into the narrative of The Silo Effect? 

Well, Sony illustrates a core point that besets many corporations not just in Japan but around the world which is that they can become victims of their own success in the sense that what happens is typically, if you have a company with different departments and one department stumbles on an incredibly successful product or idea, they will grow rapidly, they’ll enjoy the fruits of that success, and they will then have an incentive to entrench themselves in that powerful position. Sometimes that’s done by companies creating systems for different departments or sometimes that particular successful department will just hog all the political positions or grab all the resources, or take leadership of the company, but as soon as you get a successful department that wants to entrench itself and defend its success, you start to create the danger of silos. And what happened in Sony was that the Sony Walkman had been a fantastically successful product that had not just made a lot of money for Sony but defined its brand, and when the world began to move from analog to digital everyone inside Sony kind of knew that there was going to have to be a digital version of the Sony Walkman and everyone outside Sony assumed that Sony would be brilliantly placed to create it because it was the only company at the time which had both software and hardware i.e. it had the biocomputing label, and it had all these brilliant consumer electronic designers with things like the Sony Walkman, and it had a great brand, and it had a music label as well. You couldn’t imagine a better combination, but it failed to do that because all those components were sitting in different silos and there was a kind of tribal warfare inside the company and they wouldn’t work together to create a single digital Sony Walkman. They created competing products and they failed.

Yeah, and with pretty dramatic results. There are also in the book some other examples of silos some of which from financial services i.e. either from I think UBS or from The Bank of England but there are some positive stories in there as well about companies actively managing silos, and maybe we can touch on Facebook now because I guess the story has evolved since you wrote that chapter but there you’re talking about how they use technology and how they actively tried to make sure that silos didn’t start evolving and slowing down the growth of the business.

Well, Facebook’s very interesting because when they were going through their headlong growth period they were very conscious of looking at companies like Sony and trying to not be like Sony in the sense that they were very concerned that they would become ridden with silos, and there’s a long history of companies in Silicon Valley that start off small and entrepreneurial, and then start growing and then suddenly turn into these silo-laden behemoths. Aside from Sony, Microsoft’s had problems with silos. Sun Microsystems was an absolute classic. Xerox is another one. So, what Facebook did was to introduce a whole series of experiments internally to try and make sure that inside the company people remained fairly cohesive as an entire unit and had a sense of the entire company’s interest, not just individual departments, and in many ways Facebook has been extraordinarily successful at creating a pretty cohesive employee group where ideas really are shared across the company and where people really do tend to work together as a whole rather than just scrambling after one tiny department. The terrible rub though is that, as I wrote in my chapter at the very end, although Sony’s done a fantastic job of breaking down silos inside Sony, there was always a danger that it would end up turning into a giant silo of its own and fail to understand or empathize with the outside world and how the rest of the world saw it, and that is exactly what happened. I finished my book four or five years ago and made a point about Sony becoming a silo of its own, sorry, made a point about Facebook becoming a silo of its own. Events have played out in that way to an incredible degree.

Yeah, and for the listeners at this point, Gillian, thinking, ‘Okay, well, yeah, there are silos alive and well in my organization,’ what are some of the things that they can do to overcome these silos? If someone’s sitting in an organization as the head of a department or a division, or even a CEO, what are some of the best practices or tactics that leaders can take to overcome these silos?

Well, in my book, The Silo Effect, I actually lay out a number of ideas that leaders and managers can do and they include things like the obvious point of trying to make sure that people can rotate from time to time, that the walls of the different departments are porous in the sense that people talk to each other and actually share ideas. So, you can do that through offsites, you can do that through staff rotations, you can do that through judicious swapping of roles from time to time. I mean, some of the Silicon Valley companies do that through various forms of hackathons where they get people together and force them to work with someone outside their group. You can also do it to another way which is to make sure that when people join the company they go through a common training onboarding experience and then are encouraged to maintain those links even if they end up in different departments, so they have a second point of contact with other employees beyond just their own department. Those are all very helpful. You can use company-wide platforms for discussion. The Facebook platform is quite a good way to encourage that and ensure that communications go horizontally and not just vertically. You can think a lot about architecture. That can be very helpful.

Physical architecture you mean?

Physical architecture. Yeah, it’s not just about having an open plan office that can help, it’s about making sure that people are channeled into known points to bump into each other regularly. Cleveland Clinic, which is another example in my book, is a big hospital where entirely by accident they realized that they had these covered walkways in different buildings which were created because the weather in Ohio is dreadful in winter, and they hadn’t paid any attention to them until they suddenly realized that because everyone was funneled through these narrow walkways several times a day moving around the hospital they were all bumping into each other the whole time by accident, and creating an ability to collide with other people and hang out is the most powerful thing you can do, but all of that as a manager or CEO revolves around another key point which is you have to create slack in the system, a tiny bit of slack that gives people the ability to actually step out of themselves and question the silos and the structure they’re inhabiting because one of the most pernicious problems of the day is that people are so busy and companies are under so much pressure to be efficient all the time often for financial reasons that they tend to get more stuck into silos simply by default, and breaking down silos requires a bit of slack and ability to reimagine the world periodically, and to be free to go out and collide and roam, and to collide with the unexpected.

Yeah, and recently you published a piece on Jamie Dimon’s bus tour which kind of got quite a lot of coverage, positive and negative, where he was trying to get out of his bubble with senior leaders and go and visit with customers and employees, and in that article, you referred to it being very hard to see the world through other people’s eyes. Why is it so hard for leaders to do that do you think?

Well, I think part of it is that to become a leader in today’s corporate structure you have to be pretty maniacal in your focus. You often have to be pretty focused on one particular skill or specialty for large parts of your career and essentially have a very strong sense of self, and that doesn’t necessarily make you keen to try and put yourself into the mind of others. The other issue is simply time. I mean, having the ability to roam and try and be an anthropologist or collide with the unexpected requires time, and having the wisdom and ability to guard slack both in your own life and in the life of a company is incredibly hard in today’s world. I know because I often fail to do it myself, but without slack, without a little bit of slack, we lose creativity and we lose the ability to both be innovative and think up new ideas and to stop and to see risks.

And the Dimon example, is that a real outlier or are you seeing more and more execs recognizing this and actually taking action because of the kind of the cocoons, and the silos, and the bubbles that I guess are being reinforced by social media? Is it a one-off? Is he an outlier?

Well, I think that after I wrote the piece about Jamie Dimon I got a lot of e-mails from people saying, ‘Oh well, in fact, Dimon isn’t doing that well. X, Y, and Z executive is doing much better and they have much better ways of doing it,’ and that’s fantastic. I think this needs to happen at all levels, all companies. I do think right now that there actually is a sense among some executives about the need to get out and talk and listen, and that’s being sparked partly because of the shock around the rise of Donald Trump and rising populism. It’s also because in an age of social media the power structures have sometimes been inverted because where you have angry people wanting to express a grievance against a powerful person, whereas in the past it was very hard to do that effectively, movements like the #metoo have shown that actually when you have cyber flash mobs, when you have ideas that suddenly coalesce into movements, powerful leaders cannot just be caught out, they can be upended, and so I think there is a growing recognition in the c-suite about the need to actually get out and listen to people but it’s one thing to recognize it, it’s another thing to carve out the time to do it and we all know that’s pretty tough. 

Yeah, absolutely. Now, just coming back to the comment around social silence which you referred to earlier on. Anthropologists are often very good at looking at sort of taboo topics and picking up on the social silence. What are some of these topics or where is the silence that you’re seeing, I suppose, in the world in your area of focus today? What are the things that are making you wonder or worry based on identifying these social silences if you like?

Well, back in 2005 what struck me about finance back then was that the big social silence was what people weren’t talking about in the media in relation to finance which was frankly the issue of derivatives and credit. Everyone was writing about debt, everyone was writing about equity markets and a bit about currency markets. They were kind of ignoring the debt and credit world which is one reason I became so fascinated by that. In today’s world, there are a number of very similar social silences. I would point to, in the financial sphere, things like the worlds slow burn, rolling pensions crisis that almost nobody talks about. Some of the complexity inside the ETF sector is another risk. More widely I am constantly worried about the whole antibiotic resistant issue which gets very little coverage in the mainstream media. There are a number of areas of scientific issues which are complex, and geeky, and dull, and because they’re complex, and geeky, and dull they tend to get ignored which we absolutely could and should be writing up more about.

So, Gillian, just beginning to wrap up, I was biking yesterday with a mutual friend and we were talking about the Danske Bank issues and I was asking him how many Wall Street CEOs have been prosecuted, and we were having the conversation…you know, I think in Roman times an architect would stand underneath the arch as the keystone was put in to make sure they did a decent job and today a naval commander of a ship, if it runs aground irrespective of their role, it’s a court-martial, so there’s a very strong sense of accountability in certain cultures or parts of society but it doesn’t seem to be easy for us to do it on Wall Street. I just wondered, why is it so hard? What is it from an anthropological perspective that makes it so hard to have this kind of sense of accountability?

Well, I think that in some ways the problem is that you don’t have very effective governance structures. It’s worth bearing in mind that when Adam Smith developed his concept of the hidden hand in markets he was operating in a sphere where essentially the only type of economic institutions were family owned firms where you had a natural ellision of interest between the owners and managers because they were kind of the same people, they were families. And what’s happened now several centuries later is that Wall Street and the City of London operate under the flag of Adam Smith but many of his core concepts are essentially observed more in the breach than the reality, and the modern public company in the form of a big bank does not have a situation where the owners i.e. the shareholders really understand what the managers i.e. the bankers are actually doing, and the managers have been able to escape with a degree of impunity when things have gone wrong, and I’m not in the camp of people who say, ‘Well, actually the financial crisis should have led to half of the Wall Street bankers being tossed into prison,’ because there has to be illegal behavior, and one of the things you need to understand about the financial innovation that happened in the run up to 2008 was that much of that innovation was designed to arbitrage the law. They were going to the edge of what was legal and dancing around it, not actively breaking the law, and I think that in many cases that you can say that what happened on Wall Street was unethical but not necessarily illegal and you can’t put people into prison most of the time just for lack of ethics. But having said that, thinking a bit more about the original concept that drove Adam Smith today would lead you to a situation where you had more risks showing patterns afoot in financial institutions if they’re taking big risks. So, I’m in the camp of people who say it’s a tremendous pity that Goldman Sachs ended its partnership culture. Frankly, there should be many more financial institutions today that run on partnership, shared risk-taking approaches where people had skin in the game because like your architect underneath the Roman bridge, having skin in the game is the most effective way to get proper common sense and a sense of caution. You can’t rely on shareholders to do that and you can’t rely on the wider market to do that because there simply isn’t enough transparency.

Yeah, absolutely. So, you’re working on a new book, Gillian. It would be fascinating to hear what’s the topic of that? And I guess I’ll ask the second question, and I’m interviewing one of the world’s greatest interviewers so forgive me for being a bit clumsy here because I’m mindful of that fact, but your anthropology seems to be coming forward a little bit more. Maybe that’s not the case but I’m just curious about what the new book is and where does anthropology fit into that?

Well, I often say that I was in the closet as an anthropologist for many years because after I did my Ph.D. in Anthropology I joined the Financial Times, spent the first 10 to 15 years of my life building a career in finance and economic reporting where most of the people I met and interviewed were economists, and they tended to presume that the only degrees that counted were economics, or MBAs, or PhDs in astrophysics, and I felt a bit embarrassed about being an anthropologist because it looked a bit hippie and irrelevant but the 2008 crisis showed us that culture matters. Even somebody like Alan Greenspan, the former Federal Reserve chairman who was absolutely wedded to models, he, after the crisis, came to me and said, ‘Give me a book on anthropology. I want to understand culture, and psychology, and the human mind.’

And what did you give him just out of interest?

I gave him various basic primers and told him to read about Bourdieu because that’s one of my passions. So, the financial crisis of 2008 showed us that the cultures inside banking systems and markets matter enormously. I would argue that the rise of populism has shown us that the wider political and cultural context of national economies matter enormously because if you’re running a portfolio as a hedge fund or you’re running a bank these days, you can’t afford to ignore the wider cultural context of not just the emerging markets but developed markets too, and looking further ahead I would argue that the next thing that’s going to make the importance of culture very relevant is the growing power of technology and the digital economy because it’s becoming increasingly clear that you need to have a cultural awareness to make sense of what the digital economy is doing to us but you also need to have a cultural awareness to use digital tools most effectively.

And is that the topic of your upcoming book?

Yeah. My next book is tentatively titled, ‘Cannibals and Capitalism’, and it really looks at how anthropology can give you an edge not just in finance which I’ve written about before but in looking at the political economy and the technology world too.

Wonderful. Yeah, I think you mentioned you regularly meet with anthropologists and have them around for dinner at your place in New York, and I’m curious, are there some themes in the conversation? What are the other certain topics that a number of people are looking at? Is it as you referred to this sort of technology piece? 

Well, I’m actually doing this this month with anthropologists, and digital players, and business anthropologists, and when anthropologists get around the table the first theme often is to complain about the fact that no one listens to them and that’s frankly partly the fault of academic anthropology because the qualities you need to become a brilliant anthropologist, which is the ability to essentially sit quietly, and patiently, and humbly, and observe others, to hide in the bushes if you like, those make for very attractive human beings often. Anthropologists are often, as a result of sitting quietly and observing others and analyzing things, very cynical about the financial system and money. We need to be quite cynical about power structures and again that makes for quite nice human beings. The problem is that people who are humble observers and don’t like dealing with power structures and money are not people who are good at lobbying for their academic discipline or their ideas in the modern ecosystem, and there aren’t many anthropologists frankly who want to grab the microphone and go center stage and dance with the nasty reality of capitalist power. Some of them think I’ve sold out by doing what I’m doing, and I wouldn’t call myself an anthropologist these days, I’m more just someone who is trying to weave some of those ideas into my work, and so anthropologists spend a lot of time complaining no one talks to them. We are increasingly, and I say we, I’m talking to a number of anthropologists right now about ways of trying to get the ideas more into the mainstream. There are some fantastic podcasts and things coming out now from the anthropology community, and then after that we start talking about all the ways that actually companies are increasingly turning to anthropologists for advice and insights, everything from Netflix through to Ford through to Nike, you name it, and then we talk about ways to get the ideas more widely recognized particularly in the modern digital economy.

Fascinating. I mean, I couldn’t agree with you more. Anthropology up against Type A, high levels of achievement and drive execs, they don’t stand a chance in the current model, but as you say there’s so much richness, and relevance, and insight that they can bring to the table if they can make themselves heard, I guess?

Absolutely, and the question really is how to make yourself heard without selling out the core values that make anthropology so attractive and valuable, and you know, I wouldn’t pretend I’ve had all the answers at all. Working as a journalist you make a lot of compromises, that’s just the nature of the beast, but my lifelong passion is trying to find a way to act as the bridge between the academic community and the mainstream world, and to convince people of the power of that simple precept at the heart of anthropology which is that if you try very hard to understand someone else’s mindset, to walk in the shoes of another, you don’t just understand how another culture operates, or how another consumer base or company, or another world, but you can then use those insights to look back yourself and understand yourself better for both better and worse.

Yeah. Wonderful. Gillian, need to wrap this up because I know time is tight. So, the three questions which I sent through to you which we discussed earlier on. For the first one, what have you changed your mind about recently?

I have been forced to recognize that I did not really understand how a large part of the English voting base felt about the European Union. Someone like me who is very much a global citizen presumed that the European Union membership was automatically a good thing. Brexit was a brutal slap in the face for me, a total shock, and a lesson in, frankly, my own arrogance.

Yeah, this will probably have gone out before the end of it. Is it March 30th is the date, right? 

Yeah. Next spring.

Yeah. Next spring. Second question, where do you go to get fresh perspectives to stay innovative and creative?

Well, I try very hard to create some slack in my own life to collide with the unexpected and I most often fail, but I try and put myself into unexpected places and accept unexpected invitations to different places, and just try and listen, and just try and listen, listen, listen, and I’ll say I’d be lying if I said I managed to do it as much as I wanted to, but just trying to collide with the unexpected is what I try and do, and learn new things, and I can guarantee that nine times out of ten it’s that invitation to lunch with something that I kind of think on the day, ‘Oh god, why on Earth have I agreed to do that?’ or an invitation to go and speak somewhere unexpectedly I think, ‘God, what am I doing?’ but often it’s the events that I think are going to be most boring or most useless that suddenly turn out to yield a nugget.

Isn’t that interesting. And is the converse true as well or not?

Quite often, yeah. Plowing in a field that’s well-furrowed is often not particularly valuable.

And the final question, Gillian, what’s been your most significant low, what have you learned from it and how have you applied that learning?

I’ve had many lows in my careers. Anyone who thinks that careers go in a single, upward arc is wrong. I think probably one of my most valuable lows was being rejected for four jobs inside the Financial Times that I wanted back in the early part of the last decade, in quick succession, and then stumbling into the capital markets role almost by accident, and I initially thought, ‘Oh, goodness me. What am I going to do with this?’ and I was pregnant at the time and I thought, ‘Hey, I’m probably on the mummy track,’ but actually it turned out to be the best thing that’s ever happened to me. And sometimes going into an area that seemed like a backwater, that’s not very exciting, sometimes being turned down for a job you really wanted and being forced to take another one, sometimes, just sometimes, that can turn out to be the best thing possible because it means you end up in a place with no expectations, and a lot of freedom to experiment, and the chance to actually once again collide with the unexpected and show people that there’s another way to approach life. 

Yeah. Lovely, lovely. Where can people get in touch with you or where can people sort of follow your work?

Well, they can subscribe to the Financial Times. Of course, I would say that because anyone who buys the FT is paying my salary, so thank you. I tweet under my handle @gilliantett. There are books I’ve written and things. I put my email address at the bottom of my columns on the FT and I do my best to try and deal with that myself and answer that myself. I don’t always manage to do that, but I try to if nothing else because that’s another way of colliding with the unexpected.

Absolutely, and we’ll put all of those in the show notes along with this transcript but, Gillian, it’s been a real pleasure having you on the show. I’ve been very, very keen for a long time to the record this conversation and many thanks for your time today, and looking forward to the new book coming out. Is there a date planned or is it still too early for that?

It much depends on what happens to Donald Trump and whether he continues to dominate news flow, and if anyone could predict that they probably are a gazillionaire.

But 2019 or 2020?

Probably 2020, alas.

Okay, super. Well, very much looking forward to that, and thanks very much for your time and have a great rest of the week.

Thank you.

Thanks a lot. Bye. 


In this episode, we are joined by author and journalist, Gillian Tett, to discuss the role anthropology plays in today’s business world. Gillian is the author of the award-winning book, Fool’s Gold, which analyses the origin of the 2008 financial crisis, and more recently, The Silo Effect, and is currently a columnist and US Managing Editor of The Financial Times.

What Was Covered

  • Why more and more companies today are turning to anthropologists for insight into employee and consumer culture.
  • What executives can do to prevent silos from developing within their organizations.
  • How anthropology and cultural awareness can help us to understand and predict the future of the digital and technology economy.

Key Takeaways and Learnings

  • Social silences: why we should pay more attention to what we’re not talking about.
  • Insider-outsider perspective: how empathizing and contextualizing can help executives to analyze their own company cultures and structures.
  • Slack: why the freedom to collide with the unexpected can lead to innovation.

Links and Resources Mentioned in this Episode

Mark Bidwell

Mark Bidwell

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