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‘Take risks, try things that are outside of the scope of your job’

Sangeetha Chengappa Bengaluru | Updated on March 01, 2019 Published on March 01, 2019

Beth Comstock, former GE veteran, shares her thoughts on embracing change

To be ‘change-ready’ in this fast paced world, change must start with you first, as an individual, as an employee and as a leader, says Beth Comstock, global business leader and the first female Vice-Chair of General Electric before she quit the firm. She has been named to the Fortune and Forbes lists of the world’s most powerful women. Here recently to speak at the 10th anniversary of Literati, a corporate book club hosted by SAP Labs India, Comstock spoke to BusinessLine about her work as a change agent and her recently published book, Imagine it Forward: Courage, Creativity, and the Power of Change. Excerpts from the interaction:

What is the most disruptive idea for change that you have introduced in your career spanning over three decades?

The one I’m most proud of would be our clean-tech initiative launched in 2005, called Ecomagination, which was really to get GE focussed on making investments in technology and new products, much earlier than most in the industry. It ended up generating $30 billion of clean-tech sales. In the 17 years since Jeff Immelt asked me in 2001 to lead change at GE, we re-imagined, then re-engineered, the company into the world’s first ‘digital industrial’. When I was at the NBC (National Broadcasting Company), I got to lead the team that seeded what became Hulu.com, which is a streaming service. It’s global but done particularly well in the US.

What is the most memorable career lesson that you can share ?

Give yourself the permission to take risks and try things that are outside of the scope of your job, because you see a better way to do them. While we talk a lot about change, you can’t expect everything to happen at the top; it must start at the individual level first and then move to the team. I have always carved out an experimental budget and assigned a few people to seed the new and the next. At GE, I was very proud to start our venture fund and venture team, where we not only invested in start-ups but created our own start-ups with GE IP (intellectual property), like Inspection by Drone and Data Healthcare Service.

From journalist to chief marketer to Vice-Chair of GE, what part of your career journey was conscious and what was serendipitous?

I’m very good at telling stories and I thought the best way to tell a story is to be a journalist and therefore my first job while at college was reporting for a public radio station. That put me on my future career path in the media. However, I think taking on the role of Chief Marketing Officer at GE was the most conscious part of my career. I saw the opportunity in marketing, which is much more than just telling the stories. Marketing is living in the market. Once I did that, the innovation piece just came from there. All of GE’s reverse innovation efforts in India were seeded right here.

Was it easy for you to take your own advice to embrace change when you had to exit GE when John Flannery took over as CEO?

No, it was really hard. Last year was the most difficult year. I knew I’d be leaving GE at some point, I knew it was coming to the end of Jeff Immelt’s tenure but it was a bit more disruptive than I expected. When you don’t make the change happen, its harder to embrace. I had to actually follow what I advise others to do. I had to stop and give myself permission to try new things. Right now, I am in what I call my wandering year, where I’m out trying to discover some new things I want to do.

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Published on March 01, 2019
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