The Outsider Inside: 5 Questions with Beth Comstock, author and former Vice Chair, GE


Ask any CEO what their top priority is, and their answer is likely to come down to this: managing change from outside the company and creating change inside of it.

Evolving customer needs. New technologies. More disruption. Different ways of doing business. It’s all change, and it all gets compounded every year. As Beth Comstock sees it, most companies aren’t ready for, or are ill-equipped to handle, the massive changes they face. She should know. Comstock spent nearly three decades at General Electric, becoming CMO and Vice Chair, as well as at NBC Universal, as President. Her book, Imagine It Forward: Courage, Creativity, and the Power of Change, details her life’s journey, and what she’s learned along the way about fostering creativity and navigating change in one of the world’s biggest companies.

When Comstock joined the Outside In podcast, she discussed her book with Interbrand Global CEO Charles Trevail, and talked about her career as a self-described “outsider inside.”

This Q&A has been lightly edited and condensed for clarity.

Why did you write your book, Imagine It Forward?

The central thesis of my book is, you have to give yourself permission to take action and make change happen. I worked with too many people, and across too many industries, where there wasn’t enough of that happening. I wrote the book because change and innovation are really messy, and I think too often people are afraid to try things, to risk things.

When you put humans with other humans in an organization, it exacerbates fear. Everybody puts on their game face — we’re all these warriors, we have no fear, and we’re going to beat the competition! You may want your competition to think that, but with each other you have to have some humility, some honesty. Here’s what we know, here’s what we don’t know.

I think becoming more ready for change is the calling of every company. Right now, in the world we live in, there’s what I call an imagination gap, this need to use what’s trusted and true — we always need more data, more data. But really what we need more of is strategic forethought and creative problem solving.

You’ve used the term “outside in” — the name of our podcast — to describe yourself. Where do you look for outside thinking?

As I was pulling my book together, I realized that, to be successful in pushing for change and fighting for the future, I had to be an “outsider inside.” Somebody who was constantly exploring the outside, yet maintaining credibility and the ability to translate it back inside, in a language that people would understand. I felt it was my job to constantly meet new people, to build a network of insight and of people who were forging new paths — going to where things were strange, where they challenged my point of view.

I needed to understand the rise of entrepreneurship. What did that mean for GE? I hung out with people like Bre Pettis, the founder of MakerBot and creator of the Brooklyn Hackerspace. We were looking at new methods of manufacturing. Yes, the manufacturing we had at GE could come from within, but it was more than likely going to be inspired by people who were doing it themselves. In the Hackerspace, we saw people who were making solar panels and water purification systems and it was like, “Well, wait a minute. We do that. But these guys do it cheaper. Faster. Maybe better.” We could only find that by hanging out in these places.

Peter Drucker said, “The essence of a business is outside itself.” We can all manage from the inside — and we have to — but we don’t manage much from from the outside. Why is that?

It’s like a big Eureka! for many leaders to walk around, but inside. I’ll walk the factory floor. I’ll walk the hallways. Yes, you need to do that. But, keep walking! Go outside!

We did an ad campaign right after the financial crisis, about trying to reconnect to our mission and our center. We took some of our manufacturers — people who were making jet engines and MRIs — and we took them to meet their customers. We took people who were making C.T. scans and we connected them with patients whose lives have been saved. And just the connection, the tears they both had, the ability to suddenly say, “Wait a minute. This is what I’m doing this for?!” — too often we don’t take it to that final step of, Why am I doing this? That was some of the most profound work I’ve been associated with.

“Steve Jobs didn’t talk to his customers. So why should I?” How many times have you heard this line?

I heard that a lot, especially in an engineering tech-focused company. We do it because we can, not because we should. First I would say, “You’re not Steve Jobs. With all due respect.” What often happens in companies where you don’t ask, “What problem am I trying to solve?” is that things get overengineered: too many features, too expensive. Then you wonder, “Why didn’t I meet my plan?” I love the idea of getting out early, asking customers early. You don’t have to listen to everything they say — well, maybe I should rephrase that — you have to listen. You don’t have to necessarily take everything they say and incorporate it. You’re testing a hypothesis with them. You’re trying to understand what’s it going to take to make them accept this. Together, with your customers, you’re educating each other on the change that has to happen. I saw that especially in the digitization of industry. Neither of us really knew what the future would be, but together we had to figure it out. Don’t underestimate the value of bringing your customer along with you by just asking for feedback.

GE is having a tough time at the moment. What’s your legacy there? What about Jeff Immelt’s legacy?

I loved working at GE. I worked there almost 30 years, if you include the NBC years. It’s a company with an important mission. It makes things the world still needs; that’s what companies should do. But it got very complex, and it’s hard to untangle complexity fast. There certainly were things we could have done faster. But in my time there, we shifted to get much closer to customers. We grew the company six percent from organic growth — for an old company, not bad. We went to new global markets. Jeff Immelt was a champion for innovation, and he allowed me to be the kind of leader I became. Most importantly,  he was a champion for the customer. He lived to get closer to the customer, and you can’t ignore that that is important in growing a business.

As for my legacy, I’ve thought a lot about it in the years since I left GE. I share in the book a lot of the failures that we needed to go through to figure out the things that worked. Really, what can I hope for? That a group of great people came together, we did our best work ever. But then it’s time for new people. And so your legacy is to just get it to the next stage and new people have to take it from there.