I recently had the pleasure of interviewing Elizabeth Briody, founder and principal of Cultural Keys, on my podcast Anthropology in Business. Elizabeth is a true pioneer in the field of business anthropology, with an impressive career including 24 years at General Motors and numerous influential books to her name. Our wide-ranging discussion covered her journey into anthropology, her groundbreaking work studying organizational culture, the challenges of being an anthropologist in a corporate setting, and her latest passion project – the Career Readiness Commission.

Here are some of the key insights and stories Elizabeth shared.

Applying Anthropology to Organizational Culture

One of the most critical aspects of Elizabeth’s career has been her ability to apply anthropological methods to study work and organizational culture across very different settings. As she explained:

“I don’t really see much difference between studying designers and engineers in comparison with Catholic sisters and farm workers.”

Whether it was janitors, nuns, farm workers, or engineers, Elizabeth found common themes around the centrality of work to people’s lives and identities:

“Work is something that is part of most people’s lives. It’s critically important and central to their identity.”

Being an “Organizational Doctor” at General Motors

Elizabeth shared fascinating stories of her time as the first anthropologist at GM. She saw her role as that of an “organizational doctor,” diagnosing cultural issues and providing recommendations to improve organizational effectiveness.

This included uncovering eye-opening insights such as:

“When you find evidence that people are hoarding parts, that they’re blaming each other, that there’s this massive trading network on the plant floor to make sure you have the parts you need…all of that was just brand new information for senior leadership in the company.”

When uncovering such behaviors, Elizabeth emphasized the importance of maintaining objectivity and letting the data speak for itself, even when the findings made some clients uncomfortable. Her detailed research reports aimed to uncover both the positives and negatives of work culture at GM.

Selling Anthropology as an Entrepreneur

After her long tenure at GM, Elizabeth made the leap into independent consulting as the founder of Cultural Keys. She reflected on the challenges of educating potential clients on the value anthropological methods can bring to their organizations.

“Each client is different. Most are unfamiliar with what an anthropologist does, and so there’s a great deal of educating that you have to do through conversation with the client.”

She went on to say:

“You are working for that client. And so what that client wants, I try to give through the tools and methods that I have available to me.”

Based on her perspective, key aspects of succeeding as an anthropological entrepreneur include:

  • Translating anthropological concepts into terms clients understand
  • Tailoring research methods to the client’s needs, timeline and budget
  • Delivering actionable insights and recommendations through engaging presentations

Preparing the Next Generation: The Career Readiness Commission

Troubled by the lack of preparation anthropology students receive for non-academic careers, Elizabeth recently launched an initiative called the Career Readiness Commission. Her goal is to help anthropologists successfully apply their skills in diverse work settings.

“We need to do a much better job in preparing future graduates at whatever level to enter the workplace and enter into organizations.”

The commission aims to provide critical resources and guidance in areas like:

  • Articulating the value of anthropological skills to employers
  • Gaining practical experience through real-world projects
  • Accessing a repository of career-related articles, podcasts, workshops and more

“Everything is really focused on helping students and early career professionals be able to explain the value of anthropology, broadly speaking, to others so that you can get a job and keep a job.”

One innovative example Elizabeth shared was Rollins College having anthropology students do mock job interviews where they have to make the case for being hired based on their anthropological training. This forces students to reflect on the key skills they’ve gained.

The Promising Future of Anthropology in Business

Elizabeth concluded with an optimistic vision for the impact anthropology can make across industries in the coming years:

“I think that because there’s such a large body of practitioners out there now…anthropology can have a much more sustained impact in industry, in non-profits, in government, and of course in academia, going forward.”

I’m grateful to Elizabeth for coming on the podcast and sharing her pioneering work and perspective. Be sure to check out the full episode for even more insights. You can learn more about Elizabeth’s work at culturalkeys.us.

And stay tuned for updates from the Career Readiness Commission at their website anthrocareerready.net. It’s an exciting initiative to empower the next wave of anthropologists in business!