From the earliest of ages, we’re taught that there are two types of people in this world: the timid, creative and perhaps skittish introvert, and the affable, gregarious extrovert. After our guidance counselors administer a brief Q&A and brand us as one or the other, they bid us well in our journey, often leaving us to believe that there really are only two personalities in life—and that whichever we’ve been assigned is simply a cell to which we must adapt.
But what if in truth they’re less a set of cells, and more a collection of brilliant rooms with doorways connecting them?
Groundbreaking corporate executive Beth Comstock grew up in the small town of Winchester, VA—daughter to a quiet, reserved dentist father, and a school teacher mother who was so wildly outgoing and plugged into her community that Comstock has dubbed her “the unofficial mayor of Winchester.” As a result, Comstock has said, her mother pushed her to be a “joiner,” and to get involved with as many things as possible. Yet Comstock was the definition of shy, and felt most at home inventing games and custom worlds with her friends in the neighborhood—a universe free from rules, the constraints limited to the corridors of imagination.
Comstock, a lover of nature, studied biology at the College of William and Mary, and spent a summer working in a Rubbermaid factory—where her fellow employees took bets about whether she’d last until the end of the day. She lasted the entire summer and absorbed lessons that are explored in this episode of Design Matters—and one gets the sense that people have been placing wagers on Comstock’s chances at success ever since, as she met unknown after unknown head-on with a resolve and determination that would characterize her brilliant working life.
But first, perhaps, she had to fail, and she had to settle.
Comstock dreamt of becoming a science reporter on television. After college, she worked as an on-camera correspondent for a Virginia government news service (and also as a waitress in a Mexican restaurant, given how well the gig paid). Seeking to ascend the ranks, she applied for a meteorologist position in Salisbury, MD—and bombed the interview by mispronouncing the town’s name. Then, after doggedly pursuing a local news director for an interview, he erupted—telling Comstock she looked like she was 12, and demanding to know why he would put someone like her on television.
She was crushed. She had always lived life by the rules and the expected, according to established paths, expectation, tradition, custom. So she succumbed to the negative feedback and gave in to her college boyfriend’s marriage proposal, setting her dreams aside to live life as a wife and mother.
“Everything was happening too fast,” she writes in her new book, Imagine it Forward. “It was as if someone else was narrating my life.”
But soon enough, something snapped. A gnawing urge had been growing within her and an internal voice was increasing in volume, and she did a remarkable thing that so many do not: She listened to it.
In her mid-20s, Comstock made a series of her own decisions that would be the genesis for everything that would follow: She’d get a divorce. She would focus on her career and building a life. And she would do it all on her own terms. As she has since written, the key isn’t to always make the right decision—it’s to act decisively. So with great terror and the looming unknown, she did.
After a handful of gigs, Comstock nabbed a job as publicity coordinator for NBC’s Washington bureau—and then she became head of the department and moved to New York City. In 1989, she took a job leading CNN’s PR. And then came the wet hand of Ted Turner that further redefined her life. Comstock was tasked with running Turner’s schedules and appearances when he came to the city, and she did so flawlessly—but she would also do so rather anonymously, disappearing into the background and avoiding the gaze of her boss at events, so much so that she doesn’t think Turner even knew her name. She was fully cognizant that she was likely missing out on career advancement and the other perks of being recognized for work done exceedingly well, so she decided to lead a coup against her shyness. At the United Nations, where Turner was set to receive an award, he swung by the bathroom first. When he emerged, Comstock extended her hand and formally introduced herself in the tiniest of voices. Turner shook her hand, and waited to see if she had anything to add. Comstock looked down. He walked away.
She was devastated at her inability to step up and engage for the good of her career. So she decided to more forcefully address her biggest fear, concocting a plan to engage with someone every single day by asking them a question. A forgettable daily encounter for many the extrovert, yet an intense prospect for the rest of us. And by the power of painful practice, Comstock grew, and so did her confidence.
The work followed. She led PR for CBS East Coast entertainment. She served as VP for NBC News Media Relations. Her wins were significant in the industry, and likely remarkable to many who knew the shy side of Comstock. And then Jack Welch, GE’s legendary CEO, came calling. GE owned NBC. Welch had heard tell of her work, and wanted her to serve as VP of corporate communications within GE. As she writes, it was a leap of faith, and a necessary one at that: “This was a path I had to follow, even if I had no idea where it was leading me.”
One moment that stands out in Comstock’s subsequent work for the company: Her reaction to the events of Sept. 11, 2001. Comstock felt that GE, the most American of companies, should act—they had an opportunity, if not an obligation, to show the country resolve, that things would be OK. Working with GE’s external agency on a print ad, Comstock wasn’t happy with what was being proposed—until she saw a pencil sketch of the Statue of Liberty, her sleeves rolled, bearing the message, “We will roll up our sleeves. We will move forward together. We will overcome. We will never forget.” She thought it was perfect.
… But nobody else at the company did. They thought it did not feel like a GE ad, and would get the business destroyed in reaction. But she trusted her gut, and booked placement in the major newspapers. The night before it ran, the anxiety (read: panic) kicked into high gear. If it tanked, would she get chastised? Demoted? Fired? She turned over every outcome in her mind, as she does, prepping for each possible scenario—a practice she has since said allows her to in fact feel comfortable dreaming large without barriers, never ruling anything out because of perceived risk.
Still, in the moment she was terrified. But when the ad launched, it was a colossal hit. An instant classic. It popped up all over New York and the country. It was, seemingly, what the U.S. needed in that moment: Optimism. And Comstock had delivered it, through all the fear, all the adversity, all the doubt.
A bone-rattling lesson for a shy introvert, but a vital one for a career: As Comstock has since written, “If failure is not an option, then neither is success.”
More high stakes positions followed. She continued to rise. She became chief marketing officer of GE. She became president of Integrated Media at NBCUniversal. She became SVP of GE. She became vice chair of GE. The innumerable successes for the corporate exec with the curious biology background mounted with each title change, landing her on the likes of Forbes’ Most Powerful Women list: She put GE’s products and services on a new, environmentally friendly path; she served as a key player in the development of what would become Hulu; she worked on GE Lighting and the company’s smarthome initiatives that were years ahead of their time.
And then, in December 2017, she retired from GE following the departure of her friend and champion, CEO Jeff Immelt. Reflecting on her extraordinary journey and evolution from shy kid to high-powered executive to author and now, free agent—and looking ahead to what comes next—one recalls Comstock’s description of when she was happiest growing up, inventing games alongside her neighborhood comrades:
“Nobody told us what to do. There were no consistent rules. We just used our imaginations to create worlds for ourselves out of nothing, the epitome of what play expert Stuart Brown calls ‘self-directed play.’ We’d construct cities from branches and leaves in the fields near our houses. We’d make up outlandish imaginary characters. We’d put on impromptu carnivals in which we’d all be clowns, ringmasters, animals, daredevils and fortune tellers, with the roles rotating if we felt like it. We were like jazz improvisers trying out every possibility and riffing off each other’s ideas until we found the melody. Nobody felt ashamed if an idea didn’t work out. We’d just move on to the next possibility.”
—Zachary Petit, Design Matters Media Editor-in-Chief
THE INTERVIEW TRANSCRIPT:
Debbie Millman: Beth Comstock has an unusual resume. Most of her career, almost three decades of it, has taken place within the same company, General Electric. It's not that she hasn't moved around. She started in public relations at NBC, then worked her way up to become Chief Marketing Officer, and finally GE's first female Vice-Chairman. But in 2017, she made perhaps her biggest move so far. She left the company to pursue her own projects. One of which is her new book. It's called Imagine It Forward. And it's about summoning courage and creativity in the face of constant change. Beth is also a Director at Nike and former Board President of the Cooper Hewitt National Design Museum. She joins me today to talk about her new book and her extraordinary career.
Beth Comstock, welcome to Design Matters.
Beth Comstock: Thanks, Debbie. I'm so happy to be here. Thank you.
DM: Beth, I understand when your daughter Katie was in the fifth grade she invented something called the Hairistotle, which she dubbed The World's Smartest Hairbrush. Hairistotle. Can you tell us a bit more about that?
BC: Well, as the momager of that equation, I pretty quickly took over Katie's invention and thought it was also mine. And she was in a school science fair and had this amazing idea to come up with a hairbrush that cleans itself. It was a really simple concept. Like netting on top of a hair, with velcro that didn't stick to your hair. And poof, you released it and the hair fell out. It was so good. She went from Montclair, New Jersey science fair, all the way to the regionals in New Jersey. And I was micromanaging her all the way.
DM: And did you get a patent? Is that true?
BC: Well, we actually talked about it. We kind of in the end lost our nerve, because it ended up being far more beauracracy, and she then went on to something else. Her next invention was a toothbrush that had toothpaste already built in. She didn't advance quite as far, but we were onto the next thing.
DM: Well, that's now in existence. It's a real thing.
BC: It is. I know. I know. I think it was because she was baking the toothpaste in our oven, and the noxious fumes were like ... We had to move out of the house virtually. But she was onto the next thing. I loved that example. I'm glad you picked it out. Because it was, one, like I said, I micromanaged her. So she probably doesn't have the same warm and fuzzy feeling about that I do. But I just love that as an example of having an imagination in your life, whether you're a kid or a mom.
DM: It's incredible. You grew up in the tiny town Winchester, Virginia. Your dad was a dentist, and your mom was a schoolteacher. And I understand you were quite shy. Not entirely like your dad, who you've described as reserved, quiet, and creative. But your mother was the opposite of you both. You've described her as the unofficial mayor of Winchester, because of how wildly outgoing she was. Was it hard to be a shy kid and grow up under someone so involved with the community, and out there on the scene?
BC: Well, my mother dragged my everywhere with her. So the good news is, as a shy person, I didn't have to talk that much. Because my mother loves to talk, and she's never met someone she doesn't just love. So when you're tagging along with my mom, you don't have to do a lot of the work. We still today have this family joke, when we want to find out the juicy stuff about someone, we send my mother. She always gets the story. She's one of those people you sit next to on a plane, and before you know it, you've told your whole life story, and she's giving you advice. So it had it benefits. And it took the pressure off of me.
DM: You've written that as a result of your shyness, your mother pushed you to be a joiner. How did she do that?
BC: Well, she would say things like, "Why aren't you in that club?" Or "What about those girls over there, they're in dance class, why don't you think about doing that?" Or "Hey, I heard ... " Because she was a schoolteacher, and she had her network of all the other teachers, she usually knew what we were doing before we even thought about it. So she knew what my friends were doing, because she was in that teacher network. So she would often have these creative ideas that maybe I wouldn't have expressed to her, and she would go, "Hey, so and so is doing that. Why don't you think about that?" And I think she appreciated ... Being more like my father, she knew how my father was like. And I think she just appreciated that without that nudge, I wouldn't have moved forward.
Usually she did it with good cheer. Sometimes it was a bit heavy-handed, because she just thought I needed to be out there. But I'm glad she did. And in the small town where I grew up, you kind of knew what everybody was doing anyway. So it was helpful to have an advocate at that point.
DM: You still consider yourself a natural introvert though, is that correct?
BC: I do. I do. I've had to work hard to overcome the parts of it that had held me back in business. I always found Susan Cain's book, Quiet, was such a helpful relief when she published that several years ago. What I learned about that that I identified in myself as ... There's the shy, reserved, quiet. I think it's Quiet for a reason, but that it's really about conserving energy. And that introverts more draw their energy in, and extroverts more need to get energy by giving things away. And so for myself, I still feel like I've had a very busy day. I'm energized talking to you, but it will have been a full day where I've been going. So tonight I'll probably curl up into a little ball, and need to reserve that energy.
So to me, that's the best way I've thought of thinking about it. Is you just constantly need to recharge your batteries.
DM: When you were growing up in Winchester, Virginia, what did you imagine you were going to do when you grew up?
BC: It's funny you ask that. I recently was clearing out some old folders of mine, and I found a report I did when I was 14. And it had the very provocative title of "Everything You've Always Wanted to Know About BC * But Were Afraid to Ask." And it was all done in this beautiful 14-year-old ... Every 14-year-old girl handwriting of the i's were open circles, the y's were curly q's. Well I can tell you there wasn't much riveting to find out about me at 14, but I did find this amazing thing where it said, "I am ambitious and I want to be about 50 different things." And I have to say, it was so comforting for me to hear that.
But then I went on to describe some of the things I wanted to be. I can't believe I wrote, "I wanted to be a lawyer." Honestly, that must have been one day. I can never recall wanting to be a lawyer. I wanted to be a doctor. I wanted to be a psychologist. I wanted to be a teacher. I wanted to be a mountain climber. I think I wanted to be some kind of fashion model. Gosh knows what it was. But you could tell every day, as a 14 year old, I had some new encounter. Maybe I watched a TV show. I don't know. I wanted to be an island castaway, because I used to remember watching Gilligan's Island reruns. So who knows?
But at 14 I wanted to be so many different things, and I think as I look back, it's carried me through my life. Just a varied interest.
DM: I think when the paperback version of your book comes out, you must put that in your epilogue.
BC: Yeah. I guess, one, you realize there's parts of you that were always there. And you forget. You think 14 is kind of like a blob or something, I don't know. In my memory, I think, "What was 14?" But that part, "I'm ambitious." I love that I thought that at 14.
DM: I love that. Yeah.
BC: And frankly, up until that point, reading it I was like, "What? Who is this girl?" But that I had that at 14, I'm really proud of that.
DM: You studied and got your degree in biology at the college of William and Mary. Why biology? I guess at that point, you did want to be a doctor?
BC: I thought I was going to go to medical school. My minor, what I really loved was anthropology. If I could go back in time, that's what I would've studied, was anthropology. I thought I was going to go to medical school. As I was ending my college time ... I really wanted to be a story teller. I wanted to be a science journalist. I decided, "Yeah, maybe medical school ... After chemistry and physics, maybe medical school isn't quite what I want." And I wanted to tell stories about science. And I wanted to be a health reporter. But the first thing I did, was I went out and got an internship at the local public radio station in Norfolk, Virginia. Which was the big city near there.
And I spent a year just telling stories. I would go interview my biology professor, and talk about mitosis or something really boring. And next thing you know, I ended up going to my home town and interviewing the migrant apple pickers who had come ... Our town was big ... One of the farming ... There was apples. So I remember I followed these Jamaican apple pickers around, and they had these lovely songs. I've actually tried to find that audio. I'd love to find it. I still remember the beautiful songs that they sang to pass the time away.
While science was my thing, it was really the story telling bug that propelled me forward.
DM: In between your freshman and sophomore years of college you worked in a Rubbermaid factory-
BC: You did your homework. Wow.
DM: On the 4:00 pm to midnight shift. And on the first day, the workers took bets on whether you'd last until the end of your first shift.
BC: And I did. I did.
DM: But why were they so pessimistic?
BC: Well, I am a weakling. And I looked just soft. I don't know. I looked like I was afraid of my own shadow. My dad took me and picked me up for most of my time there. So they could tell I was a bit sheltered. They were like, "Okay smartypants, we're going to show you." And I was like, "No, I'm going to show you." And it was actually helpful for me to know they were taking bets.
DM: And by the end of that experience, you actually were quite good friends with the very people that were betting against you?
BC: Exactly. They trained me a lot. And I remember it was so formative for me. I had just come off of my freshman year, and I had taken psychology, and I remember one of the women I was next to a lot in the line. I seem to remember we were making plastic beer mugs or something. And she's like, "Okay, you go to college. Can we talk about psychology?" And she was telling me about her boyfriend, and what did I think. I had no idea. What did I know? I barely knew who Sigmund Freud was. But I just remember it was a great education in human behavior. And also just the superpowers people thought I had after a year of college. So it was a bit of a confidence booster, too, that I was working with older people who suddenly thought I might have some wisdom to impart on them.
DM: Now I understand that you're official broadcasting career began due to a referral from one of your dad's dental patients. And they got you a gig shadowing a young, then unknown, Diane Sawyer.
BC: Yeah, it was a big deal.
DM: So tell us all about that.
BC: Yeah. So my dad, being the dentist, one of his patients ... It was not unusual. Our town was about 70 miles west of Washington, D.C. At the time it was way out in the boonies, now it's a commuter town. But he had a patient who was producer at CBS news, and my dad was like, "My daughter wants to get into broadcasting." I'm sure he had him in some deep molar hole.
DM: If you don't help her, I'm never fixing this tooth.
BC: Exactly. "I'm going to pull these teeth." And so this poor producer said, "Hey, I'm the producer for this woman, Diane Sawyer. Have your daughter come and shadow her at the state department." And oh my gosh, I was-
DM: At that time, too.
BC: And back then she wasn't the Diane Sawyer she became.
DM: But that time in our politics.
BC: At that time was amazing. I still remember ... I hung on every word she said. One I've always ... She was gracious. And it's also made me appreciate whenever you have an opportunity to help a student. So few words mean a lot. I still remember that evening my brother was going to graduate from high school, and I remember she said, "Okay, here's how I want you to think about you're a reporter. I want you to go tonight, and it's not your brother, it's somebody else who's graduating from high school. What did he do? How did he get there? Where's he going?" And so she was giving me just these really simple tips of somebody who I had known my whole life, but trying to give me perspective. Helping me think like a journalist. And I still remember it as if I was talking to her right now instead of you.
DM: After graduating college, you were working both as a waitress at a Mexican restaurant, and in a horribly paying gig as an on-camera reporter for a news service covering the Virginia House of Delegates.
BC: Sounds riveting, doesn't it?
DM: Oh, it sounds fantastic. You then applied for a TV meteorologist job in Maryland. Where I understand you horribly mispronounced the name of the town in the on set interview. So what was the name of the town that you mispronounced, and how did you mispronounce it?
BC: Well, it was Salisbury, Maryland. And I think I called it Salisbury, or something with my Virginia accent. Or I might have even called it Salisbury, because the "is" is somewhat silent. And keep in mind that they had a green screen. And I had done college radio a little bit, and I had hired some people, paid them $10 to do a video of me in my college, but I had never stepped foot in a television studio. And I just walk in there like I knew what I was doing, and I looked the wrong way. It was a disaster. I think they couldn't get me out of there fast enough.
DM: And then I understand a TV news director yelled at you?
DM: And that really set you back. He said that he would never hire you because you looked too young?
BC: Yeah. At this point, I was working for this news service. It was kind of like pre C-SPAN. Think of it as like C-SPAN for the Virginia House of Delegates. And I did everything in that job. I was camera person. I learned how to register a camera. I learned how to do grayscale. It was such a great education. And I had this little on-camera role where I would interview some delegates, and enough to have a reel. So I decided that I was going to go work at Channel 12 in Richmond, and that was my destiny. So I sent my meager little tape, and he never called me back. So I was just like, "I can't believe this." So I made it my calling to call this guy every day.
BC: Every day, and he never took my call. His office. And I'd be like, "Okay, the more he doesn't take my call, the more I'm ... " I'm surprised I didn't show up in person. But I just called him every day, and finally I think he had had it with me calling. He was like, "Look, why do you think I would ever hire someone who looks like you. You look like you're 12. You can barely talk. I will never hire you." And I've since called him Mr. Rant, because he just had this rant at me. And unlike Diane Sawyer, he was not helpful at all. He didn't say, "Go get some experience." Yet he taught me a lot in that. And it sort of brought out this ... One of those moments, you think back and you're like, "You don't know me. I'm going to show the world I can do something here."
So it actually brought out a bit of a resilience in me.
DM: I understand at that point in your life, your confidence was shaken, and your fear of striking out into the unknown held you back. Which ultimately led you to say yes to getting married. You've subsequently described yourself in the following way, "I was a woman who seemed to have it all at the time. A fancy new home near D.C. A seemingly happy marriage to a handsome man of means." At that point you had a job at NBC in publicity, and a beautiful baby daughter. "By every normal measure of success, I had made it. Underneath that success, however, I was filled with despair. Up to that moment, I had lived my life more or less by someone else's narrative. A simple story with defined roles that led to a simple happy ending. Every day, I was killing off my true self with compromises."
First of all, thank you for sharing that kind of vulnerability. For a woman of your stature and success to share that type of story, I think will be incredibly helpful for millions of people.
BC: I hope so. Thank you.
DM: How did you get out of the boundaries of this life that you constructed for yourself at that time?
BC: Well, because my confidence was rocked, and I was like, "Okay, well I guess I'm not going to be a reporter." I got married. And I was in love, and that seemed like the thing to do, yet I hadn't really stopped to say, "Well, what do you want to do?" And next thing you know, you're married, and then you have a kid and-
DM: My god, what have I done?
BC: I was in my mid-twenties at that point. How did I get here? I used to have these fantasies of, "Well, I'm going to start over." But I was only 24. What do you mean I'm going to start over? And fairness to my then husband, I never said, "I aspire to this, and now I'm doing that." I just was like, "This is what one does." But I've learned to listen to my voice, my internal voice, and that voice was like, "You know you wanted something else. You're not exactly sure what it was, but this isn't the path you wanted. So now you got to own your story. You got to write it." And it was very hard. I was choosing to move forward, separating my daughter and my then husband in that sense. There were a lot of sacrifices I was expecting everybody to make, while I figured out my story.
But I had to do it. I can't describe it other than just I had to.
DM: So there you were in your mid-twenties with a baby daughter. You're working as an NBC publicity coordinator.
BC: And I had gotten my big job at that point. I wasn't reporting, but hey, I was at NBC finally. So that's all I knew of what I could go on for the future.
DM: So you chose life as a single mom while you were just starting out.
DM: That is ridiculously courageous.
BC: Well, or stupid. Honestly, I had to make it work. I think that was the message for myself, and why I shared it is ... I shared it because, one, it's not exactly the story you'd imagine in a business book, but I feel like it was a defining moment for me for so many reasons. Because since then, any time I've encountered tough times of change, I can go back and go like, "You did it that time before, remember? You did it." And I had no choice but to figure out how to make it work. And I think that's the lesson. Sometimes when you're naïve, as I was then, I hadn't really thought ahead of some of the negative consequences. I didn't know any different. And I had no choice but to make it work.
DM: You had a massive insight at that time, and it was this, "Something better was a deliberate choice." How did you summon the courage to go for this something better? Did you ever worry that you might not be happier after making these changes? Was that a factor at all?
BC: I didn't think about it as being happy. I just felt like I had to do this. So I just did it. I summoned all my courage. I share in the book, I was too much of a coward to even tell my mother. I made my then husband tell my mother. And I sat there with my ear against the door listening.
DM: How did she respond?
BC: She was shocked. She thought everything was great. And I seemingly was thriving in what I was doing. So I hadn't conveyed to people, even my then husband, I don't think he got a sense of the despair I was feeling at, "Wait a minute, this isn't the path I had planned for myself." So I hadn't clued a lot of people in.
DM: You got a job as the publicity coordinator for NBC's Washington news bureau, and soon took over the department. So clearly you were good at what you were doing, but then you got moved to New York. So you moved to New York City with your small daughter, and in the book you've written that you got a PhD in gatekeepers. What does that mean?
BC: Well, when I finally moved to New York ... And that was one of my aspirations. Just small-town girl. I want to see the world. And New York seemed as big as it could get. So my ambitions were big. I move up and I have a boss who I have dubbed "Jr", and he was a very smart man, but he seemed to have all the answers. I was part of a team and I felt I couldn't do anything.
DM: Yeah, he was mean to you.
BC: He was just ... He knew all the answers. And he was tough to everybody. He just didn't engage us. He sat behind his closed door. Any idea someone would have, it would be like, "No, we're not going to do that." Or, "No, that's not going to work." And it was very discouraging. So I realized that he was a gatekeeper. In the sense that he was just not going to ever say yes. He held on to power. And I was frustrated. I summoned all my courage, and I went in once ... I did this whole report. Another thing I saved. You'll think I'm an archivist, but I'm really not. I think these are things I ... It's probably psychologically saved for these reasons.
But I summoned all my courage, put in this "world according to me" report, and he was like, "Eh." And I was like, "I can't work here if this is who I'm working for." The next opportunity that came along, I had an opportunity to go to Turner Broadcasting, and I took it. And a couple things came out of that. I realized, it was early in my career, there will always be gatekeepers. Sometimes they're even in your own head. Were there different ways I could've worked around him? Were there other places in my company I could've gone to work? All those things were true. At the time, it seemed like I was never going to go anywhere because he was in the way.
So that was my lesson there. In hindsight, there were more things I could've done to try to make that work.
DM: But that gave you the opportunity to get a job leading PR at the then brand new news station called CNN. Which aptly stood for Cable News Network. I'm wondering if you can share with our listeners how shaking Ted Turner's wet hand, after he emerged from the bathroom, changed your life.
BC: Well it was, and again, one of those small moments that mean a lot in your mind. Because I was reserved. I had worked at Turner for a year, and Ted did not even know my name. He was all over the world, but when he came to New York he got a lot of awards, and I was the PR person that handled them with him. And I would do a really good job, and then I would recede into the wallpaper, literally. I remember one dress I had, I'm wearing a flowered top now, but I think it almost matched the wallpaper. I still remember it. I was standing at the UN. And it's like you could barely see I was there.
I was like, "I've been working for this guy for a year, and he doesn't know my name. Oh it's because I haven't introduced myself. So okay, now I'm going to do it." I see him go in the men's room and I'm like, "Okay, now is my moment." He comes out and I go, "Hi Ted, I'm ... " And before I could even spit it out, he's like, "Oh, hi." And he kind of waited to see what I was going to say. And I didn't have much to say. I looked down, and he kind of walks away and he zips his fly, because he wasn't even done. And his hand was uncomfortably wet. He never learned my name. I felt like a total ...
But there was a little part of me of like, "Okay, you did it."
BC: You know what, it was so awkward. It was so awkward. And I don't know if introvert comes with being awkward, but I could also attest to being awkward at those moments. Over-thinking. But there was a little of like, "Okay, you did it. You did it." So that was a pivotal moment for me to say, "You can stand against the wall and literally look like wallpaper, or you could put yourself out there and be awkward." And he probably still never knew my name.
DM: What was it like being at the entryway of a whole new way of culture consuming news?
BC: Yeah. It was amazing. I remember being there during the first Gulf War, and walking down Times Square with then Bernie Shaw, and some of these people, Peter Arnett, who had been in the first Gulf War. It was the huge revolution in media. It was 24 hour news. This idea that you could get news whenever you wanted, from anywhere in the world. It changed the way we communicate. It changed the way how people learned about their world. It was revolutionary.
And Ted Turner was very much a maverick. I think because he was from the south, people discounted him. He had that real southern drawl. And as somebody who had grew up in the south, I think people took him for granted. But he was incredibly smart, so he got away with a lot of things. And he challenged the status quo, which was the New York media. And I had come from New York media. The little time I worked at NBC. But they were looking to disrupt those folks, and they did. They did a good job of it.
DM: In 1993 you were the PR lead for CBS East Coast Entertainment when you were offered a job as Vice-President of NBC News Media Relations. Everyone at the time warned you against taking it, because the network was doing really poorly at the time. But your gut told you it was the right decision, and you took it. Talk about that gut feeling, and what makes it something that you feel like you can trust.
BC: Yeah. Well, again, it was similar to that deciding to lead forward with a divorce. I can't say that it was not logical. It was just like, "You need to do this." So just to set the stage, CBS was number one. Had hired David Letterman. Had all the hot shows. NBC was suffering, especially the news division. They had had an original fake news incident, where they literally staged a story that they then had to retract. And basically most of the people got fired. So I was offered a chance to come back in when there was little to no team. Certainly in the PR team. With Andy Lack, who was the new news president. And I can't describe why, it just seemed like I want to be part of something starting over again.
Truth be told, I got a better title, but no more money. So it's not like they wooed me with wealth, and like, "Oh my gosh, you're going to come to this horrible job, and we're going to pay you." I can't describe it except I wanted to be part of something that seemed like we had nowhere to go but up. And I was entranced with that idea. Literally the night before, I had people ... When I announced. "Career suicide. This is stupid. No one's ever going to hire you again." The more people were like, "No, you shouldn't do that." The more I was like, "Well, maybe I should."
DM: You've described that particular job as your entrepreneurial awakening. In what way?
BC: One, I had to help form a team. There was nobody on the team. It was one of the first jobs I had where I got to really pick the people I worked with. We could go for anything. We could come up with any idea, and if they would let us, go for it. It's not like we had gatekeepers. There no gatekeepers saying, "No, you can't do that." They were looking for any idea they could have. At the time, one of the big ideas Steve Friedman, who was the Today producer, had pitched the Window on the World studio ... Again, we now take it for granted. And that was our coming out party. And we came up with so many great ideas, and we did such a great job. But they let us do anything, as long as it was strategically sound, and it was going to get some attention, and build back the reputation.
So I learned so much from that opportunity of, "Just go for it." Did I intuit that? I don't think I was smart enough to intuit that, but I knew something different was happening. And that, I think, just called to me.
DM: In that role, you got to know General Electric CEO Jack Welch, GE owned NBC at the time, and Microsoft CEO Bill Gates. In 1998 you got called up to Jack Welch's office. His assistant hit a small white button, his door slid open, and he asked you to work for GE. What was that scene like? I sort of picture as very 2001. Stanley Kubrick's 2001, with HAL, and white, and all of that. I don't know if that's accurate.
BC: Except a lot of wood.
BC: I think that's the difference. They were big on a lot of-
DM: Paneling? Yeah.
BC: Paneling. I thought my whole career was going to be in media. By this point, I had gone out of news and worked for heading communications for all of NBC, and I liked it there. I thought that was my passion. So I got this call up, and I had to come up to his office, Jack's office, he had an office in New York that was a floor above the NBC offices. And I go with my notepad, because at least every six months there was a rumor that GE was going to sell NBC. So I was convinced he was going to say to me, "Get a press release ready." And he was like, "I want you to come and work here." So I was stunned. And I was one of the few people who actually thought it would be a good idea to leave media and go to GE. A lot of GE people wanted to go to NBC. It was fun.
DM: It's much sexier.
BC: Sexy. I remember standing by the elevator after I had announced it, and this guy goes, one of my NBC colleagues, "So, you're really going to do it? You're going to go sell light bulbs?" And I was like, "Yeah. I'm going to go sell light bulbs." And again, it was one of those things where GE was always a great company, I didn't know business that much, but I ... Small-town girl, want to see the world, and this global company, and to be able to learn new industry. It was science related. So there were a lot of reasons to say I want to do this.
DM: What kind of job was he offering you?
BC: He was offering me Head of Publicity for GE, and he said, "Look, I'm going to be transitioning out." He had announced he was going to have a succession race. He hadn't, even then, identified who. Said, "In about 3-4 years, I'm going to be leaving. And I want someone from a PR perspective, and oh by the way, I'll throw in advertising, because you're coming out of NBC." So that was a hook to me of something creative. And it meant I had to uproot my family and move to Connecticut, and enter a world I knew very little about. In fact, if anything, I was bored about GE. I went to GE meetings, and they just seemed so boring.
But there was just something about him saying this will be fun, and this big global platform that spoke to my ambitions.
DM: Is it true that Jack Welch carried a brown briefcase given to him by his mother, that he named Mr. Lucky?
BC: That's true. It was this beaten up, ratty old thing. I haven't seen him in a while, I don't know if he even still carries it. I don't know, I think his assistant had had to take it and get it tailored.
DM: I imagine tape around it. Duck tape.
BC: No. And somehow they ... It's almost like that. But it was so ... And he literally ... It was like his lucky bag. If he didn't have it in his sight, or know where it was, he would get agitated. I took from that, too, just the superstitions that everybody brings to work, and the things we think we need. And I think it was just a lot of his emotion for his mother. He was very close to his mother. So I think there was this affection for his mother that was about that, as much as anything. But you learn a lot from people by their magical thinking.
DM: What is the biggest thing you learned from Jack Welch?
BC: His candor. He was incredibly candid. You always knew where you stood with him. And I will be forever grateful. I didn't always like it. I would say I rarely liked it. But I will be forever grateful to have seen that. He had this saying, it would be, "You're either a pig or prince, you are never a princess." And he would let you know. If you didn't do well, he would call you up, or rarely he would come to my office, rarely. But once he came to my office, he's like, "You're a pig today." And he wasn't happy with the way I had handled something. But I knew. Okay, I know what I have to do. And once something worked out really well. We had done a piece, a 60 minutes piece or something, and he was nervous about it. It worked out well, and he was like, "You're a prince." I got a note. I think I even got a little bonus because it had worked out. And I felt like I was really proud at that moment, because he took the time to let you know where you stand.
And it wasn't always so generous, to be honest. It could cut you down if you weren't ready to take it. And let's face it, we all don't want feedback. We need to be in the right frame of mind, and usually when he would tell you you're a pig, you didn't want to hear it.
DM: That's also really mean.
BC: Yeah. It was tough. It was tough. He would say things like, "That's got to be the second stupidest idea I've ever heard." And I-
DM: Did he ever tell you what the first one was?
BC: No. But it made me wonder, but I was too afraid to say, "Well, what's the stupidest?" But it made me kind of wonder. Wonder what the first stupidest idea was? So you had something to aspire to. So maybe in his mind, he was giving you some aspiration. But it was funny. It was one of those like, "Ha ha ha," everybody laughed, but inside you're like dying. You're like, "Yeah, but it was just an idea." So I think there were good things about that, in that the performance focus was needed. And I think I learned a lot from that. But I think there's a way to be candid without being blunt. And to do it in a way ... And I shared another time where he called me up and had fun with me on something. I had been too abrupt, and he had told me this a couple of times. He called me up on the phone and hung up on me to show me what I was like. He had a sense of humor. That was caring.
So he could be rough and tough, but he could also be quite human and empathetic. I think that's the thing about leaders of organizations. We tend to think they're one type of person, and yet they have both strengths and weaknesses, and you have to accept that.
DM: Do you think that the role of leadership is changing? Do you think that in today's world, that Jack would be allowed, with the word "allowed" in quote marks, to speak in that way to people?
BC: I don't think so.
BC: I think he was really great for that era, and that what he needed ... It was much more tops-down command control kind of world. It was less the hyper-connectivity, the distributed nature of what we have. Especially a company of 300,000 ... I don't think you can do it of 300,000 employees for sure, but I even wonder should leaders be doing it if you have a team of three? Really your job of leadership, I believe, my experience has taught me that I think your job as a leader is to inspire with a vision for the future. To coach your team to get there. And to allow, empower them the room to make mistakes. Usually I think that's where good leadership comes out. And so that might've worked, and it ... I'm somewhat conflicted, because Wall Street seems to like that, and we do get a certain kind of performance. But I think there's a middle ground. And I think we need to be more accommodating there.
DM: You share these stories and your journey through GE in a remarkable new book titled Imagine It Forward: Courage, Creativity, and the Power of Change. It's a business book, but it's also ... What makes this book so unique is that it's also a memoir. A really, really vulnerable memoir. You are as hard on yourself as Jack was. You're extremely vulnerable in sharing what you believe your strengths and failures were. What your weaknesses were. What you wished you had done differently. Would you agree in that memoir-esque type of description?
BC: Yeah. It's a different kind of business book. So if somebody's looking for just a simple check list, there are books that do that on change. Mine is much more narrative. I wanted it to be personal and practical. So as I was putting it together ... I did it for two reasons. One, I wanted to chronicle this time in business, and just being a change innovator's journey, change-making innovator's journey. I wanted to chronicle that. But I also wanted to just be reflective, and offer it as some learnings to people who are coming along. And I felt the only way I could do that, would be to share my story. I had the opportunity to reflect, and I needed to share it.
It makes me very nervous to have it in the world. In many ways. Because I'm putting it out there. I name names in a way not to be sensational or to say, "Gotcha" to people, because I feel like I'm trying to show the good and the bad of the situation. And trying to be real about it. And I felt how ... Some people, I don't call them their real name, I call them a nickname, but most people, especially if they were more senior people, I try to share that. So I was very deliberate in trying to share it. But that's what I was trying to do. To just say, one, you can do this. If you're coming along in your managing career. First time manager maybe. You're going to have doubts. You're going to get it wrong. You're going to do this. And how could I do it if I didn't share my own story. So that's what I tried to do.
DM: Yeah. I found it incredibly insightful, and also I was really grateful that you were showing some of the pitfalls of leadership. In that I experienced some similar outbursts over the course of my career and thought, "Oh, I guess I wasn't the only one that did it that way."
BC: And I think I'm a woman who's had a business career, unexpected business career, and I've grown as a leader. It's not a book about women's leadership, but I am a woman who's led. I was trying to show what it's like to lead differently. And I've been able to express myself as much creatively as I have about difference, and as a gender difference. So I also wanted to be able to show what it's like to lead differently. And I think sometimes creative people have a harder time in established organizations than anything. So, in many ways, GE was a huge unleashing for my creative energy. So unexpected. And how could I share that, except to show that, and show real stories of that.
DM: In your book, you declare that we've been taught to believe that our capacity for imagination is reserved for artists and inventors. The science on this is clear, however, imaginative thinking is a universal human talent. An evolutionary gift handed to us. That has made us who we are, the undisputed champions of adaptation. But with the rise of the industrial revolution and the corporation, we lost some of our ability to adapt. Beth, why have we relegated imagination to the realm of the artist?
BC: It really drives me crazy. I'm feeling a bit of a mission on this. Because we don't feel comfortable with it. Because we think it's soft. And I tried to be very deliberate in what I was talking about imagination. I tried to refine the definition, for the sake of my book, to be about creative problem solving. The ability to think ahead to future scenarios, both good and bad, and then work your way out of those. And I worry we've just become very short-term focused. Most of business has grown up over the past 100+ years with an industrial mechanistic blueprint. And we're going forth into the digital age with that kind of construct, and I think-
DM: Education is the same way.
BC: It is. We're expecting people to have the answers. Not to sort of test and learn. Imagination is seen as soft, and I don't understand why. Well, I understand why, but I think we need to take it more seriously. In the sense that we're focused on productivity, efficiency, check lists, follow these five things and you'll get the answer, and yet we're right now in this time of unprecedented change. Disruptive challenges every day that you're not going to have a check list to figure it out. I recently was on a flight from San Francisco, and the pilot ... The flight's delayed, the pilot comes out, we're waiting in the ... before we get on the plane. He goes, "Great news. Our autopilot went out, but the FAA has allowed me to take you home, because I am old enough, I've been around enough, I know how to fly a plane without autopilot. And I am so excited. I've been waiting for this day for a long time, because I get to use my brain to fly you home."
And to me, that was a metaphor of what we're talking about in many of our companies. We've turned our people into these machines running machines. And how do we think about unintended things? How do we come up with new ideas? And I worry we're not training people. So that's really what's at the heart of it. It's I hope to encourage people to grab permission, use their imagination to think creatively for the future.
DM: You'd think that imagination would have a much better wrap these days. Especially after Yuval Noah Harari's Sapiens, where ... The big aha for me in reading that book, was the notion of imagination being our defining difference with other mammals. It's just an extraordinary thing to consider.
BC: Well, how do you make sense of it, given your career, and your look at education. Why do you think it is?
DM: Because there's so much risk involved.
BC: Yeah. That's it. Yeah.
DM: Because to imagine it forward means that you can't predict it. You're imagining something that may or may not happen.
BC: No, I think that's well said. To me, risk is acting on imagination. And you don't have certainty. How many times did I get a business leader saying, "I'll do that if you guarantee me we get $100 million." Yeah, well, if I were that good I'd be ... No, it doesn't work that way. It doesn't work that way.
DM: But I do think where so many people can benefit from reading this book, is those that do have powerful imaginations, but are afraid to mitigate that risk. Because there really is no other choice. I have some favorite quotes in the book, you have one that I love. You say, "We are hardwired to flee ambiguity, chaos, and the unknown." Do you feel that there's any way we can encourage both artists and engineers to change that hard wiring in some way, so that we aren't so likely to flee that ambiguity. It feels like the only way to be able to imagine it forward successfully, is to be able to calibrate that fear.
BC: Yeah. Well, I think you mentioned two great things. One is, I think we have to accept there's a fear of that. People have a fear of the unknown. We need to change our dialogue. We need to ask questions differently. "What's your hypothesis?" Is I think a great question. I don't have to know the answer. I really like "figure it out" kind of jobs. Where you just throw people in a situation. I remember working, I hired one person to come in and figure out the future of blockchain in our company. It barely had a job description. It was a year of just "go figure it out." That was a test of her. It was test of all of our colleagues. She found people. They came back together. They came up with a blueprint. We need to put people more in those situations where they're given this space.
I have this fantasy, it would never happen for all the reasons we talk about. But think about just corporate development and education. A company like GE spends a lot on development, but if you really wanted to develop someone, what if you just ship them out to, I don't know, just pick a city in the middle of the country. Akron. I like Akron. We're going to take a team. You got to find your way home. We're not going to get you plane tickets. Maybe we'll take your phone away. I don't know. Just leave you with a credit card or something. Find your way back.
DM: Sort of like one of those corporate forest missions.
BC: Exactly. But we don't do enough of those kind of ... I think some companies do that. They do it maybe as a simulation for once. But I think we need to deliberately think about assigning people some of these roles where they don't have to know the answer. Where the risks are smaller. Maybe getting home from Akron, the risks are too big. But there are some ways I think we can assign people to roles where it's okay they don't have exactly the perfect answer. I think we're heading just the opposite way though.
DM: For all of the talk about failure, and the failure porn that we see.
BC: That's a good description.
DM: It's still something that is seen as shameful.
BC: Do you see that here? I hear that from people who are exposed to students a lot. That you get a lot of students who come to school fearing failure.
DM: I don't think they fear failure as much as they fear not being successful.
BC: Oh, that's interesting.
DM: And, yes, they're sort of the same things, but they're not pushing themselves enough to be able to fail, because they're afraid of not being a success. But you also say, and this is my favorite quote in the book, "If failure is not an option, then neither is success."
BC: Yeah, I like that quote too. Yeah, I believe that.
DM: You've got to do a t-shirt. You've got to do a book. Something just on that.
BC: I'll get you one. I'm going to give you a t-shirt with that.
DM: If failure is not an option, then neither is success. And part of what ... I guess you recognized without even realizing it, when you were 24 years old and decided to upend your whole life to pursue a different life, was that if you don't put yourself on the path to potentially fail, you're never going to succeed. And we are living in a really failure-adverse culture. The thing that scares me most about the students that I teach, both grads and undergrads, is how fearful they are about not making it by the time they're 30. And you started a whole new career at that age, in your earlier 30s. I didn't start my career, my official career in branding, until I was 33.
So I think that the notion of making it by the time you're 30 is so limiting and constricting in all the worst possible ways.
BC: Yeah. It gives you just heart palpitations hearing you say that. It's just so constricting. And we throw around these fail fast, fail small. Like it's really easy. Like, "Yeah, just going to fail and I'm going to get funded." It doesn't work that way. It's really hard work. I've been on this journey the past year. I left my company. I had this book. I have silly things, but they ... I have had like five different websites. I've had to ... All these things that you beat yourself up for, but they're part of that journey. And I won't say it's joyful. There are moments of just absolute fear, like what if I don't get this right? What if this doesn't happen? But I know I kind of need to go through that.
And that's what I hear you saying people aren't putting themselves in that position. It is like an athlete. You're building certain kind of muscles that way.
DM: Yeah. I want to talk about a job that you turned down. Really remarkable part of the book. Your interactions with Steve Jobs. So while you were at NBC, Steve Jobs tried hard to get you to work for Apple. He actually tried twice. You actually had to say no to Steve Jobs twice. First of all, what was it like being in a job interview with him?
BC: Well, he was still Steve Jobs, but he wasn't the icon of all time Steve Jobs. He was on his way up. He's abrupt. So it was flattering in some sense. I remember-
DM: And he just called you up on your cell phone, right?
BC: And I had been in the process talking ... At the time, I was talking to the iTunes team, and it was Eddy Cue in those days too. iTunes had just started. So most of my conversation was with Eddy and his team. And I pick up the phone, my cell phone, and it's Steve Jobs saying, "We'd really like to have you here." So that was incredibly flattering.
DM: Pulling out the big guns.
BC: Yeah. But yeah, I said no. At that first one, the job didn't seem right. And then the second time, he's like, "Come out, let's take a walk." And-
DM: You thought he was smaller than you'd imagined him to be, right?
BC: Yeah, exactly. And he's like, "I'd like you to come and work here." The job was very ambiguous, but he was very insistent. He was like, "It will be great." In fact, I didn't write this in the book, but he was like, "Come on, I want you to go into this meeting with me." And we left. After we had walked around, went to his conference room. We're talking no more than an hour, and we go into this conference room with some of his team, and he's like, "Here's my friend, Beth, she's going to come and work for us." And just, "Beth, sit here for a while." And I was like, "What are you ... " He was pretty insistent that I was going to be working there. So he had made up his mind I was going to go.
So it puts that extra pressure on you, and then I'm like, "Oh my gosh." And it just wasn't the right thing for me. It was agonizing, because I was at a time when I wasn't happy with my lot in NBC at the time. So it would've been so easy to say yes to him and no to NBC. My younger daughter was like, "I don't want to move to California." And threatening bad behavior, or whatever she defined as bad behavior. So there were a lot of reasons to not pursue it, but it haunted me for a while. I tried to share that in the book. It really haunted me. Just because of the history of it all, and did I not push myself enough to be challenged by somebody who had a reputation for challenging you to be better. Could I have been better if I did that?
DM: And what do you think your answer is?
BC: I think I could have. I think partly I was afraid. And I think that's something I've had to come to terms with as I've thought back. I think I was afraid of it. I was afraid, "What if I'm not that good?" I think there was a confidence thing. But I was also incredibly loyal. And there's good in that. I was incredibly loyal to my company.
DM: And you didn't even use it as a bargaining chip?
BC: I didn't. Later I did. I went back to Jeff Immelt and I was like, "Hey, I just wanted you to know, I turned down Steve Jobs." And I kind of said it like, "Don't take me for granted." But I think that was that loyalty thing. I'm loyal. I want you know I'm loyal. And I've thought a lot about loyalty. Was I loyal enough to me? That's a question I still think I'm grappling with a little bit. It's-
DM: Me too. I think about that a lot now.
BC: And you get all in with the team. And it's-
DM: What is your obligation to others when you're a leader.
BC: Yeah. Exactly. So I'm not sure I have a clean answer on that yet. I'm still a bit conflicted.
DM: After coming back to GE, you left Jeff and NBC, went back to GE. Where you were named the first ever female Vice Chair at GE. Which is extraordinary. You were instrumental in a number of huge innovations. From 3D printing, to a smart home hub, to LED lightning. How have your instincts changed, regarding what innovations to pursue?
BC: Yeah. Well, I've changed so much. That's such a good question. I think early on I thought I had to singularly get behind an idea, and just sheer-will push the idea. Wow, how naïve is that? It really is a movement. A group effort. It's a lot of people that see themselves in that idea, and want to make the change happen, and you're just catalyzing and cheering them on. So I think that was a lot of early on learning. I think it is a lot of making space to test and learn these things. And I think this is a big lesson for established companies. All this talk about let's move quarterly earnings. We need them every six months. It's probably a core part of the business, that you need to operate with better precision. I'm not even sure I agree with that. But there's always got to be a space where you're testing new things. You have to do it.
And you have to make room. You have to make the funding for it. And my biggest learning in that is that it takes different people there. And we discard them in established organizations. We think everybody dreams in scale, and there are great people within whatever organization you're in, that like nothing more than seeding it and getting it launched. And they don't want to be the big operations people. And we discount them. So getting the right person at the right stage of innovation is critical. And that's, I'd say, one of my big learnings.
DM: You were really given quite a lot of push back on a lot of the ideas that you came up with. Your creation, or co-creation of Hulu. Things-
BC: Yeah. Definitely wasn't my creation. I was a catalyst, but that was Jason Kilar. Yeah.
DM: But there are so many things. Even your dragging GE and NBC, kicking and screaming, into digital. You look back at those ... As I was reading the book, I cannot believe how much challenge you were given for doing things that seem so obvious now. How did you know when to fight?
BC: Yeah. That's such a good question. And I actually liked the digital stuff at NBC as an example, because now it's 10+ years later and we can look back and go, "Oh right, streaming video actually did work. Netflix has now taken over all the established ... That actually did work."
DM: You had fights with people about this.
BC: That did work. I remember one of the fights being ... Our team was like, "Well what if the programming schedule goes away?" Are you kidding? There will always be a schedule. The idea of binge viewing. It wasn't like we called binge viewing, but you could see these disruptive forces. So you just have to keep fighting for that. And, for me, it's because you see these things. It's not like you see the future. I don't believe that. But you see the pieces coming together, and that gives you a confidence. It overcomes the shyness, or the reluctance you have, because they become real. And you're with other people who see that too. So it's not like you're seeing things.
And you build this momentum of the team comes together and says, "We got to fight for this. We can't not do this." I feel blessed that I was able to experience that. I also had some great champions. Jeff Immelt was an incredible champion at GE for making space for some of the new things. But change is really hard. And the complexity ... And you need people who are making room for some of us who were fighting for a new way, and saying, "Leave them alone. It's okay." I share an example. We were launching our clean energy effort. One of the biggest-
DM: Yet another thing you were given a hard time about. Clean energy.
BC: Yeah. It was obvious, but the fear is real. It's not like people are stupid. The fear is like, "But we don't know how to make money at that. And we're making money here. So yeah, it sounds good, but we don't know how to do that." So these are real issues. But I remember the fear was always, "But we're going to get ahead of our customers." And that is a real fear. If you lose your customers because they're like, "What are you doing?" you have no business. And as we launched our clean effort, we had one customer that pulled their business. For over $100 million worth of business. And Jeff told us. That team that was working on it. Because he knew it would've rocked our confidence.
DM: Wow. That's brave.
BC: And it wasn't until several years later. And that's what good leaders do. They kind of absorb that. How easy would it have been to say, "We've lost this big customer, this is the stupidest idea ever." And there were times when he did say that too. When he'd be like, "That's a dumb idea. You're not ready." So you have to have that trust and transparency, I think. And at the end of the day I think it's championship. It's appreciating the kind of people you need, and giving them space to do it.
DM: After, what, I think is three decades at-
BC: It feels like 300 years sometimes.
DM: At GE from a PR coordinator all the way to Vice Chairmen at the end of 2017. You decided to embark on a new path. What made you decide to do that?
BC: Well, it was made for me in many ways. In the sense that there was a new leadership team in place. I knew I'd be leaving GE at some point. I'd been there a while. Jeff's tenure was running down. But it was a bit abrupt, because there had just been a more abrupt leadership change than people had planned for. And it still was not part of the plan. It still wasn't a story I was controlling. So I had to get my head around that a little bit. I threw myself into the book, which I was already working on. But here I was, this person who's all about change, I'm a change maker, but it wasn't changed my way. And I had to get my head around that.
DM: There are too more things I want to talk to you about. And the first is about the speed of change. You talk about that and say at the end of the book, "The pace of change is never going to be slower than it is today." Do you have any insight or advice about how to adapt to this constant evolution of our abilities?
BC: Well, I think at the end of the day, you have to know what you're good at. And you have to really start with your strengths. Don't try to be something you're not. That doesn't mean you can't change. You have to change. But I think that's ... Use your strengths to navigate the change. I think you have to constantly, also at the same time, put yourself out there and understand early what's happening. You shouldn't be surprised by ... Yeah, there are always going to be surprises, but there are certain things ... Clean energy. Every industry you're in, you know these things are coming.
Imagine if you made plastic straws right now. Hopefully you're not surprised that everybody's banning plastic straws. What are you going to do about it? Do you have a practice of scenario planning, or creative problem solving. Are you giving yourself those kind of exercises. These "what if" kind of things. I think we need to do that more in our everyday life. You have to get out there and see where things are weird. They challenge your point of view. You have to go see for yourself.
Those will be the kind of things I think we need to do to be more adaptable. And decide, "Is that a change I want to make because it plays to my strength?" Sometimes you don't have a luxury, and then you have to figure out how to get those strengths. But I think the worst thing you can do in this time of rapid change, is just say, "Well, I'm never going to change." Because somebody will change it for you. So find your way to find a way to make the change work for you, or to make what you do well work within the context of that change.
So, again, we're here at SVA. This is a school about design and creativity, and everybody's all about coding. Yet I think the future is going to be the strengths of the people who are here. People like you. We're creating better experiences. We got to be creative problem solvers. It's about design thinking. So those are the strengths you're going to help make the future with. If everybody here decided they had to suddenly just be coders, and give up on their strengths of creativity, we'd be in a bad place. That's what I mean. You have to figure out how do you use that to navigate the world that's coming ahead.
DM: The last thing I would like to talk with you about is astrology. You're a Virgo, and people might be surprised to learn that such a brilliant businesswoman named to Forbes most powerful women list twice, reads her horoscope everyday.
BC: It's such a silly thing.
DM: I love it. I love that. I do too, actually. So this is something you've been doing since you were a teenager. Why?
BC: Because it's just one of those silly habits. And I think it's what we were saying earlier. It's back to Jack Welch and Mr. Lucky. There are certain superstitions-
DM: Rose bud, right?
BC: That we incorporate, and they're fun. They challenge our creative thinking. I've been thinking about it. Like mine for this month had a couple of days that were called out as the wrong planetary things. And one of them was my book launch day. And I was like, "Okay, so this is one of those moments." Did that put that bug in my head, and is it going to color my perception of that day? Or is it just a fun thing to think about how silly that is, and I have the ... I'm going to grab my permission and make this the day I want it to be. And I think that's what I love about ... I think they're kind of fun, whimsy things. Just to remind yourself maybe there are forces out there to challenge your thinking, but at the end of the day, you have to make your own way.
DM: And to try to maybe make sense of things that we can't [crosstalk 00:59:14].
BC: But I'm a classic Virgo. That being said, I am really pure Virgo. I am just incredibly perfectionist, organized, all the Virgo traits. That I get those really deeply.
DM: Beth, thank you so much for joining me on Design Matters today.
BC: Debbie, thank you. This is such a thrill for me. I am a big fan, and I've wanted to be here to talk to you. So you do such a great job.
DM: Oh, thank you.
BC: Thanks for having me.
DM: Thank you. The book is-
BC: And your homework is amazing. I'm so impressed.
DM: Thank you. The book is brilliant.
BC: Oh, thank you for saying that.
DM: It is. It is a real authentic engagement into your life and your career. The book is called Imagine It Forward: Courage, Creativity, and the Power of Change by Beth Comstock. Thank you for being here, Beth.
BC: Thank you Debbie. Thanks for having me.
DM: This is the 14th year I've been doing Design Matters, and I'd like to thank you for listening. And remember, we can talk about making a difference, we can make a difference, or we can do both. I'm Debbie Millman, and I look forward to talking with you again soon.