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Beth Comstock on Courage, Creativity, and the Power of Change

Beth Comstock is former Chief Marketing Officer and Vice Chair of General Electric and is the author of Imagine It Forward: Courage, Creativity and the Power of Change.

For the opening episode of Season 2 we are fortunate to have an international powerhouse in the world of marketing. Beth Comstock spent 25 years at GE where she led efforts to accelerate new growth and was named GE’s first Chief Marketing Officer in 2003. Beth served as President of Integrated Media at NBC Universal, from 2006-08, overseeing ad revenue and the company’s digital efforts, including the early formation of Hulu. She is a corporate director of Nike and has been named to both the Fortune and Forbes lists of the World’s Most Powerful women.

We discussed Beth’s new book, Imagine It Forward. We covered many aspects of innovation – how entrepreneurs approach it, how entrepreneurial people within a corporation can innovate and disrupt, and how the corporation can encourage and support them. We explored the personal and professional price that disruptors might pay as organisations resist change. Beth gave practical tips for introverts like herself – introverts who wish to lead, as well as tips for managers of introverts. We touched on the problems that have rocked GE and talked about gatekeepers versus goalkeepers and how they can shape your job choices.

My favorite quote was: “You cannot mitigate risk, you have to navigate it.”

Beth recommended three books: The Creative Habit by Twyla Tharp, Management Principles by Peter Drucker and The Art of Gathering by Priya Parker.

If you would like to follow Beth on social media you can find her on LinkedInInstagram, Twitter, and Facebook @bethcomstock. Her book, Imagine It Forward, is available in stores and online.

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Read the Transcript

Note: While When Women Win is produced as an audio recording, we are delighted to produce transcripts for those who are unable to hear. Kindly note that these are generated using a combination of speech recognition software and human transcribers, and may contain errors. Media is encouraged to check the corresponding audio before quoting in print.

Rana Nawas: (00:00)
Welcome to season two of When Women Win. I’m thrilled to be back on the air. My guest on today’s show, the opening episode of season two, is a titan in the corporate world of marketing. Beth Comstock is a former vice chair of GE, where for 25 years she led efforts to accelerate new growth. She built GE business innovations and GE ventures and was named chief marketing officer in 2003. She served as president of integrated media at NBC universal from 2006 to 2008 overseeing ad revenue and the company’s digital efforts, including the early formation of Hulu. She’s a corporate director of Nike and has been named to the fortune and Forbes lists of the world’s most powerful women. We discussed in great detail, Beth’s new book. Imagine it forward. We covered many aspects of innovation, how entrepreneurs approach it and how entrepreneurial people within a corporation can innovate and disrupt. We explored the price that disruptors pay as organizations resist change. Beth gave practical tips for introverts like herself, introverts who wish to lead, as well as tips for managers of introverts. We touched on the problems that have rocked GE and talked about gatekeepers versus goalkeepers and how they can shape your job choices. So let’s get into it.

Rana Nawas: (01:29)
Beth, thank you so much for making the time to come on When Women Win. I read Imagine It Forward in just three days, but before we get into it, could you please tell the listeners a bit about yourself?

Beth Comstock: (01:39)
Sure, again, thanks for having me, Rana. I just wrapped up a 30 year run working for largely big companies, but working a lot with small companies. I think the thread line through all of that is I’m a storyteller who loves invention and got to be somebody who followed change, which is kind of ironic given I grew up in a very small town in Virginia, and you know what, I had a great upbringing, small town girl, but couldn’t wait to see the world and take on the world. I originally thought I wanted to be a reporter and it turned out I had little confidence and wasn’t very good. So, quickly, I went behind the scenes and found my way into communications promotion then marketing and marketing really became my awakening to business and innovation and I took my job very seriously. It was about living in the market, which is where you start to understand trends, insights, see change early. And that became a bit of a calling card for me in business.

Rana Nawas: (02:37)
And you mentioned in the book that you’re an introvert. So actually I’m going to start there because you go from, as you say, small town, Virginia, you know, you went to a normal college, not an ivy league and you studied biology and you’re an introvert. So how’d you go from that to becoming a master communicator on the international stage for really what practical tips you have for introverts? Because you mentioned in your book it seems that business is made for extroverts.

Beth Comstock: (03:01)
Yeah, I do think business is an extroverts game because well, for one thing, everybody’s kind of putting on a brave face, which we can come back and talk about later how that may be. That may not be the best thing for everybody to be doing, but everybody is, in all the situations I’ve seen. I mean it’s everybody yelling over everybody, talking over everybody, trying to get a word in. So if you’re an introvert, it’s really hard. To me, my whole life I’ve been shy, reserved and introverted and I think they’re slightly different, but they’re all kind of around the introvert, which it means quiet. I love that book by Susan Cain called Quiet, which to me brought to life the benefits that introverts offer in organizations. So I think as introverts we are. Excuse me, we’re the quiet ones.

Beth Comstock: (03:49)
I think we’re good listeners. That’s always been a skill that I’ve been able to adapt from that perspective. I think we’re good synthesizers because we listen. We’re able to sort of say, here’s what everybody said, let me bring it in for myself. I came to realize earlier in my career that my introversion was holding me back in this extrovert arena. I’d see people come into meetings and say things that sometimes didn’t even seem that smart, but they kinda got credit just for talking up and sometimes just talking, sucking the air out of the room and I, in fact I talk about in the book, there were a series example of examples I gave were in one case I worked at CNN and Turner Broadcasting and I was doing publicity for Ted Turner, who was then kind of a swashbuckling entrepreneur of his day and I had to work with him and he didn’t know my name and I gave him no reason to know my name.

Beth Comstock: (04:42)
I would go and do the events. I was very efficient. Everything went beautifully, but I had no confidence or I just didn’t want to put myself out there. People don’t appreciate if you’re an introvert it just takes so much energy to put yourself out there. I share a story in the book of how I finally summoned up my courage to just awkwardly introduce myself and I picked the worst moment as he was coming out of the men’s room, zipping his fly and you know, we both felt very awkward by that exchange, but that was kind of my awakening of like I’m doing a good job and no one knows me and I’ve got to get myself out there and I got to get over being awkward and so I just for myself and I think that’s a theme that I tried to put in the book.

Beth Comstock: (05:24)
That 1) Accept your nature. Like there are good things about being an introvert, but 2) recognize when it maybe gets in your way and 3) it’s just small steps of behavior change. So you know my first, okay. It was awkward shaking his hand right there and the outside the men’s room. But then next time I’m going to go meet one person. I’m going to say my name before I get to that awkward point. When I go to a networking event, I’m not going to stand at the chip bowl, I’m going to meet one person next time I’ll meet two and just those kinds of little challenges that if you’re not introverted you think that just so silly, but it takes a lot of energy and to me that’s really a lesson I’m trying to share. I’m not everybody who’s listening to this, it’s going to be introverted, but we all have things we fear doing and that’s some sort of that like everyday courage you need to summon at work. Really just small steps. Just saying I’m getting in my own way. Let me take a step, let me get, let me conquer that. So introversion was that a bit for me. How do I accept the strength of what that gives me but not let it derail me?

Rana Nawas: (06:27)
And what about managing introverts? You have some tips for that too.

Beth Comstock: (06:31)
Yeah, so I think that I’m more sensitive to it. I and I’ve appreciated managers I’ve who’ve appreciated that in me. One manager I had was always good and if I hadn’t spoken up, which was usually often, he would say: “Beth, what do you have to say? You have a good perspective on this.” So he wouldn’t put me on the spot, but it got to be that I knew he would ask me. So I think that would be one thing for managers, you know, find a way to ask the more quiet people on your team for a point of view. Now sometimes putting people on the spot in a meeting just creates more panic. So I do think there are ways to call on your folks beforehand: “Hey, I need you, I need this perspective from you. Think about it”, or “synthesize for me after the fact, the key points from that meeting, an action you’re going to take and what you think others should do. So I think it’s just knowing how to use that style and the difference of people. And if you need someone who’s going to ask thoughtful questions and synthesize a meeting, count on your introvert to be able to do that.

Rana Nawas: (07:32)
Right. So given everything we’re talking about when you were asked to become GE’s first chief marketing officer, how did you feel and how did you prepare yourself for a job like that?

Beth Comstock: (07:43)
Well, I felt excited. It was something I saw potentially as a path for me. I am ambitious and I think many people are. And so I wanted to keep moving forward, so it was in line with my ambitions, let’s put it that way. So I was, I was excited for that. At the same time, I was also intimidated and nervous. While I had done promotion roles and advertising. I hadn’t really done a full-on marketing role. I didn’t go to business school. I had come up on the communications and promotion side. So I wasn’t steeped deep on the business side. And so I was intimidated and I think for me what I did was kind of one of my little methods of just going into new things, which I love to do, is I just immersed myself in learning about marketing.

Beth Comstock: (08:31)
So I gave myself 90 to 100 days and basically said I’ve got to give myself a crash course marketing MBA and actually went out and got books like that, you know, the marketing MBA and all the Phil Kotler books of where he is the father of marketing, the four P’s. I reached out to chief marketing officers who, I’d call head hunters and say, who are the best? I’d reach out to them And I’d say, “Hey, I’m a newbie. Can I pick your brain?” I’d ask them, you know, how are you structured? How are you held accountable? What are you measured on? How do you train your people? Could you share with me the training that you give your people? And it was amazing how many of these people were so gracious to help me out at the time. I remember when I got the job Ad Age said something like, one of the rare breed of marketers with no marketing expertise and I don’t think they meant that as a compliment.

Beth Comstock: (09:23)
So I give those market.. those CMOs at other companies a lot of credit for, you know, helping me out, right? Like they had known me from their networks, but, I think they understood my sincerity, my curiosity and my willingness to learn. So that’s really my lesson from situations like that. I mean, I like being thrown into situations where I don’t often where I haven’t had the experience, I love to learn, but it’s intimidating. And what often happens in those situations is you think you’re supposed to know everything and so you go spouting off language, you don’t know what you’re talking about. You try to take on projects or things to prove you’re smart. Really perhaps the challenges to see how much you can learn and how open you can be for a certain period of time before you put your mark on what you need to do. And that’s not our natural instinct. I think in business.

Rana Nawas: (10:16)
Yeah, you tapped your network to learn from others. I think that’s a big lesson for everyone when we talk about networking and the value of that as well. Let’s switch gears a little bit and talk about innovation within a corporation because there’s a lot of people, say, stuck in the bowels of the corporation who want to innovate or who have entrepreneurial desires but don’t necessarily want to leave the company. They want to stay within a corporation. Can these, do these people have the opportunity to innovate internally?

Beth Comstock: (10:48)
I love that question and I hope so. I mean, honestly that was the reason I felt it important to write the book I did. I want, I wanted to share kind of the personal journey it is, just say this is hard work and you’re going to fail. But really I want to create sort of a call to action for the entrepreneurs everywhere. I think for too long we’ve assumed that to be an entrepreneur you have to just be in silicon valley or some kind of, you know, come out of some kind of startup accelerator. Every organization needs entrepreneurs and I think every profession, if you’re in business, if you’re a teacher, if you work for the government, you have to be more entrepreneurial. Why? What does that mean? I think it means problem solver. I think it means moving with speed.

Beth Comstock: (11:33)
I think it means moving, in a way that, that can grab whatever resources and whatever colleagues you can to make things happen. So entrepreneurial I think creates a bit of a movement for action and what organization doesn’t need that? So most people in companies feel they need permission. And to me that’s, that was at the heart of my learning with, with myself and my colleagues is there’s always a million alibis why we can’t do something, and excuses, and many of them are or may well be true. I don’t have a budget. My boss will never let me do that. My board won’t let me, my investors won’t let me. No one thinks it’s a good idea. On and on and on. And as I said, many of those may be true, but you got to fight for it. You got to keep working it and I think the entrepreneurial mindset is that fight and that, that hustle, if you will, so what do you do if you’re in an organization or on a team and you feel that you have these ideas and you want to innovate and they won’t let you.

Beth Comstock: (12:35)
The first thing I always say is just keep pushing it. Maybe your idea is just not ready. Maybe the idea is not very clear. You need to keep refining it. It’s not your idea – it’s a vision of a future that is going to be better and so the more people you can get to join in and make that idea better and it becomes a team effort, the better chances you’re going to have. If five people on a team of seven think it’s a good idea, it’s probably gonna happen, so you have to spend time building those influencer skills and to me it’s a lot of crafting your job in a way. Look, we all have core responsibilities in our day that we have to do, but is there a bit of time you can carve out to start adding things and articulating things that maybe others don’t see, and I say don’t wait for permission to do that.

Beth Comstock: (13:25)
I mean you can’t go grab someone else’s job or take on something totally crazy that’s going to cost a lot of money for the company, but there are deliberate steps. Maybe a first step if you want to innovate more. Just say you work in a team and you want to innovate more. One would be can you just start sharing ideas with your colleagues or trends or like Ted talks or anything from newsletters of other people that say this is happening and this is what it means to us. Can you organize lunch and learns at your workplace where people are coming together to talk about this issue? The future of work means this for us. How are we going to react to it? Can you invite people in to speak? People often will be happy to speak and they don’t expect to pay or be paid a lot of money for it. So there are ways you can start to kind of get your team ready for these new ideas and I say if you have the sort of mindset, just keep pushing it, keep pushing the idea, trying to create small examples so people see what you’re talking about. It doesn’t have to be the big beautiful, you know, big, biggest finished idea. What are small examples that people can see of how you might be working on something.

Rana Nawas: (14:38)
And you also mentioned that innovation requires tension. Conflict. I think we’ve all seen this, in our jobs. So what tips do you have on managing conflict in the workplace?

Beth Comstock: (14:48)
Well, I think conflict is inevitable. I will tell you right up front, I hate conflict, but heaven knows what you know from reading my book is a lot of conflict that I share. And I think first you have to stop and say conflict is inevitable. I believe conflict gets you to a better place. So it sounds sort of counterintuitive, but if things are going along too well, if everybody thinks an idea or a project is just so great, maybe you haven’t injected enough conflict, you haven’t beaten it up enough to see what the pitfalls are. What are the unintended consequences? Are you betting it with enough scenarios? So that would be the first thing is sometimes you have to invite the conflict in. I’m big on forming teams. You need teams at different stages, sometimes in brainstorming is the worst place to have conflict, but when you’re considering some of the ideas that you have brainstorm, do you need to bring in a couple of people who are critical?

Beth Comstock: (15:41)
And so do you have colleagues or people on your team who are the critics? And I mean thoughtful critics, not the negative, negative Nancys who hate everything, but that’s the people who are thoughtful and they’ll really get it, get into it with you. And often they leave feeling like I was heard. They contributed and they become part of that effort. And then the other thing was conflict as I think you have to keep, you have to build trust. And often that’s what we ignore. It’s me against them. It’s the marketing team against the sales team. It’s product against supply chain. You, they just don’t get it, do they? And so you build up this, you sort of go to your tribal instincts and conflict ensues. The reality is a couple of things I think can stop that. One is bring the integrated teams together to go where the problem is that you’re trying to solve it.

Beth Comstock: (16:36)
Go to the customer, go out to the market, go out into the world and discover what competitors are early adopters are doing together. You see that problem solving. Whenever you have those tense moments return to that. To me, this key question, what problem are we trying to solve? That’s should be the tension breaker because do you agree on the same problem? If not, maybe you have a bigger problem that you have to work through. And take this from somebody who learned painfully, you need to establish relationships outside of the problem solving. Go to have coffee with someone who you consider an adversary. Maybe you’re in marketing and they’re in sales. Go and have coffee with them. Just get to know what their issues are. Say to them, I need your help. I’m afraid of this. I think too often we don’t want to admit our fears, our anxieties, and then we put on those fake brave faces and go to war with each other when, when that’s not what we need to do. The bottom line is people hate, most people hate change. I don’t like change that I’m not in control of. None of us really do. And so partly what you’re trying to do is just communicate and get a team together aligned around a shared mission. I think that’s the best way to deal with conflict, but it’s hard and you have to admit that it’s a necessary part of what we do.

Rana Nawas: (17:51)
Yeah, it is hard and it can… It’s exhausting, isn’t it? You talked, for example, about being the outsider on the inside. So it’s almost like trying to improve an organization against its will, which can be draining. It can be thankless, and exhausting. And I know from your story you were up against this a lot. I mean, why do it, you know, what, what would motivate you to keep pushing and, and at what point should we give up?

Beth Comstock: (18:17)
It’s such a good question too. I don’t know why do it on one level. On the other it’s quite clear if, if you see something, a better way, don’t you feel an obligation to do it? And I think some people are just wired that way. As I said earlier, I’m ambitious but I also just know who I am. I can’t not do that and I want to be part of helping to find a better way and unlocking that solution. So to me the struggle is part of what comes with it and it does take a lot of energy and just when you’re about ready to give up, there’s a breakthrough or the team coalesces on a new learning. And I think why people fail to do it is it’s hard. It is iterative and sometimes you feel like you’re never going to get,

Beth Comstock: (19:02)
You’re never going forward. It takes a lot of energy and let’s face it, there are a lot of pressures in our, our work to just, you know, be more efficient every more focused in what we’re talking about in some ways is not a very efficient process. That’s why I like for teams to think about kind of innovation and change in almost a portfolio approach. You know, there’s certain things you need to do just to kind of have the day to day operations of your business. But you can’t…you have to make room for what’s next and what’s new. I like those kinds of business school portfolio views, where like 70 percent of your time’s on the core, 15 to 20 percent on what’s next and 10, 10 percent is on what’s new and I believe you have to make time for that and not enough companies make time for that hard work and the long journey.

Beth Comstock: (19:53)
And the last thing, just to what you said is I don’t think you can make people change. So any leader who says you will do this. I mean, yeah, they have some, they have some sticks and carrots to. But to truly get people to feel like they are part of it, it’s about influence, movement building and allowing people to discover the change on their own. So I’m a big proponent of sort of alleviating some of that struggle by doing it with others, get take your team out to the world and discover together the changes that are happening rather than you constantly have to be the proselytizer and the one beating everybody up on the head, like you just don’t get it, do you, because they’re not going to get it. If you just tell them they’re going to get a lot better if they see it and experience it themselves.

Rana Nawas: (20:39)
Yeah, and, Beth in your decades of experience in GE and from HQ and traveling out in the field and various countries, how different is this attitude or is it the same across GE? And I don’t just mean GE, obviously it’s, it’s really the corporate world. But I mean, for example, would a 30 year old lady working for GE in India be facing the same, inertia as a 30 year old lady in Fairfield? Or today, Boston, I guess.

Beth Comstock: (21:11)
No, and, um, I think there are different levels of inertia. In some ways. I feel most hope for the 30 year old lady in India because,she’s in a distributed role, away from the sort of bureaucracy of a corporate structure and with that entrepreneurial spirit and giving herself permission and getting out in the market and seeing what, let’s say she works in healthcare and going out to visit a local third tier three hospital in India, she starts to realize that the big honkin MRI machine that the center wants her to sell doesn’t work there. They don’t have power and they don’t have, they don’t have uninterrupted power. They can’t afford it. They need more mobile solutions. So in some ways I believe she’s more empowered to innovate and make change and be that translator. What often happens in companies is you get these layers and the, the people, especially at the head HQ and every company has multiple age.

Beth Comstock: (22:17)
They just are in meetings all day and they just, their tension is they want some consistency and some, some frameworks and some initiatives and those are helpful. But they’ve got to trust that the lady in India knows what she’s doing because they’ve hired somebody good and let her do it. And their job in the corporate land is to get out of the way, give her the resources, be asked the right questions. And so I think that’s some of the tension we see in companies today is that we’re not distributed enough. We’re not empowering our people who are really good. I actually think we need to sort of call for activism in the middle of our organizations. We have great brainpower. Go do it! Get out of the way for some of these layers. So as we say that scenario, I feel much more a kindred spirit with the lady in India. Now that being said, it’s really hard and every culture has its own restrictions and what the expectations are and you know, but again, what are the real restrictions and what are the perceived restrictions and are constraints of budget really an issue or are there interesting creative ways you can work around it? And um, and so I, I challenge anybody to ask themselves or the constraints real or are they in their head?

Rana Nawas: (23:39)
Well, I worked at GE Capital Aviation Services for many years and I was frontline sales for Africa and Turkey and it was really funny to me that the, our head of risk, was sitting in Fairfield, apparently he had never left the United States. So I’m there trying to sell a deal, you know, whatever. And I, of course I did Libya and uh, you know, Congo and this, but forget that. I mean even Turkey and Tunisia, the case had to be made and it’s so easy for someone in HQ to just say no when it’s just something… and that’s what we come up against in the field, you know,

Beth Comstock: (24:23)
It is! And it’s somewhat naive for me to sit here and just say, you go, you keep going. Because obviously there are constraints. Partly we’ve got to get our, those leaders to realize it’s not a risk free world if they think risk mitigation is real. Wake up. It’s not, it’s how do you navigate risk? How do you have more options? How do you have more Ranas in Libya and you know, and all the places you said who are planting seeds and giving you optionality and doing it in a way that you can manage the risk but you can’t avoid it. And so, you know, I think there comes a point when maybe you do too much in Libya, you create a bigger risk than they want, but there is a level at which they can empower you to take a risk and feel comfortable that you got it. How do we fight for that? And I think some of it is on us, the individual actors and some of it is just reminding this institution and hoping. And the third is just training our, our team leaders to just lead more by empowerment and vision and less by micromanaging and checklist.

Rana Nawas: (25:33)
Yeah. Yeah. We got there on the third attempt on the structuring the deal.

Beth Comstock: (25:39)
Can I just say, I love that example. That’s often what it takes. How many times have I seen people come into a meeting and the first time they’re told no. And you say the third attempt. Often people hear no and they leave and they’re like, see, I can’t do it if you really believe it. I believe no is not yet. Three times, six times. I mean, there comes a point maybe like no is going to be never and you have to use your judgment, but I love that story.

Rana Nawas: (26:03)
Yeah. Thank you. You mentioned permission a couple of times best. What do you mean by that?

Beth Comstock: (26:09)
I mean, we have to give ourselves permission to take a risk. We have to give ourselves permission to not know the answer. And it is that sense of agency and in organizations. Let’s be honest, most most everybody works works because they feel joy. They want to, they want to contribute, but they also need a paycheck, right? I mean, that bind creates in us, just brings out some weird fears, because we fear we’re going to lose our job, but it takes a lot to lose your job, right? I mean, we’re not talking about smart people doing dumb things were just about smart people taking smart risks. And so give… believe in yourself. Give yourself permission. I used to, when I was in an office, I used to keep a stack of permission slips on my desk and when a team member or someone would be struggling like, no, I can’t do that, or so and so won’t let me, I’d hand him a permission slip and um, it’s literally like in when you were in grade school or high school, you know, I grant myself permission to do x and I’d be like, just, this is so silly, but it’s symbolic.

Beth Comstock: (27:11)
It’s just a, it’s just a prompt. Write yourself a permission slip. What are you going to give yourself permission to do that just scares you a little bit. I don’t mean go jump out of a plane. I mean go ask a question, go try that thing. And I found that was helpful. That is what to me, that’s at the heart of what often holds us back is we’re afraid to just try something and the repercussions are often not what they, what we think they’re going to be

Rana Nawas: (27:36)
In terms of repercussions. let’s talk a bit about failure. You talk about it a lot in imagine it forward, you know, I love the concept of a return on failure, right? That resonated with me. And also, you know that if you create a culture where failure is not an option, then neither is success. So could you perhaps talk to us about one or two of your own big failures and what you learned from them?

Beth Comstock: (27:57)
I worry a little bit these days that failure is becoming, it’s like a hashtag, you know, fail fast, fail more. I think coming out of silicon valley and the kind of entrepreneurs and there are, you sort of assume like I fail and I get funded and it’s just check I’m done. Whereas this, what I’m talking about is hard work. It’s really learning. It’s a continued effort of learning. Companies are going the other way. Companies are, especially once they go public or once they get kind of a certain scale, they need to kind of rigor. And that’s often at odds with failures. So I’m not suggesting everybody fails everywhere, but I do think when you were trying to figure out new methods, new ways, which you constantly have to, do, you need to create a space for the failure to be smaller.

Beth Comstock: (28:44)
I share a couple of examples. I mean, some are really small, some are bigger. I’ll take a big one. I had partnered with and really backed a consumer connected consumer electronics play as we were leading into the digital of industry with a partner, a startup company called Quirky, and I put a lot of the company’s money. I put our brand into it. I put our team resources and that company went bankrupt. It was incredibly painful. The financial loss in the scheme of things at GE wasn’t going to break the company, but it was not something they felt good about. And yet out of that came incredible amount of learning and moving forward. So we had partnered with our appliance business at the time. And out of that failure came this amazing set of new advances in, for example, our appliances business by working with a team in Quirky that can rapid prototype the open innovation, meaning inviting others in.

Beth Comstock: (29:41)
They came up with an amazing concept called firstbuild, which was about, using the community to create products and test them and make them in a small run to see if they’re viable long before they needed to do it, when it was, you know, millions of dollars of investment, they could do it for hundreds of thousands and then with confidence that they had a good product and people wanted to buy it, they could scale up. So that was a huge return on failure for us that the original idea didn’t work, but it led a path to a whole new way of working and a whole new mechanism for, for the appliance and other manufacturing. So often those failures are what you need to figure out the next step. And too often we just go, “that failed we’ll never touch that again. Oh my God. Don’t ever mention that name again”.

Beth Comstock: (30:31)
As opposed to stopping and going, no, but what did we learn? What’s it going to keep us from doing? What will that speed us too so that we don’t have to go through that pain again? I think it’s essential. Yeah. Maybe we need to recast it as learning. I talk about being a sort of setting yourself up as this living lab of change and that’s what I mean, you’re, there’s a stage when you have to test things before you scale them. And that’s at the stage you want to do those failures and on an individual level you’re not going to get everything right. It’s okay. Try to do it when it’s early. Not like when you’re pitching the board do it when you’re pitching your colleagues, that’s okay to sort of mess up with them. So by, even if you do get to the board and if you mess up, you got another, you probably get another chance at some point. So the third thing would be just to accept that as part of the process.

Rana Nawas: (31:21)
Yeah, I totally understand. When it comes to an organizational level, you know the return on failure, but it’s difficult if you bring it down to the individual actually in the middle of the organization failing themselves. You know what that’s gonna mean in their performance appraisal and their bonus and their promotion opportunities and all of that. What’s the return on failure really for them personally?

Beth Comstock: (31:43)
Well, it’s learning. I mean, who, who can get better if you don’t learn and how do you learn? You try something and you figure out what works and what doesn’t. If you’re just doing everything that works, are you learning? Are you getting better? Really? So I, I think that’s what’s at stake for the individual and I do think how you recast it. So control your story. Here’s what we tried, here’s what we learned. We’re going to test and this is just for me as an individual, five people team. I’m going to test these things. I have a hypothesis. Let me see if it’s valid. So you’re, you’re not setting up. This is like my make or break idea. You’re just setting up a different level of, framing it, I do believe in organizations we’re going to be going to much more of a continuous feedback loop where you’re getting continuous feedback all the time from customers, from your colleagues, and so you start to create those records of this didn’t work, this did, so that when you do those annual reviews, you’re able to give much more granularity about the profile of those things and giving you control over that, over that story.

Beth Comstock: (32:54)
So what I’m saying is partly it’s how you position it and partly it’s asking for the feedback loops that allow you to kind of show what, I mean like so and so said it couldn’t work, but hey, they said that we never would have had this relationship with this customer if we hadn’t done that. Right. So those are the return on failure things that are all in our control.

Rana Nawas: (33:17)
Yeah, I think managing expectations is key upfront. You know, I’m just testing a hypothesis.

Beth Comstock: (33:23)
Exactly. Exactly. And can you get credit for. I like to turn it around and say, give me credit for testing all these ideas. I, you know, there, there was a certain stage where we have a vitality of testing things that. Should give you confidence that I’m coming to you with something that’s tested. It should give you options for the future. Any company that doesn’t want that, I would question how viable the business is going to be if they can’t, if they can’t expect that from you.

Rana Nawas: (33:56)
Yeah. And it really comes down to individuals in the company because the company is made up of different people and sometimes you have managers who are open to that and you frame it in the book as gatekeepers versus goalkeepers. Could you tell us a bit about that?

Beth Comstock: (34:11)
Yeah. Well, I would imagine everyone listening to this has, had or has a gatekeeper in their life and their lives and to me a gatekeeper or the people who, uh, who, they don’t want you to get ahead. They want to prevent something from happening. I share an example of, of a, of a gatekeeper boss I had early in my career. I call him JR when we finally mustered the confidence and courage to tell them what wasn’t working. He basically told us too bad, I don’t, I don’t, I don’t believe what you have to say. And I left that job and worked other places. I ended up coming back to that company which was NBC because I realized there gatekeepers everywhere. And sometimes the gatekeepers are in our head. Back to what we said earlier, it sort of brings up this almost sort of calculated rebel and you, you were talking about the going back the third time.

Beth Comstock: (35:01)
That kind of I’m going to keep going back and finding different ways and that’s part of what you have to do with gatekeepers is you have to find a way to work around them and work with them or you have to leave and try to include as many people that you have access to when you, when you’re going to be hired in a job. I think there’s a lot of diligence about how much freedom do you give me to figure these things out? Are you helping me get the goal or you’re going to keep me from making the goal? That’s what that gatekeeper versus goalkeeper concept is, and so when you were entering a team project are going to take a new job, spend some time trying to understand the environment, that’s going to allow you to do that and some of that you perhaps can head off before you even get to the situation.

Rana Nawas: (35:44)
Speaking of your job, I was really surprised at some of the the job choices you’ve made that you talk about in the book. So for example, you know, you left a great job at a booming CBS to join an NBC that was in real trouble at the time and then just as you helped turn NBC around you accepted a job at GE and when you were at a very low point, steve jobs called you and offered you a job. Not once but twice and you turn them down both times. So do you believe you made the right choices?

Beth Comstock: (36:16)
I do, but I didn’t always at the time. I think for me, you know, like for example, when I left CBS to go back to NBC, it was in the aftermath of a really horrible kind of fake news incident at NBC that literally brought the news division to its knees and everyone thought I was crazy to take it, but I, it was just pure gut. I just wanted to be part of a rebuilding and a rebirth and I wanted to do that. To this day. It’s one of the best jobs I’ve ever had. It brought out my entrepreneurial spirit. I knew I could be an entrepreneur in a company. It allowed me to see the value of a great team. I worked with a great leader I wouldn’t have, I wouldn’t trade that for anything. At the time it was very scary because everybody starts questioning, you know, this is career suicide.

Beth Comstock: (37:01)
You’re an idiot. So I think the message is you have to trust one that you know yourself and if you don’t need to spend some time getting there and sometimes you can’t even articulate why you need to do this. You just know you have to do it. And so in the case of, going from NBC to GE, most people wanted to go from GE and NBC. She didn’t want to leave NBC and go to GE. And I just felt, wow, this is a global company at this amazing point in industries like energy and healthcare that I’m passionate about. I can learn a lot. And so for me it was I want to see the world, I want to make myself better. And then when I was back at NBC and I had the opportunity to get to know Apple and Steve Jobs and he offered me a job not once but twice.

Beth Comstock: (37:49)
And I said, no, that was the one for a while I did regret that decision because apple went on, at the time apple hadn’t quite been apple and he wasn’t quite the Steve Jobs. We came to know and yeah, I was like, oh, did I miss something? But in the end I just didn’t feel like what I was looking for in terms of innovation and creativity was going to be on the path there. And so I just trusted my gut on that one. But did I regret it for a long time or not regret but question it, you bet. And I think part of the message is you pick a path and if you’re entrepreneurial and you have passion for better, you’ll make it work. So that’s the other thing just to remind yourself is I actually, I mean, you can pick a bad job and then you to leave, but if you pick a job and you’re worried about, you should have done the other, you got to make work where you are, and that’s often maybe lost on us that we have the power to make that role better.

Rana Nawas: (38:46)
Right? If you really commit to it, you can make a success of it. Yeah. When I joined GE in 2004, it was the place to be and everything was going great, especially in the MENA region where I was working. Things have changed. So here we are GE’s had an awful year, kicked off the Dow Jones share price at its lowest point since 2009. And lots of people have been fired, lots of my friends and assets sold. What went wrong, Beth?

Beth Comstock: (39:13)
Well, I’m still making sense of everything. I mean, I think you and I both know because we’ve worked there, GE is an amazing company. I mean the people we worked with are incredible. They have such passion for their industries. I mean they lift people up and bring them home safely in aviation. I mean they just, they love what they do and they make amazing things and so don’t let the stock issue confuse you with a good company of good people doing good things that that’s what I feel is important to say. And from a stock perspective, I’m not a stock expert. I don’t know what’s been happening in the past year. I think I would say there’s just reset moments that companies need and I wonder if one, the companies themselves realize the complexity of what they’re entering into. The investors appreciate how hard it is to kind of untangle some of this complexity.

Beth Comstock: (40:08)
So in GE’s case for a long time had become a financial services business and that didn’t work for it anymore. That had left a lot of debt, a lot of complexity that had to be untangled and I don’t think people appreciate the hard work and the reset that it takes. I can’t talk, I don’t know what they’re doing now. I think any company, any team that’s leading through resets or complexity needs to have a vision of where they’re going. They need to be very clear about what they’re doing and I think investors need to be patient and need to understand that the complexity isn’t, just, there isn’t an easy button to hit. That and I actually, part of why I wrote this book was some of this issue of complexity and we can’t just solve everything with an algorithm and a formula and we need people with… able to think ahead to the future, have scenarios, do critical thinking. It’s not about risk free. It’s about navigating the risk and getting… having a portfolio of the right kind of risk and I worry that in our companies we’re a bit formulaic and mechanistic, especially in public companies and I think some of that may be playing out here. Anyway, that’s how I think about. How about you, Rana? How do you think about it?

Rana Nawas: (41:23)
Yeah, I think, I mean this, the analysts have told us for many years that there no value in being a conglomerate. There are no synergies and being in finances, healthcare and aviation and this and that. I guess I just wished we listened sooner.

Beth Comstock: (41:40)
I think they’re saying there’s no value because they didn’t understand it. I saw value in it and again, it was maybe too complex to extract the value. That’s one of my takeaways on it. The analysts don’t run the company. This is where I get a little frustrated sometimes they don’t, they’re not inside the company. It’s easy to second guess when you’re, when you’re removed, this is what’s in vogue and what’s not. Um, but you’re right, I think some of those things could have been anticipated or thought about. Again, that’s kind of why we’re having this conversation. How do you think forward, imagine forward what may be, what may be next, what disruption may be lurking, and are you doing that in your organization?

Rana Nawas: (42:19)
Yeah, I mean, your book has really… It’s symptomatic of the issue is that we need to change and evolve and where there’s this huge inertia to doing that. That’s the big problem.

Beth Comstock: (42:30)
Yeah. Yeah. But what does that mean? So as we end here, what does that mean? You and I aren’t going to change the system right now, but in our own way we are, right? We’re gonna, we’re gonna change ourselves. We’re gonna, in the teams you work with, become more adaptable, more ready for change. We have agency. There are things we can do, questions we can ask and cultures we can create within our teams and if enough of us do that, hopefully the system starts to change, but if we’re fearful, we get the system we get.

Rana Nawas: (43:00)
Yeah. No, I think it will because it has to. So I’m just going to bring it back before we end with to some personal stuff if that’s okay. Well, one thing is the GE Women’s Network. I think you helped start it. Is that right?

Beth Comstock: (43:11)
I did. I’m like a grandmother of the GE Women’s Network.

Rana Nawas: (43:15)
That’s fantastic. So could you just tell us, because then I grew up, if you like, to co-lead it with Rania Rostom in the Middle East, and I’ve, I run a business women’s network across Dubai and I really would like to hear more about the GE Women’s Network, why you started it and what your vision for it was. And do you think we’re there yet?

Beth Comstock: (43:36)
Well, there were, there were about, there were a group of about eight to 10 of us who helped seed the women’s network. GE just hadn’t had a good track record with women and we knew we were good and we wanted more good women there. And so we got together and I actually get Jack Welch credit when it happened, when he was leading the company and, and we said, we’re going to do this and we need your support. And he, he said, of course. And the woman just got together and said, we’re going to be about making sure we have great… we’re developing great women, we’re attracting, keeping them and we want to be a network for women leaders. And what. I love that it created and you saw it, Rana, you and Rania you, I mean like you guys are, were forces for GE in the Middle East and we just wanted more of you around the world who were flexing your leadership muscles and I can think of many women who the system might have seen them one way, but by taking on a leadership role, there were a hub leader, a regional leader,

Beth Comstock: (44:36)
they lead an initiative in the network. Suddenly people saw different dynamic to their leadership and saw them as more well rounded leaders and so I know it was particularly helpful for giving women a support and a platform for flexing their leadership muscle. And just, it’s good to have networks. I think just to kind of reinforcement and confidence building that, hey, I’ve had this experience. How did you get to get through it?

Rana Nawas: (45:05)
Beth do you have a book that you think everyone should read?

Beth Comstock: (45:07)
I have a ton of them. I have just books everywhere. These days. I’m… I keep coming back to a couple of them, but one, I just love Twyla Tharp’s book, The Creative Habit and in fact I was inspired by her book as I wrote mine. What I tried to do with mine, was share stories and then give practical advice and exercises or I call them challenges and that’s what Twyla does in her book.

Beth Comstock: (45:31)
It’s about the rigor and discipline of creativity and so it’s kind of oxymoronic. People think creativity. You’re just like, wooo! You know? And she’s like, no, it’s very structured. It’s structured and serendipitous. So I highly recommend that one. And then just like a business classic book, I love sort of management principles by Peter Drucker from the 1950s. It’s just such a basic business book, but it’s still timeless. Like my favorite quote is, without a customer there is no business. I mean, it’s so basic, but if you just keep bringing yourself back to that, like it guides you well. So those would be two books. And then a third of a woman who has a book out right now called, her name is Priya Parker, and it’s The Art of Gathering and relevant to this discussion of women’s networks and the women listening, it’s about, it’s about why we gather and how to make better use of our time and connection and gathering so that you’re getting more out of it and it’s just lovely.

And Beth, is there a woman who’s had a profound influence on you?

Beth Comstock: (46:37)
There’ve been many women. I have to say at this point, I mean, it’s going to be my family. I mean, I had an amazing… I have an amazing mother who is very outgoing, and I being very shy, she kind of pushed me to get out there when she knew I needed it. And now I can, I’m at this point, when I think of the thread and the arc and I see my two grown daughters who are now women and I’m incredibly inspired by them, their independence, their passion. I’m like, wow, like if I had been you what you are when I was your age in my twenties, what would I have done? So I’m, I’m just incredibly inspired. My younger daughter’s an actress, which is not at all related to anything I’ve ever done. And she puts herself out there every day to be judged and critiqued and and yet she would do nothing else.

Beth Comstock: (47:27)
And so I’m learning a lot from her terms of how she’s navigating the world that way.

Rana Nawas: (47:31)
That’s wonderful. Well, Beth. Thank you so much for your time and for talking us through Imagine it forward. How can listeners find you?

Beth Comstock: (47:38)
I’m on social so, you can find me on LinkedIn or on Twitter at Beth Comstock. And, I would love to hear from you. My book will be out. It’s available on Amazon and Barnes and Noble, so all the, all the usual places.

Rana Nawas: (47:51)
Great. All right, well thank you again. Thanks for your time.

Beth Comstock: (47:54)
Thanks. I enjoyed talking to you. Thank you.

Rana Nawas: (47:57)
I hope you enjoyed today’s episode. I’d love to hear from you. So please head over to to give feedback. While you’re there, you can also find all episodes, show notes, and sign up for our monthly newsletter wherever you’re listening right now, do remember to hit the subscribe button to be notified of future episodes. And please write a review when you can to let others know what to expect. Thanks and have a great day.

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