An Interview with Beth Comstock

Last month I had the pleasure of interviewing Beth Comstock, former Vice Chair of GE and author of Imagine it Forward. You can watch the full interview here or read the transcript of the interview below. We covered a variety of topics, from discovering “what’s next” for yourself, to crafting the job you want from the job you have, to reading horoscopes! I hope you enjoy it as much as I did.

Jean: Hi I’m Jean Stafford. I’m The Executive Coach for Women. I’m talking here today with Beth Comstock on the subject of her new book, “Imagine It Forward.” Hi, Beth thanks for joining me today.

Beth: Hi Jean, nice to be here, thank you.

Jean: And thank you, and congratulations on your new book. No small feat I’m sure.

Beth: Oh no, I’m excited about it. It was a lot of work, but it’s done and I’m happy to have it in the world.

Jean: And it’s certainly worth having in the world. Let’s talk about change, that’s the subject of it. You’re a self-described change-wrangler – perfect title. I work with professional women all the time. They often come to me and say, “you know what I want for myself? I want a situation where I can grow professionally, I can learn new things – I love learning new things. And then we get on the subject of change and I can almost feel the wall go up, the resistance – that they may have to change. You’ve done a lot of research on this, why don’t you start by explaining what you’ve learned about why humans have such a difficult time with the subject of change, with embracing change.

Beth: It’s ironic I think, given that humans are adaption machines. I mean we’re here because we’ve adapted over a long period of time, and yet we don’t like change. I think it’s because we fear change. In all the behavioral science research I’ve looked at, the anecdotal science research I have from a career, it’s that at the heart of it is fear. People are afraid of what’s new, they’re afraid of the unknown, they’re afraid they don’t have the answer to something. So, they’re afraid they’re going to take a risk and maybe risk failing. They fear not knowing. They fear losing something. I think that’s often it – fear losing face, fear losing power, fear losing a job. So, I don’t think we talk enough about that, certainly at work. This issue that everyone brings those fears with them – and that’s what often gets in the way.

Jean: So, you talk a lot about the techniques that can be used to overcome fear. What are some of the things you’ve learned work especially well for people?

Beth: I like just simple hacks. Just simple steps forward that start to create momentum. I think #1 you have to identify what’s holding you back. So, I think you have to say, “what is that fear?” One of the simplest hacks I like, it’s at the heart of why I wrote the book, is that you have to give yourself permission. Change starts when you give yourself permission to imagine a new future, and then you make it happen. It sounds really easy, but it’s not. It’s a simple idea. One of the things I like is just a simple permission slip. People may remember when they were in high school, and they forged their mothers’ signature to get out of gym – and they may have gotten away with it. (I was always too much of a fraidy-cat to do it).

Jean: I did. And I didn’t get away with it either.

Beth: My older daughter was really good at it. She had my signature down.

Beth: But I actually used to keep a stack of them on my desk at work and I’d give them to people who’d say, “I’m afraid to try this,” or they’d have 100 excuses why something couldn’t happen and give it to them and say “Try it. Just try it.” And that’s really at the heart of it for each of us. Just one small step forward to do something we’re afraid of. It could be something that is scary only to you. It doesn’t have to be jumping out of an airplane – just something that’s really intense for you.

Jean: So, you’re really talking about just taking action. Starting to get momentum.

Beth: Yeah. In the book, I talk about some of my early efforts at this. For me it was shyness, being reserved, also being an introvert. I would have to challenge myself – like it was scary for me to introduce myself to people. Now I do it a lot. But, if you’re not shy, you don’t know the pains of just saying “Hi Jean,” and feeling awkward about it. Well, I’d challenge myself. I’d say, “I’m just going to go to this event and meet one person.” Well, normally I’d stand at the chip bowl. Instead of standing there, I’d say “Okay, I’m just going to meet one person and then I can go home. Next time I’m going to meet two people, and then I can go home.” Little small hacks like that are what I found are the helpful steps to move you forward a bit.

Jean: So, it sounds like managers really ought to be practicing this technique because you say that management is dead. That’s quite an indictment there. That’s quite a statement. Tell us why you say that.

Beth: Well I think the traditional models of management that most of us in business grew up with, and still perpetuate today I might add, I see this in startups as well. We think to manage people, we get a team and we’re the team manager. We think that means we have to control people. That they have to listen to everything we say. That we dole out all the answers and people just follow what we tell them to do. I believe that’s not effective, and especially not effective now, with so much disruptive change, and so many distributed efforts and workforces and hyper connectivity. Really as a manager, I believe our job is to empower the people who work for us to figure it out, to ask good questions, to say come to me when you need help, to fight for resources and opportunities. But if you just tell your team what to do all the time they’re never going to be able to adapt to new situations. So that’s what I mean when I say management is dead. Is that it really is about managing with this new mindset. It’s this new empowerment. Give your teams the permission to try things, give them permission to figure things out, because they don’t know the answer, but you know what, p.s. neither do you usually.

Jean: [laughs] And it’s important for managers to know that they don’t know all the answers. So, productivity has been a rule of business for decades if not thousands of years, maybe not quite that long. But, you claim that efficiency, which of course is the root of productivity. Improve productivity, improve the bottom line. You argue that efficiency really is the enemy of imagination. How do you then resolve the conflict between a business needing to run in an efficient manager and allowing for the imagination that you argue is so critical to being successful in the future?

Beth: I think it’s not either or. I think everyone, but especially in business, needs to make room for both. I talk about this in my book, about the imagination gap, which is about this efficiency, this quest for perfection, for absolutely knowing the answer, for having a business plan and you must absolutely meet it exactly to the penny of what you said.

This quest for perfection and efficiency is squeezing that imagination out of us and creating this gap I think so that we’re not expecting our people to think creatively about the future,

to solve problems in creative ways. At this time now that we’re experiencing this incredible disruption and fast pace of change. So, it’s kind of ironic that were squeezing the creativity out of us, in a time when we need it most – AI, robotics, these technologies are going to take over the manual parts of work, and all we’ll be left with is our strategic sense, our creative problem-solving. Look, I’m not against efficiency, especially for business processes that are repeatable, and you need to be good at them. But what happens that’s all you do. What happens is when you’re disrupted, when something happens, you’re not ready for it, you’re not prepared, you’re not confident about trends, or patterns, or creative solutions that you need to call on, because you haven’t used that muscle.

Jean: You have to use the muscle. I agree with that.

Beth: The research says that up to 65% of people in the western working world don’t feel creatively fulfilled at work.

Jean: And I hear that a lot.

Beth: And it means different things to different people. We think that creativity means were painting something, we’re wearing a beret. Its creative problem solving, it’s being able to use my brain in a different way. That’s a lot of people, its undoubtedly someone listening to this, undoubtedly people who work for them. What are you doing about it?

Jean: Well if imagination is a person’s best asset or one of the best assets, what can she do to in order to strengthen that skill.

Beth: As I said earlier, give yourself permission to take a risk on things you don’t know. I’m big on what I call “make room for discovery,” to me it’s the joy of my career, it’s the joy of life, is just to get out and be curious, to discover new things. And again, it’s at odds with the efficiency and productivity we believe. I used to go around asking people “What are you doing to make it through your days? What are your best productivity hacks?” I think we kid ourselves that we’re somehow going to buy back time, you have to make time for some of these things. I say to people, I guarantee you spend 10% of your time focusing on things you already know, meetings you already know the outcome of, harassing your team about things you already know they’ve got. Can you take that 10% of your time and open up to go discover something new? Read things, go visit people, go to exhibits, go walk a floor with a customer. Go to someplace that is going to challenge your perspective, help you learn something new, is maybe even weird. When you do that, you’re starting to put yourself in the path of what’s new and next. Next, simple hacks – can you take a different way to work? Can you start to observe new things that you didn’t know existed? And I guarantee when you go back to the old way of going to work, you’ll notice new things that you totally ignored every day you were driving that way. Just by changing your perspective. You’re racing through the airport tomorrow or tonight to grab that flight home, pick up a book, a magazine, something that you would never pick up and challenge yourself to say, what can I learn? Was there something here that stimulates my thoughts. Little hacks like that make us more open for new.

Jean: You’re reminding me of a conversation I had many, many years ago with a doctor who told me that he read Cosmopolitan magazine because he would learn things in Cosmo that he would never learn anywhere else.

Beth: I love that.

Jean: I thought it was pretty weird [laughs]. So, when you try new things, you invite the possibility of failure, because you’re trying something perhaps for the first time. A business is pretty risk-averse – failure typically is not greeted with open arms. Yet you claim failure’s a good thing. Tell us about that part.

Beth: Yeah, well, failure is necessary. This idea that without failure you cannot have success. There is no easy shortcut. Failure recast is about learning. But, failure is hard, and no one likes it. And I’m actually a little frustrated these days. We kind of throw around, especially out of startup land, fail fast, fail small. That’s the way. Like it’s five sit-ups in the morning and then like you’re done.

No matter how small it is, failure stinks, but it’s learning. But to me, the lesson is trying to test those things at a smaller scale so that you’re building confidence. You’re testing what doesn’t work earlier so that by the time you figure out what does work, there’s much more confidence behind it – yours and confidence in the idea. And look, there’s a really lonely phase of innovation, of figuring out what’s next. Where you’re just kind of wandering around. You’re discovering, you’re looking, you’re feeling lost and aimless and everything you try just feels like “I don’t know what I’m doing.” And sometimes I think that is good for us. Some people like it and some people absolutely hate it. What I’m suggesting is you intentionally put yourself in those situations. I’ll give you an example.

I left GE at the end of last year, and I’m thinking I have all this time, I want to be more creative. So, I signed up for an art class. Here I am thinking “I’m creative. I can do art. I did it when I was young.” I was totally panicked at that white canvas – totally panicked. I sat there for the first night, afraid to do anything because I expected it to be perfect. My teacher had to really work with me. He said, “you’re afraid to do it because you’re afraid it’s not good enough.” I go out and talk about this all the time. So, you just constantly have to put yourself in that situation and admit that it’s hard.

Jean: I like that – admitting that it’s hard. And of course, it becomes important to help other people come along with your idea in that case. Explaining to other people why you’re doing that.

What would you say is the single hardest thing you had to do personally to become more adaptive in your environment?

Beth: For me, it was getting over the quest for perfection. I still struggle with that. Overthinking everything is part of that for me. I overthink, and you become paralyzed because (I’m a worrier), you think of every possible scenario and it’s never going to be as good as it is in your head. And then you fret over when it’s not. And you knew it could have been so much better. So, I think that’s part of that fear. I think like it was everything, those things have a value and that you’re questing for something better. And I think it’s good. Personally, I like to keep questing for something better. So, I think you have to think about those things, but perfection would be one of those things that I still struggle with.

Jean: And I hear my clients talk about that a lot. Sometimes I have to tell them it’s perfection, they don’t really realize that.

Beth: We say these things and we tell ourselves logically, but it’s back to behavior modification. You know, you tell yourself, but emotionally you’re not there and it’s the oceans that trip us up. It’s the emotions that trip us up. It’s usually in those moments when you’re just feeling down and then it builds on itself. That’s what I find those little hacks. Okay, I’m just going to do this one thing and then I’ll walk away. I’m just gonna do this one call, or I’m just going to suggest this one idea in this meeting that scares me. I don’t have to have a business plan, but I’m just going to have one idea. So that’s a way to get over some of that perfectionitis, just take the expectations down.

Jean: One thing, one small thing.

You mentioned earlier that growing up you were shy, it was even difficult for you to introduce yourself. So, you advocate for introverts in your book and you say that being an introvert can actually be an advantage. You know, my clients have a lot of difficulties sometimes finding their voice. I’ll often talk to them about how they behave and in larger groups of people, and they’ll finally admit that they never ask a question unless they have something that’s really important to say. So, they come across as introverts even when they may not be introverts. But tell us why you think it’s such an advantage if you are introverted.

Beth: Well, I do think businesses and extrovert’s game. So, I do think if you’re introverted, that you need to ask yourself, is that holding me back? So, I’ve had to overcome some of those things because it did hold me back. I wasn’t speaking up. That being said, introverts are usually more quiet. They are good observers, good listeners, and good synthesizers. I think that’s a valuable role on a team. I benefited by having managers who appreciated that in me and would call on me if I hadn’t spoken enough or at all. “Beth, what do you think?” So sometimes when everybody’s talking you get lost, but if you have somebody there, or as a manager if you can pull that out of someone; I think that’s a valuable role for managers to also appreciate the differences of their teams as well.

Jean: Listening is one of the very valuable business skills today, isn’t it?

Beth: It really is. And I mean really listening, really understanding where someone’s coming from, asking really good questions to elicit more information (not to prove how smart you are). To me, those are part of good listening.

Jean: So, you also talk about crafting the job you want, while you’re in the job you have. A lot of my clients are very interested in that. Talk to us about how you go about doing that because of course, so many of the women I work with walk through the door and they think that in the wrong job, or they don’t want the job they have anymore.

Beth: I think it’s a couple of steps. I’ve always been a big believer in grabbing the job that maybe no one else wants or grabbing on a project that no one else is doing as a way to add new visibility and skillsets to yourself. That’s one way to start. That means you have to want that thing too. Look, there are a certain set of responsibilities all of us signup to when we take on a job. It’s called a job description. Yet there are things we’re passionate about and things that can also help the company be better. And that’s what I’m talking about – the job crafting. It has to make sense for the company, and for you both. It could be, “I love this, but it’s of no value to the company.” So, I think that’s hard to do. Maybe you need another job if that’s the case. I’ll give you a good example of a colleague I had. She worked in publicity and communications and she was a designer as well. She worked with words, but she loved images. So, she started adding more infographics to the publicity materials and people started really liking it. Before you know it, she brought more of those capabilities to her job. She created a whole new capability of infographics and visual design as part of the communications team. To me that was a classic example of somebody knowing her passion, being able to adapt it to a way that the company would benefit and then just continuing to grow in such a way that they both got something out of it. That’s what I mean.

Maybe it’s as simple as you start a networking group over lunch to tackle a problem. You start a trend newsletter just for your team of five – like you’re the one every week that’s going to say here are three new trends of things I like, things I see. It’s kind of one, taking initiative, grabbing permission to do some things, but it’s an awareness that there’s value – that it’s going to enhance my job, but also enhance the company. That’s what I mean about job crafting. Plus taking on those assignments that no one else wants. What isn’t job crafting, is fighting to take over what someone else is doing because you like that, and you wish you could do that. That’s where turf wars start, and people get suspicious. There’s too much to do at work and too many opportunities to have to fight to take over what someone else is doing. That being said, if you want to do that, you should let your manager know, “Hey when that comes available, I’d like to be in line for that.”

Jean: Help other people help you, by telling them what you want. Right?

Beth: Exactly.

Jean: So, my social media followers have sent some questions in. The first one: what piece of advice did Beth get about being a woman in Corporate America? What was the best piece of advice Beth got?

Beth: To be honest, I worked with many men in the course of my career. I worked for a lot of men, so there weren’t a lot of women ahead of me often to learn from. The few that I was able to work with, I think what I would have heard from them is just make the work really good. And that’s something I subscribe to because I was called out for being a woman often. I mean it was obvious, and I was different. I was also more creative, and I was often marketing or communications in the tech company that was considered a little soft. So, I had a lot of those things, and to me, I had to make the work really good so that no one could take the work away from me. I’m not just saying I always work smart, but I always made the work product really good. And then I think you have to just build coalitions. I couldn’t change the fact that I was a woman. Over time as I got more confidence, I would try to lean into the fact that I was a woman and be okay with my difference and dress more feminine and express myself in different ways, be more creative. In some ways, I felt a license to be a bit more creative because people already put me in the other bucket anyway.

Jean: So that leads to another question I got, and that was: how did you manage your career? Was it just the hard work that you did, or did you also find that you had to engage in the politics? And how did that go?

Beth: Look, I’d love to say hard work always wins. But that’s a fairytale. Hard work does help. I absolutely am convinced you have to be good, you have to be smart. Those things we expect. Look, I did play politics. I don’t advise it. I mean, you know, it’s part of human nature you have to understand. But I think the times in my career where I didn’t do as well, was when I played more of the politics. In fact, in my book, I have a whole section I call “Agitated Inquiry,” where it was about a lot of mistakes I made getting in the weeds, duking it out, my team versus your team. It’s not a recipe for success, but we all do it, right? Again, it’s human nature. I keep coming back to try to say, “What problems do we try to solve? What’s the voice? What’s the more outside in? Again, if I could bring the voice of the market, the outside in, it’s less about me as a woman, as me bringing in an insight that people needed. I think customer voice is really helpful because it’s less about marketing, sales, woman, man. It’s like, here’s the voice of the customer. So those are things I think help you overcome some of the political issues, but also, it’s a fact of business. So, your job often is to not take the bait and just walk away or to re-engage at a time when it’s less heated – to come back and say, “you know what, we got a bit heated yesterday. Let’s try to do that again.” Get to know people as people. Right. I remember someone advising me, a great coach I had. I remember I had a particularly tough adversary, it was a man, and she’s like just take him out for coffee. I was like, are you kidding? I didn’t do that, and it would have been helpful.  The times I have done that, you get to know people, their kids, talk about what they’re interested in. Those things help alleviate some of that tension.

Jean: Getting to know them personally. Sure. So here, I think, is the toughest question that came in. I have a client who wants to know how she can recession-proof her job. She’s in her forties now. She’s terrified that there’s another recession coming. She doesn’t want to have to be looking for a job as a 40 something in a recession. What would you suggest?

Beth: One suggestion might be to reassess her perspective. If a recession comes, she’s not going to have much you can do about it. None of us. There are certain things in change we can’t control. It’s about your adaptability. I would start scenario planning now. There’s a really good scenario planning exercise I love. I challenge people to think of a constant, something you think is never going to go away. Now you wake up tomorrow and it went away.

For your job – I feel good about my job. It’s not going to go away for the next three years. But what if it did? What would you do? What’s the worst case possible? What’s the worst scenario possible? Recession happens. I lose my job. I don’t get a job for a year. What am I going to do? I have bills to pay, I have a family to feed. What are the things I can do? What are my strengths? What are the network connections I have? How might I adapt to that? So, I’m big on those kinds of scenarios as a way to get your head ready and potentially you might find in there an idea that you like enough to go after it before there is a recession.

Jean: That’s quite an exercise of the imagination, isn’t it? The scenario building. Thank you. So, I have one more question for you. Did I read that you read your horoscope every day?

Beth: I do, it’s embarrassing. I put it in the book because I do think there’s a bit of magical thinking in all of us, a bit of superstition. Since I was a teenager, I’m a Virgo, I’ve read my horoscope.

Jean: Oh, you’re a Virgo, I get it.

Beth: And I do that just of habit. But I think it’s like a good luck charm. Although what I worry about in those cases, is if the times it says you’re going to have a bad day, Mercury’s in retrograde or whatever, am I putting that idea in my head? Is it a self-fulfilling thing? So, it’s not logical. It’s really not.

Jean: Well, thank you for saying that and thank you for being with me today. I really appreciate you giving us the time to talk about your book.

Beth:   Great, thanks, Jean. Thanks for the opportunity.

Jean: That was Beth Comstock. I’m Jean Stafford. Thanks for listening today. See you next time.

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