5 Unique Leadership Lessons From General Electric’s First Female Vice Chair
When Beth Comstock was 22, she called a television news director every single day for months in the hope of convincing him to hire her. When he finally took her call, his scathing question of why he should hire her, crushed that hope. But as soon as the sting of that dismissal faded, Beth squared her shoulders and set out to craft herself a solid answer in case she was ever asked that question again.
That drive coupled with a lively curiousity led her to stints at CNN and CBS, land leadership roles as head of public relations at NBC and president of NBCU’s integrated media, and co-found American online streaming service, Hulu. In 2003, Beth was appointed General Electric’s (GE) first chief marketing officer in 20 years. Last week, she made history again by being appointed as GE’s first female vice chair.
Beth’s career path has been hailed as “extraordinary” and that description extends beyond her achievements to her unusual leadership style. Here are five of her leadership practices that have seen her shine.
1. Drive innovation with courage and collectiveness
Back in 2012, Fast Company asked Beth what she would choose as her business superpower. She chose courage for its ability to drive innovation.
“It takes courage to go forward when no one else thinks it’s a great idea. It takes courage to kill an idea that at one point you thought was going to work out. At GE, we often talk about imagination as a leadership trait. And often to us imagination is, do you have the courage to pick and support good ideas?”
Speaking to Forbes recently, Beth recalled once believing that generating ideas was solely the responsibility of a team leader. Once she realised that her ideas were “not really that good”, she shifted her focus to tapping into the collective creativity of her team. As she told Forbes, “Ideating is better when it is a team sport.”
2. Schedule in creative time
Beth used to wrestle with a fear of flying until she saw the hidden blessing in being 38,000 feet above ground. Her flight time has since become her time to unplug, recharge and flex her creative muscles.
“Before my flight, I choose one or two projects or ideas that require deep thought and organise all of the reading materials and briefs I need. When we take off, I like to write longhand or do mind mapping. I think of the air as a respite from PowerPoint. I limit myself to bursts of 90 to 120 minutes of work. More than that, and I tend to lose the creative spark. Finally, I wind down with a novel or a sitcom and try to let the ideas settle.”
3. Let your curiousity guide your confidence
As a young professional, Beth would sit through important meetings in silence, believing that no one wanted to hear her ideas. This lack of confidence would almost cost her a plum position in the NBC. And just a decade ago, current chairman and CEO of GE, Jeff Immelt, told her that he needed her to be more confident. That was when Beth decided enough was enough.
“To combat my discomfort, I’ve learned to use curiosity as my guide. It’s the camouflage that covers the insecurity of not knowing. The panic of not being perfect. Wanting to know why puts me in the game. I also learned to trust my internal signals — some faint, some deafening. These signals pushed me toward the things I may not have been prepared to do and maybe didn’t want to do but needed to be done anyway. It starts with investing in myself and asking, “If not me, then who?”
4. Do not let efficiency overpower empathy
Beth joined GE after a decade in the media industry, where she had thrived on staying ahead in a fast-paced environment. She assumed that her new role required her to operate with similar “ruthless efficiency”. It did not.
She learnt this when former GE chairman and CEO, Jack Welch, hung up on her in mid-conversation to make her understand what it was like to be in a meeting with someone who was abrupt, and who did not take time to get to know people and their concerns.
“He admonished me for being too efficient. My zeal to do everything on my to-do list—along with my reserved, even shy nature—made me come across as abrupt and cold. He said, ‘You have to wallow in it. Take time to get to know people. Understand where they are coming from, what is important to them. Make sure they are with you.’ It may seem a bit clichéd, but humility plays a lot better than overconfidence.”
5. Keep your successes close, but your mistakes closer
During interviews, the candidates that Beth finds most intriguing are those who can openly talk about their failed ideas, and what they learnt from the experience. She pointed out that success is merely interesting but failure is fascinating because it often means that someone took a risk.
“My advice – to myself and others – is to study the missteps as part of the journey of learning rather than to berate yourself for being such a fool. Keeping the wrongs close and the rights in check creates understanding, pattern recognition and at the least, fodder for a good laugh at yourself.”
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