Beth Comstock was stuck. A self-described small-town Virginia native, she was in her mid-20s, recently divorced and the mother of a four-year-old daughter. She was also shy and somewhat wary of change. One way or the other, though, a change was going to come, so she decided to screw up the courage to make it a big one.
“It was time to be uncomfortable with myself — and that meant really pursuing a dream,” said Comstock, a senior vice president and chief marketing officer at General Electric, during a Wharton Leadership Lecture. She went to New York, worked for a local cable company and then landed a series of media relations jobs at NBC and CBS. “I was at CBS, and it was rocking,” she said. Then she got a call from NBC, her former boss, offering her a position that involved being responsible for media relations and marketing in the news division. “I think the job had been available for a year. News was not doing well anywhere…. People were saying, ‘Why are you doing this?’ It seemed like career suicide.”
Yet something told Comstock to take it on. The good thing about a job no one wants, she said, is that there are endless possibilities for shaking things up. It turned out to be a career-changing move. Soon after, she became involved in starting MSNBC.
“I got to work with two legendary businessmen — [former GE chairman] Jack Welch and [Microsoft founder] Bill Gates,” she said. In time, she moved over to GE permanently and was eventually promoted to CMO. “I was a small town girl with no graduate degree, but GE turned into my finishing school, my business school, all because I took a challenge. I [welcomed] the opportunity to be uncomfortable.”
Comstock clearly enjoys working for the company that was founded by the ultimate risk-taker and innovator, Thomas Edison — “the Steve Jobs of his time,” she said –130 years ago. “He did not really invent the light bulb, but he learned how to use it to illuminate the world. It was an audacious thought, and our company has followed that path for 130 years.”
Comstock said that two famous Edison quotes inspire her and still relate today to what GE does. “I find out what the world needs; then I proceed to invent,” is one, and “The value of an idea lies in the using of it” is the other. In a sense, she said, GE’s purpose is to make sure other good ideas have scale so that many people can benefit from them. Her role as the CMO is to let everyone know about those ideas.
To that end, she said, it was a difficult sell early on in GE CEO Jeff Immelt’s tenure to change the long-standing motto, “We Bring Good Things to Life” to the current “imagination at work.” Comstock shepherded the 18-month development of the new slogan, which was, she said, not particularly loved within the organization. “Frankly, it was about 300,000 to two,” she noted. Fortunately, she had Immelt on her side, and the corporation ended up buying in. “We really felt this brought back the spirit of Thomas Edison. You have to have passion and curiosity to succeed in what we believe we are — a company that brings products into a quickly moving world.”
That campaign, she added, proved to her that moving forward, even in the face of adversity, is important. “You have to trust that voice, even when you do not know what language it is speaking in…. I have this rule when I come up with something that I really feel will work: Do not give up.” She was reminded of her tenure in the NBC entertainment division under CEO Robert Wright when she had the idea of opening up a store in the iconic 30 Rockefeller Center headquarters with NBC licensed material. She wanted to call it “The NBC Experience.”
“Well, he said, ‘No,’ and he said, ‘No,’ and he said ‘No’ again,” said Comstock. “But finally, he said, ‘Yes,’ and that store has been a hit. One day, he pulled me aside and told me, ‘I just wanted to see how committed you were to it.’ Sometimes people put up roadblocks to you to see how you can improve the idea — or to see how passionate you will be to keep it going.”
Comstock suggested we are living in a time with great possibilities which can be brought to fruition by people who can see the scalability of the solutions. “The disparity of the haves and have-nots around the world is our greatest problem to solve — the disparity in money, health care, nutrition, clean air. There is open land all over the world, but there are hundreds of millions who can’t get good nutrition.” Two billion people do not have access to continuous power generation — a major challenge for a corporation like GE, whose main inventive icon is the light bulb. Yet that is a challenge GE wants to take on.
“Saudi Arabia will run out of exportable oil by 2030, so that is a good date to focus on, a great challenge,” she said. “Two billion of our seven billion people do not have access to meaningful health care. If you get pregnant in Africa, good luck getting a doctor. Maybe, if you are really lucky, you will get a midwife.”
Comstock points to GE’s push in higher-tech batteries and cell phone grids as scaled potential solutions to the power issue, noting that Africa has migrated to mobile phones. Similarly, the company has worked on a simpler ultrasound machine that will ease access to certain health care needs, especially for pregnant women. “It is one button on, one button off. You may not have a doctor, but with an ultrasound with a red light and a green light, anyone can [use] it. With that kind of innovation, we can meet challenges in a simple way. We strive to be what we call, ‘Fisher Price simple,’ so simple a child can put it together.”
Comstock says she is convinced of the Silicon Valley mantra that failure is, counter-intuitively, the way to ultimate success. Failure means that passion and creativity are around. She pointed, once again, to a few quotations. “[Samuel] Beckett wrote: ‘Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better.’ T.S. Eliot wrote: ‘Only those who will risk going too far can possibly find out how far one can go.'” She loves, too, philosopher/cartoonist Scott Adams, of “Dilbert” fame, who said, “The only risk of failure is promotion.”
Too many people, she said, are brought up fearing failure. “That stands in our way. We can’t fail. Our parents love to talk about our successes. But one of the challenges is whether we can fail in the best way. We don’t really have a lack of ideas, but execution is the problem because we want to be perfect, and that stymies us.”
She said she is often the painful voice in the room, pointing out where the person with the seemingly “perfect” idea isn’t exactly right. “Everyone really wants to kick people like that in the butt, but what we are doing is challenging them. We ask questions that are annoying, that people might not want to face…. But you have to be willing to expose yourself. You have to put yourself out there. Instigators take on great challenges. The ultimate thing about being a leader is whether you can be an instigator and an agent for change.
“For someone like me, who is inherently shy, that was a difficult learning experience,” said Comstock. “But, in the end, it was the thing that got this small-town Virginia girl to work for a truly great company.”