Leaping Forward with Beth Comstock
As part of the Ladies Get Paid Book Tour, sponsored by Comcast NBC/Universal, Claire Wasserman, the founder and author of Ladies Get Paid, in conversation with Beth Comstock, author of Imagine It Forward and former Vice-Chair of GE, discuss her incredible career working on the front lines of innovation.
Claire Wasserman: What role did ambition play in the beginning of your career?
Beth Comstock: I certainly never imagined I would have had the career that I did, that I’d be sitting here talking to you from New York City. I grew up in a small town in Virginia in the Shenandoah Valley. I don’t really know when the ambition started, but I found something a couple of years ago that gave me a good clue. I was doing my own archeological dig of my old stuff and I found this project to have when I was 14. I had to write my autobiography and trust me, there was nothing interesting, like maybe I kissed Nick Thomas or something.
What I found was this amazingittle clip and it said, “I am ambitious. I want to be 50 different things when I grow up,” and I listed some of them. Thank God I didn’t become any of the things I listed, but I love that. I went back in time and found that phrase, “I am ambitious.” For me ambition was wanting to make myself better, go to the next thing, level up. “Small town, how can I see the rest of the world?” That was the kind of ambition to be curious and ambition to certainly do well, be recognized and doing well and do good work. In the early days, you don’t know where that ambition is going to take you.
Claire: Did you find at some point in your career trajectory, there was a shift in how women were treated or even how you were treated?
Beth: It’s sometimes hard when you’re in the middle of it. You’re too close to it. GE made a lot of good changes toward women and diverse leaders in general, but there was always more that could have been done. I was the first Vice Chair of GE. I mean, after 130 years why was I the first one and in 2015? As much change as I saw happening, I worked in media for half of my career, media which is seemingly a progressive, all about diversity of ideas. It did not change fast enough. I left corporate life a bit frustrated that things hadn’t changed as much as I imagined they would after 25 years, 30 years working in companies.
Claire: Did you ever feel like you were bragging if you were to talk about your work and if so, how did you get over it? How did you articulate your value consistently outside of an annual review?
Beth: I don’t know that I always did that well. I do think you expect that everyone’s going to notice how hard you’re working, how good you’re working. I’m naturally more introverted, I’m also shy and reserved, it meant I wasn’t speaking up. I wasn’t asking questions. I’d go to meetings and wouldn’t say a word. How would anyone have any idea of what I’m capable of? I came to realize that was holding me back so I had to take steps to get out of my own way. That was the first step. Forget promoting myself, I wasn’t saying anything. I had to work on that.
Claire: Do you have specific examples of how you took up space?
Beth: I wrote about this in my book, this story when I worked at CNN Turner Broadcasting early in my career. Ted Turner created CNN and Turner Broadcasting. He was sort of the Richard Branson of his day, a swashbuckling entrepreneur and very outspoken. I worked for Turner and for him for a year, leading communications in New York. I was convinced he didn’t know my name.
I remember we were at the UN and I was very pregnant. I remember I was standing against the wall and the wallpaper blended with my horrible maternity dress. I looked like just a head sticking out of the wallpaper. I remember at that moment thinking, “Oh, my gosh, he doesn’t know who I am and I’ve got to change that.” I thought, “Okay, I’m going to go up and I’m going to re-introduce myself to him.” He’s coming out of the men’s room. I go, “Hi, Ted. I’m Beth.” I put my hand out. He looks at me like, “Are you crazy? I know who you are, but I don’t know why you’re doing this or what–” He goes to get my hand then he pulls it back when he was zipping his fly and just walked away, like, “I know who you are.”
Claire: How do you find a sponsor?
Beth: The first thing is just you have to do good work. you have to be associated with good work. You do have to have that short story so whenever you meet somebody in the context of your work, whether it’s someone in your company or a customer or a potential customer, have your really quick soundbite. “Hi, I’m Beth. Here’s what I do. Here’s something I’ve worked on.” Then maybe a question. “Here’s an issue I’m thinking about. What are you seeing?” I always try to use trends. You’re engaging people.
[People will think], I know what she does. She’s asked me an interesting question and she’s a good listener. I want to learn more.” seek out people with curiosity, say, “I’d like to learn more about what you’re doing about that project.” That’s always worked for me. early on , I didn’t have a mentor and I used to think there was something wrong with me.
Claire: Let’s say you come up with an idea at work, how do you galvanize other people to support you?
Beth: You need to be as clear as possible about the vision of what you’re trying to accomplish. First, what? Why us? Why are you leading it? Why do you need their help? [For example], Carolyn, who did the design set up, tried it on something small and people were like, “Hey, I like that.” She said, “Can you help me think of other places we can put it? Can you work with me on it? “Can we test this out?” She asked for help. People saw the benefit; it made them look better. I think that currency means it’s not just making you look good because you’ve crafted something for your job, it’s making the company better, finding out something in a way they couldn’t have. That currency serves more than just you.
Claire: It can be hard to receive feedback. How do you filter what you should take from somebody else’s potentially critical feedback?
Beth: I think one of the things I learned frankly a little too late in my career but never too late to learn it from value, is just, one, to ask for feedback. I learned to ask a really important question, tell me something I don’t want to hear, because usually, you don’t. It takes practice to get people to feel comfortable giving you that answer. However, just because you’ve asked for the feedback it doesn’t necessarily mean it’s relevant to what you’re trying to accomplish, but you have to listen to it. You have to consider it. “What does that mean? Why are they offering that? Is that relevant to what I need to get done?”
Claire: You once said, “To train your brain to start thinking big you must challenge yourself to find things that contradict what you know.” Tell us how to do that and what you meant by that. That sounds so big.
Beth: Well, I think, one, I’m big on just giving yourself a practice of discovery, to get out of your own way, to just get out in the world and see where things are happening. I have a simple rule of thumb: go on trees. First time I see something I go, “That’s interesting.” I keep a notebook. In my phone I have a folder of “interestingness”. Second time I see that theme I ask myself, Is that a coincidence? The third time I just declared it’s a trend.
Part of that process is you’re trying to put yourself out there, where you’re finding new things [as well as] finding things that contradict you. You’re going where things are weird. Most of us don’t like weird things. We want to go where we feel comfortable.Weird has taken me to some of the craziest places in the course of my career, to show up in places [like] judging boy bands when I was at NBC Digital in South Korea, because we were trying to learn about what was happening in Korea in digital. Sending a team of leaders to study with the military in Israel, to understand what it means to have non-hierarchical leadership.
Claire: What do you read or what magazines do you subscribe to? I think the theme of everything that we talked about really is curiosity first. What sources, if you have any suggestions where people can get their minds jogging?
Beth: I read everything I can get my hands on. These days I’ve been reading a lot on mythology, going down a deep dive into psychology. I think all social platforms are really good for finding things. Just set new filters on Instagram, constantly look for discovery mechanisms. Aeon is something I find really helpful. It’s an interesting online magazine. Emergence Magazine is also an online magazine I like a lot. Those are a couple that come to mind.
Claire: How has retirement been? Are you itching to get back to work?
Beth: left my company rather abruptly when there was a leadership change and came to realize firsthand that the change you don’t control is the change you like least. It tests your resiliency.
I’m now working on a number of great projects, advising startups, looking to help scale some clean tech, also doing a lot of my own personal creative projects. I’m in a writers group. I’m doing a lot of visual art. I’m part-time helping to restore some forest land. These are things I could not have done when I had a big corporate job.
Watch the entire conversation with Beth Comstock.
A big thank you to Comcast/NBCUniversal for sponsoring this series.