Beth Comstock, Former GE Vice Chair, On ‘Imagining It Forward’

Beth Comstock is the former vice chair of GE and a corporate director of Nike. Her accomplishments include building GE’s Business Innovations and GE Ventures, as well as overseeing the reinvention of GE Lighting. Prior to her role as vice chair, she served as chief marketing officer of the company. And before that, she had another dream job as the president of integrated media at NBC Universal, overseeing the company’s digital efforts, including the early formation of Hulu.

While Beth has built an incredible career, she’s had to make some tough decisions in the process. We’re all lucky enough live vicariously through her, with the opportunity to learn more about her journey and the decisions that led her to career success in her new book out today called Imagine It Forward.

In it, Beth shares her story, documenting the ups and downs of working at GE and NBC during a time of tremendous growth. But, Beth will tell you she also wrote this book to help those out in the middle of their career. It’s for those who want to make change happen, but feel they need permission to do so, whether through others or from themselves.

Want a sneak peek? Read our condensed interview with Beth below, and then download today’s episode of I Want Her Job The Podcast for even more advice, stories and leadership lessons. And of course, scoop up your copy of Imagine It Forward.

One topic discussed in your book is the necessity of tension and conflict. As women, naturally we can sometimes try to avoid these. How did you make yourself comfortable with this, and how can more women get comfortable with this dynamic?

I will admit, I hate conflict. I don’t like tension. I’ve often been called a diplomat. To realize in my career that I had to actually dive into tension and invite critics in was a big awakening for me. You can’t get to any place good unless you’ve worked through the conflicts, and in companies, let’s be honest, people have a hard time getting along often. Why is that? It’s about fear – fear of losing something, fear of change, people fighting over whose idea is better … and you have to work through all those things.

What I’ve learned to do, and one of the things I talk about in the book, is agitated inquiry. I share a time when, frankly, I didn’t have a lot of perspective. I got too absorbed in the conflict, and we weren’t able to make the change I wanted. That’s really the message. If everybody gets along, and the idea seems too good to be true, it probably is. You need to beat it up, interrogate it and invite people in with different perspectives.

I’m reserved, and I consider myself an introvert – in addition to not liking conflict. How I got over this was by making it about the idea and what I thought about the idea. It wasn’t my idea. It wasn’t me. I had to get out of my own head and say, “We see a better way. There is a better way possible.” I needed to get excited about that and not make it about myself, or having to win the day or hear people say, “Beth you’re a genius. Your idea is so great!” If you want the idea to live, you have to wade into conflict and make it not about you.

One of our mindsets at I Want Her Job is: The mission is bigger than you.

I totally believe that. That’s really the way progress happens. You, yourself, have to believe in a mission, but other people have to be part of that too. A mission is hard when it’s just yourself.

You talk a lot in your book about gatekeepers. How do you identify gatekeepers? And, how should people trying to make a change in their company react to them?

I share a story in the book about a classic gatekeeper I worked for early in my career. I call him J.R. He was super smart, but he doled out all the answers and didn’t give the team a lot of room to navigate on our own. We were ambitious. We were early in our career, but we had good ideas. Anytime we’d take an idea to him, he’d give us at least one reason – or usually many – about why it wouldn’t work. So, I summoned my courage and I put this whole report together of all the things we’d like to be doing differently and could be doing better. He totally shut me down. After that, I ended up leaving that job.

What I realized after was that there are always going to be gatekeepers. I went to this new job and there were gatekeepers there. That was a big awakening for me. There will always be gatekeepers in any organization you work for. These are the people who … they want a sense of control. They want to have all the answers. Sometimes you can build a team and you can work for somebody who to you can say, “Let us have a shot.” Then other times, your gatekeeper is never going to change.

In my case I had to, over the course of my career, figure out how to work around these people – realizing they’re in everyone’s organization. Sometimes you also have to say, “This gatekeeper is not going to change. They’re not going to leave their job. I either have to adapt my style, or I have to go somewhere else.”

Gatekeepers are also sometimes in our own head. That’s an important message I try to bring out in the book: “Give yourself permission.” Give yourself permission to fight for a better way, or to say,” There is another way to do it.”

I adopted a mantra for myself. I say, “No is not yet.” It was my way to work around some of these gatekeepers because sometimes people say no because your idea isn’t that good, or maybe you haven’t practiced it enough, or it’s not ready or it’s too early. Sometimes I’ll go back a second, and sometimes a third time with an idea. One time I tried pitching something for 6 years, which is a bit crazy. But, this “No is not yet” mantra helped me get around the gatekeeper.

And look, if by three, four, five, six times you still love this idea and you can’t get it solved, maybe you need a totally different strategy. But often people leave the room when they’re told no the first time and you never hear from them again. That’s what I’m trying to fight against – this gatekeeper in you and the gatekeeper in someone else. How do you work around that?

The gatekeeper is in all of us. We all have alibis of why “we can’t do” something. Usually, it’s a fear or a lack of confidence or a perceived constraint. One of the things I learned early from my career in marketing is that creative briefs with the tightest constraints often give the most creative work. So, when you think it’s “impossible” I bet you that’s when you’ll have a really amazing creative inspiration – if you just focus on it.

Imagine It Forward book cover

When you became chief marketing officer at GE, you did so without a traditional marketing background. What was the approach you took after taking on this job?

What I like is making connections. I think I’ve had to train myself to see patterns and to go deep in discovery as part of that process. That’s something I’m so passionate about. Use your curiosity to learn and discover. I was tapped to be CMO at GE. They hadn’t had the job in 20 years, and I hadn’t had a traditional marketing background. I didn’t go to business school. I’d worked for a media and marketing company and I’d done promotion, but I didn’t have that core training. It was quite intimidating, so I just did what I know how to do, which is to be curious and go out and discover my way forward.

I gave myself 90 to 100 days of discovery. I just started calling up anyone I had met through the network I had developed. Or, sometimes I’d call and say, “Hey I’m a new CMO.” For example, I called up Jim Stengel, who at the time was CMO of Procter & Gamble, a huge company that has been so revered for what they’ve done in marketing. People like Jim were incredibly helpful. I would go there and ask him how he trained his marketers, and he would send me marketing materials.

I also went out and read every major marketing book I could get my hands on. Phil Kotler, at the time, was working out of the Kellogg School. I think I must have read every Phil Kotler book. I looked up the armchair MBA books on what you need to know about marketing, and I just immersed myself and asked questions and tried to bring back that perspective.

I also had to hire experts. I was given that job because, at the time, Jeff Immelt had seen a lot of creativity and strategy in me that he felt we needed. I also had to realize I didn’t come with that toolkit, so I had to hire people right out of business school, or great CMO’s, and say to them, “I know this. I am good at this. I can connect dots. I’m good at building strategy. But, I don’t know marketing capabilities. So, here’s what I’m good at, and here’s what I think you’re good at. We’re going to try to work together as a great team. Part of that learning is also recognizing when you’re new to a role that there is something that brought you there. Don’t just focus on the gaps. Make sure you know what you’re good at, and lean with that strength. For me, a lot of that ended up being storytelling and strategy.

You’ve had to make a lot of tough decisions in your life and your career. Is decisiveness something that comes naturally to you?

No. I’m so indecisive. I’m adaptable and I like to consider all the options. I like to think I’m open-minded, and that sometimes means second-guessing yourself because your gut tells you one thing, and that little voice in your brain tells you no.

I think what I try to do is give myself that space to wallow in the indecisiveness and then say, “I’ve got to make a decision.” I take the pressure off by saying, “I’ve got to make a decision, for now, to just get to the next step.” I can’t make a decision for all of eternity. That’s where I trip up. I overthink things, and I worry about the future. Sometimes that’s when my “imagine it forward” works against me a bit. [She laughs.] Instead ask, when are you going to take a step? What’s one thing you can do to move forward? Otherwise, you get in this loop of overthinking things, and you can’t make a decision.

I believe in listening to my dreams I believe in writing things in journals to see patterns. I’m one of those people who, at night, I’ll write all the reasons why. Then I go to bed, wake up and I say, “Okay, I’m making a decision. Now I’m going to move forward. That’s it.”

Looking back, if you had to identify the patterns that helped lead to your success, what would those be?

It’s passion. When I tap into my passion, I can overcome my fears. We all have them. I still have them. I’m not as confident as I need to be. I talk in the book about a very personal example to me of having to move forward as a divorced, single mother. That had a huge impact on me in a lot of ways and on my daughter. I think it’s like staring into those fears, and realizing that once you’ve made a decision, it’s time to go forward. You have to have that mission and that passion that there’s a reason you’re doing it. Anytime I feel doubt or go, “This is so hard,” I return to that. “Why am I in this? What problem are we solving? What’s the mission?” That’s been the key for me. And then work really hard to make it happen.

What are some trends that you think everyone will be talking about in 10 years?

One trend people are talking about near-future is a return to analog. I think we’re overwhelmed with so much digital. We’ve seen the value of connectivity, but I see more and more instances where people are intentionally choosing analog experiences. It’s beyond the one-off detox camp. I think you’re going to see businesses created around that and people embracing that part of it.

Perhaps because I’m on the other side of it – I left GE in December – but I am really trying to be much more fluid in my professional life. I’m seeing so many more people who define themselves professionally in multiple ways. I’m a writer. I’m a consultant. I’m an adviser. I’m an entrepreneur. I’m a doctor. I’m a DJ. I’m a mom. I think more of us want the opportunity to express that in a professional way. We’re gravitating toward companies that are giving those opportunities, and if they don’t, we’re going to go create those on the side … Professional fluidity is something we have to think about in the future of how we work … How do you craft a more well-rounded professional life that helps you do what you want to do? It all starts with this: What is your story, and what do you want it to be? There’s tension in those two things, but that is part of the journey.

After Hours graphic

I’d love to grab coffee with:

I can’t overthink this! I’d love to grab coffee with Georgia O’Keefe.

My favorite saying is:

“Without a customer, there is no business.” -Peter Drucker It’s from the 1950’s, but it’s timeless. It’s driven me throughout my whole business career.

I can’t live without:

I can’t live without people. This is odd as an introvert, but I can’t live without connecting with people. It’s where I get energy and learn. I’m better because of that.

My favorite way to unwind is:

To be in nature. I love hiking.

I feel my best when:

I feel my best when I am with a team and we are in the zone of building ideas, we’re collaborating, we’re laughing, we’re yelling, we’re just in this state of just pure bliss together.

Want to know more? Listen to our interview with Beth Comstock in its entirety on I Want Her Job The Podcast. It’s 45 minutes of major inspiration.

It all starts with this: What is your story, and what do you want it to be? There’s tension in those two things, but that is part of the journey.