Podcast: Beth Comstock, Former GE Vice Chair: Bringing Imagination to Business

Beth Comstock bringing imagination to business
Beth Comstock

Note: This conversation took place before today’s news that GE is replacing CEO John Flannery. Subscribe to Working Capital Conversations via iTunes or Google Play to get new episodes automatically downloaded to your phone.

If throughout its history GE brought good things to life, you might say that – along with a few select others – Beth Comstock brought imagination to GE. And if you listen to her, you will understand how to bring it your own business, too.

Beth’s story, perhaps, might seem hard to imagine. She began in PR and rose to become a GE Vice Chair. Along the way, among other roles, she served as GE’s first Chief Marketing Officer in 20 years and operated GE Business Innovations.

She has also left her mark on American popular culture. Beth helped lead GE’s strategic shift to “ecomagination” and the “imagination at work” brand campaign; she served as President of Integrated Media at NBC Universal, where she launched Hulu. She also green lit GE’s iconic post-9/11 ad of a resolute Lady Liberty rolling up her sleeves, climbing off her podium, and the simple words: “We will roll up our sleeves. We will move forward together. We will overcome. We will never forget.”

What does imagination look like? That’s what Beth explains in her terrific and personal new book “Imagine It Forward: Courage, Creativity, and the Power of Change.” It’s also what she explains to me in this conversation.


Transcript

Chris Riback:  Beth, thanks for joining me. I appreciate your time.

Beth Comstock: Thanks, Chris.

Chris Riback: So we should start with, I think, imagination. Because I imagine that that could mean a whole lot of different things to different people. So what is imagination to you? And what is the imagination gap?

Beth Comstock: Imagination to me is this … I’ve tried to narrow the definition in the context of my book to meaning the sort of risk … It’s the risk we take to act on imagination. And this kind of creative leaps of creativity and experimentation towards the future. That’s what I’m talking about. And to me the imagination gap is the gap that’s happening … Certainly what I experience in business. I think it may be happening in other organization settings, education, other institutions. Where we aren’t encouraging this imaginative thinking and really, it’s creative problem solving.

And we want to already know the answer. We’re reduced to kind of checklist efficiency. We never can have enough data to prove we should move forward. And so we’re somewhat frozen. And to me the imagination gap is where this possibility for the future goes to die. Because we want it to be perfect, and we want to know the answer. And I think it’s a problem that we should be addressing.

Chris Riback: So let’s tackle first what I imagine are some of the challenges for each of us individually. So first, what’s the stifling aspect? One of the things you write about, and you know we’ve read it elsewhere, is we all as humans have a sense of creativity. In fact, you write … Is a great use and your biology background comes in when you reference Darwin and the requirement … Almost this human survival requirement of creativity and change or die was almost how I took it. So we’ve got it in us – let’s just say it’s part of our DNA. It’s part of Darwinism. What stops us?

Beth Comstock: One, we get comfortable. I think people are comfortable with the point of view they have, the people they know. We like people like us. And so I think this sense of just comfort with what we know. We’re just not … We don’t feel good about ambiguity and uncertainty and difference. And so it’s just the tension within us. And yeah, as humans we’re adaptation machines. I mean, look at all we’ve done over all the millennia of time of our development. But we have this tension in ourself. And it shows up in certainly organizations. It shows up in bad behavior. And really it’s fear. People are afraid of not knowing.

I think that’s a big part of it. They’re afraid of taking a risk and especially I think we’ve created this cycle of perfection seeking, and certainly social media and other things amplify that where we think everybody’s living these perfect lives and we’re not. And so I think all of that has come together in a way that hold us back. Because we’re afraid, and we’re afraid of taking risks. I believe we’re also perhaps afraid of our imaginations and our creativity.

There’s a statistic I cite that in developed countries, up to 75% of people who have been polled in some of these research studies say that they’re not creatively fulfilled at work. That’s a lot of untapped needs. Probably anybody who’s listening to this, it’s someone they work with if not themselves. And creativity makes people afraid. I don’t know, it’s like you’re supposed to wear a beret and paint on a canvas or something. And it’s really problem solving.

And why I think it’s a challenge and why we’re perhaps maybe even more fearful now is just the pace of change, the kind of change it different than what many of us grew up with. We thought change was very linear. I’ll handle this, then I’ll move to the next thing. It’s what I call emergent change. Meaning it’s sort of popping up all over the place. New patterns are forming, and they disrupt us seemingly out of nowhere. And it’s happening all over the place. And so we don’t know how to deal with that because it’s so many new situations.

And so how do you deal with new challenges, both good and bad. You have to have creative problem solving. You haven’t been here before. What do we do? We go back to the way we used to do things. To what we knew was comfortable, as opposed to try to figure out a new way forward. It’s taxing.

Chris Riback: Listening to you right there and the fear of ambiguity and the concerns around change, and the human emotional distress, maybe … And my word, obviously, not yours … But that can cause internally. The phrase that’s coming to mind is make America great again. Does that resonate?

Imagine it forwardBeth Comstock: Yes. It resonates with me in business too. I mean, we see a lot of people trying to bring back the glory days of xyz leader. Or this is the way it was done in this company, and so we have to be able to do it over here as opposed to how do we figure our way forward. So there is comfort in going back to something we know. Because we saw how it turned out.

Chris Riback: Your book brings together so many different strands. It brings together your personal story. It brings together what you accomplished and the things you didn’t accomplish at GE, at NBC, and elsewhere. What you saw. One of the things that you talk about is that this sentiment … And many of us feel it … The human parts and the individual parts of your own life that you bring through the book, I think a lot of us can relate to. And there’s this phrase that you had to talk yourself out of using: “I’m not an expert, but-; This isn’t my area, but-” And we all do that. When I read you writing those words, I said to myself my gosh, how many times do I use that as a preamble to … It’s almost like a crutch or a safety net. Talk to me about that phrase. A lot of use use it, a lot of us try to use it as a way to get into throwing out that idea, but protecting ourselves simultaneously. How did you notice it in yourself and how did you get away from it?

Beth Comstock: Yes, I love that you brought that up and I’m laughing to myself because I still do that. Someone just called me out on that last week. So even though write about it in the book like I’ve somehow cured myself of that, I haven’t. And again that tension in ourselves of we have a bit of a fear that I’m not an expert in this area. Here I was … I’ll use NBC and the digitization of media was a particularly tense time that I write about in my career. But here I was a marketing person who was suddenly thrust into the world of the internet. And I’d go into meetings well, I’m not an internet expert. And people would be like well why are you here? But I did have expertise, which was behavior. I knew how people adapt to technology. So I had to go in and say okay, one, I have the kind of expertise that’s relevant here.

But the other point, I think, to that tension is that often with fresh eyes with a knowledge you have from one area coming into something else, you see patterns. You see things that need to be said and only you can see from that kind of vantage point. And we discount that because we think well I’m not an expert in the internet. So what do I possibly know? So I’m really referring to two things. One, express those observations because you do have some kind of expertise in the world that’s brought you to this point. And two, realize your strengths in those situations.

So I was really trying to tease out both of those things.

Chris Riback: How do people react when you talk about that aspect? I imagine … You talk about the permission slip. Give yourself the permission to … And I feel like that’s what you’re trying to give all of us, in a sense. Do people react to that when you speak on these topics? Do they react to that permission aspect?

Beth Comstock: Yes, it’s funny, I’m glad you brought that up. That is the core theme of my book. Just give yourself permission to kind of imagine a better way and then take steps to make it happen. And it’s so simple. But often we’re what holds us back. And I think that’s at the heart of it. That’s what I experience in business; the bad behavior, the fear factor we all have. It’s because we hold ourselves back. We’re afraid of the difference. We’re afraid of not knowing the answer. So we’re afraid we have to ask permission. And sometimes you do, okay? But often times you don’t. And what specific grab agency, kind of don’t be a victim to these situations. Or within that constraint, this should push you to be more creative.

I worked in a big company and people often thought we had a big budget. And okay, granted GE was big. But GE was also notoriously tight with a buck. So we rarely had the biggest budget. Big brand did not mean big budget. And so working within those constraints it would have been so easy to say well we can’t do that, we don’t have any money. But we had to figure out our way. Partnerships for us on the marketing side, it was working with start-up media companies as they were coming up. Because they were looking for an established brand to prove their credibility, and they didn’t have the business model, so they weren’t that expensive yet. That was a risk.

So those are some of the kinds of things I think that I mean by the permission. It’s at a very small level, do you really need your boss’s permission? Is that really the issue? And then understanding your constraints and kind of that creative problem solving, that imagination push is to me how they go together.

Chris Riback: Was that always in you? I mean you write about it very candidly at the beginning of the book that you found yourself in your early- to mid-20’s not living the life that you wanted to live. And you kind of fought your way out of that. You know, two steps forward, one step back kind of, along the way. Maybe ten steps forward, half a step back is a little more accurate. But not everything in life is a straight line. But was that in you always? Do you think that creativity, the ability … I mean, surely when you were in your mid-20’s, new kid, in a marriage, not living the life you believed you wanted to live, I don’t imagine that you imagined that your future step would include being Vice Chair at GE. So was that imagination always in you? What did you do? Your personal story is what a lot of people must take away from the book and from you personally. So, was that always in you?

Beth Comstock: Well, I think it was, but I wasn’t always aware of it being in me. And I intentionally shared a very personal story, which makes this a different kind of business book. But I thought it was important because I’m talking about transformation at a personal level, at a team and a company level. And I had to show myself, how I did that. And where it went wrong or didn’t. And so at that particular point in time, the reason I shared a personal divorce story is because I took a huge leap ahead into the unknown by saying this is not the path I want to be on. Being married in this relationship is not the right one for me. I was choosing life as a single mother for a period of time.

And that was incredibly risky. It’s not like I said I’m going to go be the head of GE, I’m going to see where I could get. I just knew I needed to craft a different story for myself. And I was willing to one, admit that this had been a failure, that I was a failure. And again, I kind of write in the book small town good girl, I had to deal with all that. And then I just had to make it work. Whatever it was. I had to imagine that there would be a better future. For me it was just as simple as I wanted to start a career and go to New York where the media world was. I mean, I didn’t have much aspiration beyond that, to be honest. But I just knew I wanted to move forward.

And then each step kind of created new opportunities to think about for the future. That, I think, was always in me but I needed that catalyst, I think, to probably bring it out. And I tried to share smaller ones in the book. For example, I shared one when I was trying to be a reporter early in my career and I kept hounding a news director every day. Which is very unlike me, as a shy person. But it just brought out this resilience in me, ’til he got on the phone and yelled and was like, I’ll never hire you, you look like a 12 year old. I’m never going to do this. But it brought out this resilience and this like I’m going to show you. So I needed those moments to kind of push me forward. And everybody has their version of that. That’s why I shared them.

Chris Riback: It’s a great lesson. It reminds me as well, I recently had the privilege to talk with journalist David A. Kaplan, who’s just written a terrific book on the Supreme Court, The Most Dangerous Branch. And for the book, he spoke with I believe it’s a majority of the Supreme Court Justices. And I said well, how’d you get them to talk to you? And he said for one of them, he said he asked that at the end of the interview, of course. Not at the beginning, because he didn’t want him or her to walk away. But at the end he said, ‘why did you agree to talk with me?’ And the Justice said ‘So you would stop calling me. I really wanted you to stop bothering me.’

Beth Comstock: That’s a good answer. Sometimes it is that way, right?

Chris Riback: Yes.

Beth Comstock: See, I’m the opposite. I will tell you, I ended up building a bit of a reputation, certainly at GE, as somebody who people could cold call me and if they had a good enough crazy idea, I’d often want to talk to them or meet with them. So I ended up developing a bit of a different approach myself. And maybe that sensitized me, but I think it was more that leading with curiosity and being interested in difference that would often make a kind of new idea or somebody with a different approach be something I wanted to learn about.

Chris Riback: Talk to me about the Statue of Liberty ad after 9/11? What did that mean? Just describe … I mean, you describe it in the book obviously, but what was the moment, what was the ad and why did you go forward with the ad that everyone around you seemed to be telling you just wasn’t going to work. And then, of course, did spectacularly.

Beth Comstock: Well in the aftermath of 9/11 certainly everybody was reeling from it. GE had a lot of issues business-wise. Their customers couldn’t fly their planes, we lost a few employees, you know, horrible, horrible situation on so many levels. And people were scared. And so at the time I hadn’t even yet been named Chief Marketing Officer. I was leading advertising, though, and I kind of tried to lean into that zeitgeist moment of people’s fear and feeling like the resilience of America, and what can GE do? And so my answer was there’s got to be a story or an ad we could do. Which was probably the wrong instinct at the time. You wouldn’t necessarily take out an ad and say that your company’s great at that horrible moment.

But it just felt like a moment we needed to express a sentiment, and kind of rally our employees and our customers to say like we can move ahead. And so we called in the ad agency and they thought it was a horrible idea and buried at the bottom of the stack of ideas they gave us was this incredibly powerful illustration of Lady Liberty getting down off the pedestal, rolling up her sleeve. And it was like, we gotta do that. Because it really expressed that emotion we had collectively, certainly in our company and the country of we will move forward. We gotta get back to work; we’ll persevere.

Chris Riback: Yes.

Beth Comstock: So I went to Jeff Immelt. Again, keep in mind, new CEO, he had been in the job four days. And he barely knew me-

Chris Riback: That’s unbelievable, right? He was 45 years old and he literally became CEO on September 7, right?

Beth Comstock: Exactly, exactly. And so it was just this … So he replaced Jack Welch, this iconic CEO, and at that moment, everything changed. And here was me, like tugging at his sleeve going hey, I think we need to do an ad. And he got the strategy and the image was very powerful. And I polled some of the other executives and they all thought it was a horrible idea. Why would we stick our neck out. But I just felt the anxiety of the moment, and to me story was the way to express it. And so we put the ad in. And I was up all night worrying that it was a bad mistake. It was in print newspaper, because at the time none of the television networks were taking ads anyway.

And the next day, employees were incredibly proud. Customers were like, oh my gosh. And it was just sort of we will go on kind of message. And very subtly brought to you by GE. It wasn’t GE. We had reason to go to the New York Stock Exchange a few days later because the market was coming back online and Jeff went down to visit and I went on that trip. And I was so humbled to just see the ad on all the traders kiosks. And it meant something. And it was on news stands in New York. And so I put that story in there because for me it was a career risk kind of thing. But it was also just understanding that mood of the moment, and being tapped into it. And trying to use the power of story to rally and inspire people to move forward. That was why I used that story.

Chris Riback: I want to talk to you a little bit more about that ability that comes out. I don’t know if you mean it to come out, but it does. You do seem to have an ability to put a finger on the mood of the moment. You give that example right there. You felt like that ad was the right thing to do, that that story was the right story to tell at that time and the people around you were telling you it wasn’t. You were at the forefront of the environment. And you know, making the change in Ecomagination. I’ll get to my core question in a second. One name is missing … You got a lot of names in your book, you got Jack Welch. You got Jeff Zucker. Obviously you have Immelt. You have Steve Jobs. One name that’s not in your book is Donald Trump. He had a big who while you were at GE and at NBC. Why is he not in your book.

Beth Comstock: Well I never really worked directly with him or that part of the entertainment division who had green lit apprentice and put that on. I mean, Donald Trump came and spoke at a couple of GE events, but I never really had much interaction, so it wasn’t part of my personal narrative. But certainly I think that whole move to reality TV, what happened as we’ve seen unfold, I think we saw media go to that and I think that opened up a whole host of things we’ve now seen that led to Trump’s presidency. But I didn’t share it because it wasn’t something I was directly involved in, not necessarily part of that narrative. But it was part of change that happened in media for sure.

Chris Riback: One thing that you did do, and I don’t know if this is an example of crazy imagination or an example for our politics of today. But after the 2008 election, within GE you were tasked with rewriting GE’s story. That was among the many things that Jeff Immelt seemed to ask you to do almost daily. I’m sure you just were waiting for him to give you a ring.

Beth Comstock: We were never done. It was always iterating.

Chris Riback: What was your name for him, the iteration-

Beth Comstock: Serial iterator.

Chris Riback: Serial iterator, that’s a great nickname. I’m sure he loves that. I’m sure he says thank you for that.

Beth Comstock: He’s that way. It was good but it was also frustrating.

Chris Riback: I bet it was. But what you did do, was you worked across both sides of the aisle to help you write that story. You brought in David Plouffe from the Obama administration, or the Obama campaign. And Steve Schmidt from McCain. How’d you do that, and I know that this isn’t your job, but you’ve taken all sorts of jobs that you didn’t have previous experience in. So I’m not going to give you that excuse. Was there anything about working with the two of them who had just been in figurative all out war for the 2008 election? Anything you can say about working with both of them back then, and any tips or guidance around making politics work today?

Beth Comstock: In the aftermath of 2008, we were coming out of the financial crisis as well. So we were looking for our new story. GE Capital, the business model had just basically gone away overnight. And we needed to tell a story more of this sort of technology manufacturing company. And so it seemed like a campaign kind of mindset. We had to fight for a story. We had to fight for a way. And I thought these campaigns seemed to be a great place to learn. I called up Chuck Todd, who I knew a little bit from NBC and said who’s good out there? I immediately thought of Plouffe because Obama had won. And I didn’t expect him to say Steve Schmidt. And I hired them both. Funnily, I didn’t tell them both in the beginning I hired them. I was a little nervous of the battle between them, so I didn’t tell the other one that I had hired them.

And they both went to the University of Delaware. Neither of them graduated. And were called back to do a special thing at University of Delaware. And they were like what are you doing, what are you doing? Oh, I’m working for GE. Well, I’m working for GE. So I had to confront that. It was crazy. Anyway, that would have been a bad thing, and they needed to work together. But what I learned from working with them was just very profound things. I mean, Steve Schmidt is amazing at telling a story, at fighting for a story, at just getting the feedback loops of how’s your message going? How are people receiving it? This works, this doesn’t. Just intensity of just ongoing iteration of your message. I’m forever grateful to learn that. And just his intensity in general. He’s an intense guy, but a softie on the inside.

And Plouffe was like this Zen master. It was always about the strategy. It was always about the strategy, and don’t get distracted. And so it was a really interesting tension to be able to work with both of them. I mean, David really had to think about the personal connections and making sure we were using that strategy at a very personal level. And then in his way, Steve was doing the same thing, but with a bit more grit. And I think campaigns are just a really great training ground for beating up your idea, getting feedback and just being very competitive and making sure your story sells, if you will. If you can’t tell it, you can’t sell it. And that’s how I capture that point in time.

Chris Riback: What’s your finger on the pulse of American society today? A lot of us are really concerned. A lot of Americans are very concerned. I definitely am concerned about the divide, about inequality gaps, about the inability to come together around common core values. About the divide between what you discussed at the beginning of this conversation. The fear of ambiguity and the reluctance towards change versus on the other hand progressive ideas that are aiming to push our society and our country forward. What’s your finger on the pulse? Where are we today in your mind as a society? Let’s leave it there. Where are we today as a society, in your mind?

Beth Comstock: Well, I think we’re filled with fear. We’re afraid of other, we’re afraid of difference. And yet difference is what makes us rich human beings. I tried to share in the book stories of how I had to push myself. Going to Saudi Arabia in the very early days where no one wanted to go there as a woman. And sometimes you just have to go to these places and understand at the end of the day, it’s people trying to do what’s right. I think we need to understand those differences instead of try to go back to the way things always were.

I worry a lot at somebody who’s been sort of in the forefront of technology. Progress has a bad name, but at the same time you understand it. It’s too fast, it’s too disruptive. And I think if we were to listen to each other a bit more and develop our context, our creative problem solving skills … I worry about education most acutely. That that’s the place maybe we need to go back and reevaluate. I don’t know, I share that concern. I think it starts with each one of us being a bit more open to difference. Being a bit more open to learn. And try to find some common ground. We all want to make America it’s best America. And that means we gotta push together. There are some things from the past and the things from the future. Can’t we figure out a way to bring those together?

And I think that it’s hard to come to a place in the middle, but I don’t know how you don’t do that. And any company, you try to rally around the future and the now, and you try to invest in both things. How can we not do that? That worries me that we’re a bit going backwards and not enough focusing on what we need to solve now and thinking about the future.

Chris Riback: Beth, to close out, as someone who’s taken on the brand of imagination and taken on the brand of future and what’s next, do you worry … Worry’s the wrong word, but for your personally, are you focused on what’s next or are you focused on right now? Should folks thinking about 2020 recognize that Beth Comstock is out there and available to help tell a story? Where’s your focus?

Beth Comstock: That’s a great question. My focus has been getting my book out. This was supposed to be my gap year. It ended up being my book year. But I am beginning again. I’m going to re-enter business in a very different way. I love stories. I don’t have a plan to do anything in politics except to help some candidates, perhaps. I guess my focus on the future for all of us would be … The future’s coming fast and we’re worried about the future of work, the future of our skills. I think put yourself out there where you’re learning some of these different skills. It’s not just about coding. It’s about creative problem solving. Are you doing enough for your kids to put them in situations where they’re figuring it out. Where they’re being asked to solve problems in new ways.

Are we encouraging that creative problem solving in our kids? Are we doing that in our work? I think that’s very much what I want to focus on in the next … And the kind of what’s next for me. So we’ll see where that leads me, but that’s kind of where I’ve set my sites.

Chris Riback: Beth, thank you. The book crosses over, your background has crossed over so many different aspects … Digital, technology, media, environment, industrial, putting pilots in operating rooms. Which someone’s gotta read the book to understand that.

Beth Comstock: I love that story too.

Chris Riback: It’s a great-

Beth Comstock: What does an airplane pilot have to do an anesthesiologist? Read it and find out.

Chris Riback: Read it and … Look, you can’t stop promoting, can you? You can take the woman out of PR, but you can’t do the inverse.

Beth Comstock: Exactly.

Chris Riback: Beth, thank you.

Beth Comstock: Thank you, Chris. Thanks for the opportunity.