GLS20 Session Notes: Beth Comstock: Imagine It Forward

Published August 6, 2020


Leading Organizations

The following are notes from Beth Comstock’s talk at #GLS20. Use them to help you apply the content you learned at the Summit.

Accelerating growth and innovation is one of the most challenging tasks of a leader. In this interview, Paula Faris draws out some of the ways in which Beth Comstock has thrived in her ability to continue to innovate both in business and in life. Beth helps us understand specific ways we can re-capture the joy and art of discovery, find the courage to be a permission granter, and get comfortable with experimentation and failure.


Faris: Your book’s all about innovation and change. Why is it so important for organizations to change?

Comstock: We’ve seen it over and over again when companies don’t innovate, they die.

  • Came into GE from NBC but it was a different world.
  • Look at a company like GE going through change—that’s a sign of resilience.
  • Change is a test of longevity.

Faris: You open the book and right away you mention your time working with the CIA and talk about failure of imagination, which ultimately led to GE’s response to 9/11. How did GE respond?

Comstock: I was invited to lecture there and what I liked about the CIA at the time was they were bringing in outsiders to give them different perspectives. Whereas what had happened leading up to 9/11, they stuck with the same playbook and missed that terrorism had gone on a grassroots level. They realized they were indicted, if you will, for a failure of imagination to imagine something different. I liked that they were bringing in outsiders who could challenge them. I was at GE and 9/11 happened, for all of us in business we couldn’t imagine there would be terrorism attacks—that business would literally stop. Now, in COVID-19 we’re experiencing this again, but it caused us to rethink what happens when your business totally stops. Airplanes can’t fly, what do we do?

The good thing about change is it forces us to confront things that otherwise we might not.

Faris: You took a leap of faith getting a lot of pushback. What brought that?

Comstock: Post- 9/11 America was in shock. Business had stopped. People were feeling incredibly vulnerable, lives were lost which was the worst tragedy of it all. GE said, “we need to do something.” The team I worked with had this crazy idea, “Let’s do an ad.

  • Most advertising had stopped except print newspapers.
  • “We can go forward from here.'”
  • First of all, the agency hated the idea, most of the team hated the idea.

Faris: Did you believe in the idea?

Comstock: I believed it because part of our job in change is to appreciate the zeitgeist and people felt vulnerable.

  • Wanted to send a message of hope.
  • We pored through the artwork of the agency, producing Lady Liberty rolling up her sleeves and turning it into an ad.
  • The ad wasn’t about GE, it was brought to you by GE.
  • The head of the company Jeff Immelt resonated with it and employees were proud.
  • With change, you have to find a story that gives people hope of where the future is going to be.

Faris: For those individuals and the organizations that are listening to this, what do you tell them? What tools do you put in their hand to take those first steps to innovate and to change?

Comstock: The most critical thing is giving yourself permission. I love this idea of permission granted. You have to say, “okay, I’m going to give myself permission.”

Came up with a habit, sharing with colleagues of writing a self- permission slip.

Stepping Out Of Your Comfort Zone:

  • Asking a question in a team meeting
  • Pitching an idea to somebody who you think is receptive.

Comstock: You can’t have all the answers. Use your curiosity as the lead.

What you’re doing is creating a path of discovery, which is a critical step in that permission granting, risk-taking—getting out and discovering new ideas.

Faris: How do we take the steps to counteract what is rooted into fear?

Comstock: Fear is a basic human instinct. It motivates us more than we want to admit. It’s centered in our amygdala, in our brain, it’s the reptilian brain if you will, the kind of fight or flight for survival.

  • Recognize it’s a natural reaction.
  • At times say, “let’s admit we’re afraid.”
  • Leaders, very now and then to say, “we’re in COVID-19, I don’t know how to deal with a pandemic. You’re here, we’re here together to figure it out but we don’t know.”
  • That is a bit of a way to get rid of the fear. “Here’s what we know and here’s what we don’t.

Faris: GE CEO, Jeff Immelt, at the time tapped you to lead marketing. What was it about you that people were willing to take a chance on at that point?

Comstock: I was willing to bring outsiders in who provoked us. I took on a pretty aggressive effort to rebrand the company. We ask all kinds of tough questions. We did things I think he thought were very unusual and got good results.

  • One of the things I did is I brought in a cultural anthropologist early on who did not come from our culture.
  • He asked tough questions and helped us get to the core of what we were trying to understand “what’s our story? What’s our strategy?”

Faris: Was that person what you would define a spark?

Comstock: A spark is somebody you’re bringing in to spark a new perspective.

  • As simple as a team of marketers bringing an engineer from inside your company.
  • Someone from the outside who challenges you.
  • Looking for somebody with expertise not just a troublemaker to come in and bring a perspective.
  • Ask “what questions make us feel uncomfortable with what they’re asking? What perspectives must we focus on and what doesn’t make sense?” And so, it’s really a way to provoke a different perspective.

Faris: You’re a self-proclaimed introvert. You don’t love change, your book’s all about innovation and change. How have you been able to develop the skills that are necessary to go into the unknown and to get your ideas and to get your voice heard?

Comstock: That notion of discovery to me it’s a joy of life, it’s a joy of work and it’s often counterintuitive to what we do at work. That’s what’s really propelled me to get out and discover.

  • Go into situations needing to learn.
  • Go to places that are seemingly weird.
  • What’s an example? When I was doing digital at NBC, a group of us went to South Korea to understand what we’re doing, and we judged boy band competitions.
  • Just to get a sense I went with a group to understand the Israeli Military, to understand non-hierarchical learning. It doesn’t have to be that grand, it could be if you’re in New York City go to another neighborhood and see what you see.
  • First, you need a notebook, or I keep a folder on my phone of interest.
  • You’re learning about it and you’re understanding what the facts are versus what’s the hypothesis. And you’re saying to yourself, “How can I speed up my learning on this so I can get smarter on it?” And I really believe speed to learn is a competitive advantage especially now. The faster you learn, the faster you can serve your customer, the faster you can do well in your job.

Faris: You talk about getting comfortable with some level of maybe, how do we get comfortable with just some level of maybe?

Comstock: Most of us I think we want certainty. Especially in the world today we assume we’re going to have certainty. And so, it’s a fallacy I think many of us have grown up with, we don’t learn it in school. And so, for me it became this getting comfortable with just living in hypothesis. I mean, my biology background science helped a little bit in that.

  • The scientific training is what’s your hypothesis? You’re not saying we have to have the definitive answer. What’s your hypothesis? What can we go and do to test that?
  • You’re saying, “we’re going to move forward on this side of assumptions until we learn something different and then we’re going to reserve the right to change it.”
  • Did anyone imagine COVID-19 affecting their revenue in 2020 the way it is? No. You need contingencies, you need hypotheses that get you through some of that.
  • It’s a tension between both.

Faris: You talked about mental grazing and trendspotting and you didn’t mention trendspotting, but can you elaborate on mental grazing?

Comstock: Mental grazing is I think this notion of just getting out when you’re out in your discovery mode, which we talked about.

  • You’re grazing a cow or something. You’re just picking up, eating little bits and pieces, taking it in, just to try to see if you can start to build some of those patterns we talked about.
  • It’s how you build up your recognition of things that are different.
  • Right now, we’re in a really tough time with most people being siloed in their homes, they’re only now being able to return to work in some areas.
  • It’s harder to get out and mental graze physically in the world. But you certainly can do it digitally, you certainly can ask people what they’re reading.
  • Read different sources than you are used to reading. I don’t just mean politically, I mean, read a book on physics if you’re a designer.
  • Ask yourself different sets of questions and how might this impact me, the work I do.

Faris: How do you balance that?

Comstock: Everyone has to imagine it forward. Just like I think everyone’s job right now is changing, whether you know it or not that’s in your job description. And what do we mean by imagining it forward?

  • Have a vision for where the world’s going and how you’re going to get there.
  • Notion of thinking in two speeds, operating in two speeds.
  • You have your now and your what’s next.
  • Your now, is where we mostly are—where we live, focus, it’s where your investors are expecting repeatable earnings. They’re expecting some predictability as much as you can predict.
  • This is the area where you feel really peak confidence.
  • Not to say change won’t happen, but let’s say most of your resources, your time, your energy goes into now, but you must create the second lane.
  • Call it your imagination lane, your what’s next, maybe it’s 10% of your time and resources in a good year, maybe it’s only five.
  • This is where you’re starting to do the discovery.
  • “Can we think of something different?
  • Can we carve out a couple of hours a week, even a month to go and discover and try these things?”
  • The secret to success and made us have better jobs.
  • We didn’t need the permission as long as we met the numbers, we were able to discover things.
  • People started to see that it was working. They’d ask, “how did you get permission to do that?” “Oh, we didn’t need permission, we just tested it on a small scale.”

Faris: Ecomagination is one of your crowning achievements at GE, it happened under your watch, under your tenure. How did you come up with Ecomagination? What was the discovery process for that?

Comstock: Ecomagination was about looking at the world saying cleantech is the future and it’s coming to an industry. We had the idea; it just came out of the ether we got out in the world. We heard from our customers. They were saying whether it was a rail customer, an airline customer, a power company customer, they were saying, “Help us. We need technology that’s going to make us greener but not make us go broke.”

  • Right there was our platform, ecological and economical. We spent a year in discovery, talking to them. One of the interesting things we did is we talked to our critics. Up until that point GE had really been at war with environmentalists. We changed that. We said, let’s ask environmentalist’s, “How could we do something that would be meaningful? How would you hold us accountable? Can you help?”
  • They were skeptical for good reason. And it was a very unnerving thing to go to a critic and go, “We want to change, can you help? They didn’t believe us at first, but we started to feel good that we knew we could do this with partners. The other thing you start to realize is that some of this you’re already doing that you don’t know so we started to take an inventory inside the company. And there were certain things, technologies we had or were developing that were greener. And we actually had that capability, so it wasn’t such a far leap.

Faris: How can a leader when you’re trying to encourage innovation—how can you also establish feedback loops and circle of trust so to speak, transparency and honesty?

Comstock: One of the most critical things are feedback loops. We’re in a digital age where we have never had so much data and exhaust if you will, so it’s a bit overwhelming.

  • There are some basic questions that you need to ask because you’re trying to get feedback. Again, if your speed to learning is your competitive advantage today, the faster you get feedback the better you should be able to learn, it’s that premise. How quickly can I get feedback?
  • The simplest thing you can do is ask this question, “tell me one thing I don’t want to hear.”
  • You need to ask that regularly of your team, of your customers.
  • You want all the answers and you come into a room with everything fully done and we’re asking ourselves, ‘Why are we here?'”

Faris: But when you’re not in control of it that’s when it can be difficult. And when you left GE you weren’t in control of that fate. What did you learn about yourself?

Comstock: I was leaving GE; I knew at some point there’d be a new leadership change but the company hit a tough spot and the leadership team was out.

  • I got a call from the new CEO saying, “we don’t have a place for you.”
  • I had to renew my story.
  • I spent a lot more time in personal discovery trying to be more creative. I’m doing a lot of writing, reflecting, finding time for spirituality, things that frankly I had excuses for not doing in business because I just didn’t have time. But things that were calling to me I just didn’t necessarily listen to them.

Faris: How do you embrace that lane when it’s not really your choice?

Comstock: You don’t always embrace it at first.

  • Give yourself that space and then just go, “okay, I’m going to create an experiment lane for myself. I’m going to try things.”
  • Just do some things to get you to another level.


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About the Author
Beth Comstock Is one of our incredible 2020 faculty members for the The Global Leadership.

Beth Comstock

Beth Comstock is the former GE Vice Chair and CMO, where—for two decades—she led efforts to transform a process-heavy culture to a faster, more agile and inventive one. Prior to GE, Beth was President of Integrated Media at NBC Universal, overseeing the company’s digital efforts, including early development of Listed on Forbes’ “100 Most Powerful Women” and PR Week’s “20 Most Influential Communicators,” Beth helps incubate new companies and advises business leaders to accelerate growth and innovation. She is also a Director for Nike, a top-ten LinkedIn influencer and her first book, Imagine it Forward: Courage, Creativity, and the Power of Change, offers lessons from a life of continual transformation that inspire others to embrace our rapidly changing world.

Years at GLS 2020

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