General Electric (GE) became one of the largest entities in the world not by continuing to develop new ideas, but by buying other companies, and expanding into financial services. In her book, Imagine It Forward: Courage, Creativity, and the Power of Change, Beth Comstock shares how, over almost three decades, she tried to return GE to its roots as a place of invention and imagination.
Comstock built GE Business Innovations and GE Ventures, but she was also the Chief Marketing Officer of GE. In her book, she explains how it was only through changing the culture of the company by crafting and spreading its core story that she was able to motivate real change in its focus and products.
The book is part memoir and part advice — it shares Comstock’s personal experiences daring to take risks in an environment where perfectionism was rewarded, and also offers advice on how to navigate and inspire change from within organizations.
Kelly Sarabyn: You describe the culture of GE under Jack Welch as driven by an impossible quest for perfection that he set into place. Do you think large organizations can ever successfully build their identity and culture around one leader rather than a brand?
Beth Comstock: It’s a good question. I think certainly you have these iconic CEOs and they become the brand. For the longevity of the brand, a brand has to be broader than one person. People have to find their story there, and they have to find multiple stories that they can connect with, and putting that all on one person is really hard, as I think has been proven out.
KS: You mentioned that an organization has to be defined by a story, and, in your book, you laid out a process of how GE uncovered its story — by bringing in an outside consultant to help it examine who it was — do you think there is a best process for organizations to uncover their story?
BC: I think every organization and everyone in the organization has stories, and we often think of stories as the thing you do at the end — oh, let’s put a story around what we’re selling — but I think it is the whole thing. It’s the way people can relate to your organization.
In terms of finding your story, it starts with, “What’s your mission in the world? Why do you exist as a company? What are you trying to accomplish? What can we expect from you? What outcomes are you trying to get to?”
Then share the journey with us — I think that is where company and certainly organizational storytelling falls down.
Everyone thinks it is supposed to be a perfect story, and everything always works, and the product is always perfect. The reality is there is always a gap between what we aspire to be, and where we are.
Especially today, with more opportunities than ever to share all different elements of what it takes to get a product out, and what it takes to get a service out, you can give people myriad ways to see the story unfolding — you can show the drama of it, the humor of it, the emotion of it. There are boring parts and funny parts.
In organizations, we often think it is just supposed to be rational and logical; here’s a product, and here is why it is worth the money. As opposed to here’s who created it, here’s the team, here’s what you can do differently by using the product — there’s a story to tell the consumer in why they are engaging you. Story can take you all sorts of places.
KS: How do you convince people internally of the value of that approach? When you were at GE, you brought in an outside consultant to help uncover its story. Is that outside perspective necessary to finding the story?
BC: I think you need both. Whether you’re an individual or an organization, no one knows better than you what you’re trying to accomplish, and what’s important to you. But sometimes we’re too close to that story, and you need outsiders to encourage you to be more transparent, and who can help you find angles of your story that you might think would be boring.
I think you need outsiders to spark ideas for you. We tried to find storytellers from all over the world who could tell our story in new ways. Sometimes big productions, but often just very good storytellers with a unique perspective.
KS: There are multiple stories of how the company unfolds its work, but there is also an overarching story of the company. Do you think it is important to have an overarching story?
At one point, GE moved heavily into financial services, which was a pivot away from their traditional focus on inventing new products in a wide variety of domains. Do you think having an overarching story could have helped them navigate those transitions more easily?
BC: I think having a story helps make sense of it. Some of those issues were driven by investor shareholders. You see some of the challenges in the aftermath of that, of having too much financial services exposure. You needed a unifying story to say, “Why did this company exist?” For any company, if you start doing so many things that people can’t make sense of what you do, they start to question why you exist.
When I was at GE, and you have seen this in the stock market, I think it makes it difficult when you have so many different threads. They have to have a commonality. At the core of GE, there were these engines that spin, that make the world go around. It can become a very rich story. And that’s why people were so devoted to it. It was these amazing feats of science.
But if not all of the company lines up to that story, I believe you should use that as a strategy, to say, “Do these things matter as much?” And if you can’t find the story for it, you need to ask questions about your strategy.
It’s not going to all be perfect, but if the pieces don’t line up to your story, you might ask, “Do I need these pieces anymore? Why don’t they add up to the story?” Always with story you are trying to drive clarity. Here’s the journey I am on, and here’s the destination I am aspiring to get to.
KS: In your case, you were in marketing. Since there is no story department, do you think this task falls to marketing, or does it just fall to executive leadership in general?
BC: I love that question. For too long, it has fallen to the marketing or communications department to just do the story at the end. I think that misses the full opportunity, though. If the story is the strategy, and this is our role in the world, and this is what we are going to do, then everything flows from there.
Some companies appreciate that in their product and design. What I love about design thinking is it is really good at synthesizing all these different pieces and aligning them, and that synthesis, that editing, is critical.
What often happens in organizations is everyone adds their little piece, and suddenly, no one knows what the overarching story is. I think story is where you start. It is a core leadership responsibility. Think about great leaders in politics, and the arts, they are able to bring a great story to life, and say, “Here’s where we are going.”
To me, the classic example is John F. Kennedy saying, “We’re going to go to the moon.” That was an aspiration, that was a story, that was a strategy, and everyone believed in it. When leaders appreciate that power, they are able to mobilize people to follow them, and take action.
KS: In your experience, do you see the effects of creating a story in employee engagement? Do you see this working?
BC: I think the challenge is how do you summon that story from employees? At GE, we encouraged people to unfold the story in their own work.
One of my favorite examples was quite simple. We were trying to bring more women into science and technology, and so we did a “My Mother Works at GE” series, where women told us their stories of working in science and technology, and how they got there. We had one woman who was one of the first engineering students in Pakistan, who talked about how her mother seeded her love of engineering, and the pride the employees felt from that story, not only in Pakistan, but around the globe, was incredible.
Another example was having children explain what their parents do at GE, and their joy and delight in describing it in very simple terms, and just imagining what their parents do, which might not even be what they actually do.
These were robust opportunities not only for creative storytelling, but also pride. People saying, “That’s my work, that’s my kid proud of my work.” That’s the power of what story can do no matter where you are in an organization.
KS: What is the connection between story and innovation? Some companies will be defined by innovation — that will be core to their story — but for other companies, that won’t be their driving purpose. But for those companies, does story nonetheless connect with innovation and a drive to move and transform with the times?
BC: That’s a good question. Not every company needs to say they are innovative. But every company needs to say what’s in it for the customer, or consumer. They have to start there. Any company can say they are the most innovative company on earth, but if they are not delivering something the customer cares about, it doesn’t matter.
I always advise people to start there — what is the impact you are trying to have for the person who is using whatever you offer? Put yourself in their shoes. Build a story around that customer. What will you do to make them better? Will you solve a problem for them? Are you fulfilling a need or want? Help take away a pain for them, and do it in a story. Often, we’re wanting to get out with the features and show the math on it, and that’s an illustration, but it is not enough. It’s not giving a customer a story of why they should use this product or service.
Forget about your company being innovative, and focus on how your innovation helps your customer — if you start there, and go back, you’ll unlock all those other pieces of your innovation story.
KS: Marketing and customer success have become more and more automated, and focused on trackable metrics. Do you think companies are becoming too focused on the quantitative over taking the qualitative look at the customer experience?
BC: I absolutely do. Quantitative feedback is great, but what does it help you unlock? Take the way we ride Uber or Lyft, I like the convenience of being able to call the car in five to ten minutes, but what I love most is to hear the stories of the people who are driving me. I think it will be interesting to see as driving becomes more automated, what will replace those stories?
These are real people, and they have stories, and, while if someone discloses all their secrets it could make for an awkward customer service call, they humanize and represent the company, and that is part of the experience.
At the end of the day, data needs to be balanced with the human equation. More and more, as we go more automated, I think what will be most valued is the human touch, the ability to connect and share stories.
KS: Do you think a customer-centric approach, even if are doing it right, can ever stand in the way of creating new customer wants? Are real change-maker companies ones that create things that people didn’t even know they wanted?
BC: It’s both. I used to work with a lot of engineers who, whenever we wanted to do some research on what customers wanted, would say, “Yeah, well, Steve Jobs never asked anyone what they wanted.” I’d go, “First of all, we’re not Steve Jobs.” But it’s getting that balance. There are things that people didn’t know they had a need for, until they see that it can exist. But you also need to understand what customers need and want currently. And there’s a constant tension in that for a lot of businesses.
Both have to exist within the organization, and you need teams within companies representing both points of view. The challenge is to get both of them right, and strike the right balance.
KS: One of the elements that came out in your book is that people who are going to effect change are going to face a lot of criticism and resistance. In your case, this even extended to public forums. Is this something you struggled with, and do you have advice for people on how to best navigate that?
BC: One of the sections of the book is called “Agitated Inquiry” and it is about the tension that comes with being part of change in organizations. It’s human nature — someone wants to do something, and others don’t, and you have to work your way through it. They may agree on the end goal, but they have different ways to get there.
To your point, I shared in the book, how when I was at NBC, it was particularly tension-filled, and some people didn’t like the way I was doing things so they leaked information to the local gossip page in New York City. I woke up everyday not sure what someone was going to say about me.
I never get used to that. I don’t like conflict. I don’t like being singled out. I don’t know that many people do. But it’s an important byproduct of pushing change, and I have come to accept that most of the conflict is not personal. It’s about people having different views about how you get to that end goal. I first ask, “Is this personal?” And it probably isn’t, but if it is, is it something I can fix? Two, I keep reminding people, do we share a common vision of what we are working toward? Why are we in this, what are we trying to do? That’s often a real good way to move forward.
And give the criticism room. If you’re in a room and everyone agrees about everything, then perhaps you aren’t pushing hard enough. Maybe you ought to ask if you need someone to come in and give a little criticism, and if that can push you forward.
You have to channel that conflict, give space to air it out, and the team leader, whoever is in charge, has to listen to the pros and cons, and then make a decision. But the team has to have a general sense that we are in this together, working toward the same goal. That should be the glue that gets the team over those conflicts.
KS: Do you think cultivating a culture where that is case — where people can have open disagreement and critique but feel like they are on the same team, and working toward a common mission — is that, in your experience, a difficult challenge that isn’t often realized, or do most companies get close to enacting that vision?
BC: It varies. I don’t think anyone really likes conflict. You hear about some culture creating those conflict moments. Amazon gets a lot of attention for that. I like the example of Israeli military where no matter what your rank is, you can challenge authority if you believe there is a better way forward. What I like about that is it’s “if you believe there is a better way forward.” It’s not just conflict for disagreement’s sake, or personal conflict. It’s driven by seeing a better way forward for the organization.
Companies need more open feedback where people are all looking at the same set of data, where you are getting real feedback from customers. Often the conflict in organizations is because people are biased by their limited perspective on what they think is occurring. If they all go together and see how the customer is using the product, they can see the whole picture together, rather than just have the product or sales team do it.
Companies can also do more by creating the space for conflict. Make the space to disagree and then decide. “I’ve had my say, but it was decided otherwise, and we’re still moving forward. This is it.” It’s a feedback loop where you agree to disagree, and still move forward. Often companies just get caught in their conflict.
Or people agree, but then when the action comes up, they don’t actually do it. That passive aggressive behavior is what we’ve come to expect in companies, but it doesn’t need to be that way.
KS: Do you feel like when you left GE it had found story as a strategy, and that was embedded in the organization?
BC: In parts, we had. The company was very big, and this idea of a core technology infrastructure company was taking root. We were going toward the future in terms of digital and new methods of manufacturing. There was still a lot of work that had to be done to clean up the company from some of its challenges in financial services. In some ways, the reality hadn’t quite caught up with the story. That’s always the issue.
People were proud of the work they did, they were making an impact. I do know it united a culture. What is it fast enough, big enough? Probably not. Some of these things need time to take root, and for people to make it their own.
But we were making good progress. We stopped short because the company had an activist investor, and its balance sheet issues.
KS: Do you still believe in the power of story for organizations?
BC: I do. Story is the strategy well-told. Story is such an important of our lives. It is that connective tissue, it’s what makes cultures, it’s what makes your mission in life.
When you are trying to make change, a good place to start is always asking, “What’s your story?”
Beth Comstock is the former Vice Chair of GE, where for twenty-five years she led GE’s efforts to accelerate new growth. She built GE’s Business Innovations and GE Ventures, which develops new businesses, and oversaw the reinvention of GE Lighting. She was named GE’s Chief Marketing Officer in 2003. She served as President of Integrated Media at NBC Universal, from 2006-08, and is a board director of Nike. Written about and profiled extensively in the media, from the New York Times to Forbes, Fortune and Fast Company, she has been named to the Fortune and Forbes lists of the World’s Most Powerful women.