From the Corner Office: The Power of Change

UPDATED: April 27, 2011
PUBLISHED: April 27, 2011

Beth Comstock has a love for change, and she welcomes the unfamiliar. As chief marketing officer at General Electric, she attributes her ascent up the corporate ladder to her passion for new challenges and for conveying that enthusiasm to rally team members.

“I might be a change junky,” Comstock says. “If you have seen my hairstyles over the years, you’d know. I like being thrown into ambiguous situations. I gravitate toward them because that’s where I have found an opportunity to make an impact.”

Comstock’s job involves driving cross-digital business and leading marketing, sales and communications. In 2003, she was tasked with changing GE’s corporate culture—300,000 people at the time—from one of process and engineering to a more creative environment for innovation and idea generation. One of the ways she did it was by bringing creativity consultants, design experts and futurists into meetings involving different operations inside GE.

“There is nothing better than great teamwork,” she says. “I love being a part of a team that is diverse—diversity of style, background, education and functional expertise. It can be frustrating and tiring, but exhilarating. Sometimes teams can be magic.”

For companies large or small, she says fostering curiosity is at the heart of effectiveness. Leaders need to generate curiosity by forcing people to look outside themselves, see the world with new eyes and fi nd inspiration.

Comstock’s creativity began at an early age. Although her father was a dentist, he loved art history and introduced his daughter to art at an impressionable age. She says it shaped her ability to look at things differently and creatively. “I developed a love for design and curiosity,” she says.

Her background isn’t what most people would expect of someone in charge of digital media integration, but she doesn’t let that get in her way. “I haven’t been traditionally trained,” she says. “I don’t have my MBA, and it can be intimidating if you let it get to you. I don’t focus on deficiencies; I focus on my strengths.”

That’s also helped when she finds herself in unfamiliar territory. “I was thrown into situations where I had to start from scratch,” Comstock says. “But I knew I was a marketer and I thought, ‘here’s what I need to do to be successful.’ ”

She led GE’s ecomagination environmental effort, a cross-business growth program to provide products and services that are environmentally advantageous and ecologically sound, and the “imagination at work” corporate ad campaign that replaced GE’s “We bring good things to life.”

Comstock’s tenure with GE included a stint of two-plus years as NBC Universal’s president of integrated media. In that role, she was responsible for the $600 million acquisition of iVillage, and her leadership in advertising programs at NBC Universal is expected to generate $1 billion in digital revenue this year. She says there was a time in her career when she tried to go it alone and not ask for help, but now realizes that groups can move things forward more effectively. “I am constantly turned on by new ideas and what’s possible,” Comstock says. “You have to take risks and not be afraid of putting the craziest idea out there. You might get laughed out of the room, but there may be a kernel of a great idea in there.”

The key to effective teamwork and leadership, she says, is having a clear vision that you can communicate well. “Every day you have to fasten your seat belt and it’s something different. I have to set very clear goals and objectives.”

Comstock has also worked hard to overcome her introverted nature. “Being reserved, even shy, can be tough in business,” she says. “I have worked hard to overcome this by making it part of my job to be more outgoing. As I have moved ahead in my career, gaining expertise and access, it’s become easier because I can draw on experience and subject-matter skills to build my confidence.”

While Comstock attributes her career development to great leaders she’s worked with, she says ultimately, “You are the boss of your career. I have a perfectionist drive and I always want to be better. I am the kind of person who loves personal development. How you manage your business, team and self is a real business need people have.”

Professionally and personally, Comstock sets goals year-to-year and in three-year increments. “I sit down with my husband and look at the world three years out and assess what works, what doesn’t,” she says. “It’s a way to see if we accomplished what we wanted to and it’s a nice frame of reference.”

Now 47, Comstock is most proud of her two grown daughters, Katie and Meredith. “They are confident and independent, and I couldn’t be more proud of who they are,” she says. “I have a job I love and a family I adore. Family is most important, but time away from family is well-spent when it’s something you are passionate about.”

Comstock says she is still working on balance, although she’d love to say she’s a master. “I think for a long time I came last because my family came first, then my job,” she says. “But the older I get, I realize I need to worry about me, whether that’s more sleep, more exercise.”

She and her husband enjoy leisure time including trail walks on a 1,000-acre nature preserve in Connecticut where they live. She also takes in a fun dance class on weekends. “I am totally uncoordinated, but it’s fun to act goofy and prance around,” she says. “I look forward to it every weekend and I wish I discovered it a lot earlier.”

If she had to do it all over again she says she’d worry less. “Worrying less is about letting go and not wasting other people’s energy worrying about how things are going to turn out,” she says. “Once you pick a path, you have to make it work for you.”

Here are some of the strategies she uses:

Fostering creativity: “Give some sort of guidelines or framework on which to be creative. Great creative gives you great outcomes.”

Overcoming obstacles: To overcome shyness, “I found that curiosity propels me forward. Sometimes I look back on a situation where I was reluctant to speak up, even when I knew I could have added value, or was afraid to meet someone new and regret the missed opportunity. That’s what I tell myself now: ‘You don’t want to miss this opportunity. Get in there.’”

Best practices: “Allow the culture you create to be driven by curiosity. Constantly discover the new and listen.”

Motivation: “I motivate people by recognizing the strength of the whole team. It starts when voices are heard. It’s an energy that builds upon itself.”

Flexibility: “We may have certain descriptions in our heads or other people’s descriptions of what success is supposed to look like, but you need to go where your passions are. But your defi nition of success can change, and you have to let go and give yourself that flexibility.”

Time management: “Give yourself time to think, and iterate professionally and personally. People need physical space to go to as well as mental space to think.”

In retrospect: “I wish I’d done more internationally. I have traveled the world, but I haven’t lived anywhere else. I wish, in my 20s, I had taken off to live somewhere else to have a different point of view.