Special Interview: Imagining the Future with Beth Comstock
“Be where the world is going.”
– Beth Comstock
I love this quote. Be where the world is going. The commitment to peer into the future to see what is coming and assume the risks of trying new ways to build resilience is easier said than done. Most organizations are still structured for risk mitigation and operational efficiencies. It is no wonder so many leaders feel a constant pull between today’s urgent issues and tomorrow’s more distant – and important – positioning. Few future-focused leaders are brave enough to strike the balance. Those who can will dominate our increasingly unsettled business environment.
Beth Comstock is one of those rare and courageous leaders. Beth’s accomplishments are evidence of serial innovation and change making. She is proof that purposeful vision, disruptive creativity, and original thinking can exist even in the most stalwart corporate environments.
As President of NBC Universal, Beth led the formation of hulu.com. She was the first Chief Marketing Officer in more than 20 years for GE, where she introduced the now familiar and widely praised (multi-billion dollar) Ecomagination and Imagination At Work brand campaigns. She was the first woman to hold the role of Vice Chair of GE. Hardly a surprise, Forbes named her one of “The World’s 100 Most Powerful Women” two years in a row.
Beth is also the recipient of the 2018 Toffler Associates Award of Excellence in Change Leadership. I recently had the opportunity to gather her thoughtful perspectives about what it takes to be a change maker and what it takes to be a future-focused leader. The following is a highlight of some of that conversation. It’s rich, enlightening, and reflects Beth’s warmth and genuine concern for the leaders of today and tomorrow. Enjoy – and please join the rapport!
Deb Westphal: You have shown yourself to be a future-focused person and leader. Were you always like this? What were you like as a child?
Beth Comstock: I think I was always like this. I grew up in a small town in Virginia. I was a very curious kid. My mom was a school teacher who instilled in me a love of books. I read tons of books. I would read classic fiction and literature. I usually read every book on the school reading list. I think the reading opened up my imagination.
My summers were spent out with a pack of neighborhood kids, wandering the railroad tracks, making up adventures and creating fantasy lands. I loved geography. I was always imagining different places and how they could be. It filled my imagination and gave me wanderlust. This sense of always wanting to be a part of a something bigger is one of the reasons I was so excited to join the National Geographic board.
DW: You talk a lot about change makers. How do you define a change maker? Can anyone be a change maker?
BC: A change maker is someone who imagines a better way and strives to take steps to make it happen. I’d like to think everyone could be a change maker. I believe everyone has to be one. It’s why I wrote my book. In this fast-paced disruptive environment, we all have to be comfortable with being disrupted. Not everyone has the fortitude or gives themselves permission to try something different. I’m hoping I can give encouragement to make the leap.
DW: What do you see as the most important attributes of a change maker? How do you spot a change maker?
BC: The most important thing is being open to what’s new and next. It’s about giving yourself permission to open up, explore things, understand things, and try new things. It takes a lot of energy to wallow in not knowing and to take action on things that aren’t clear. Being afraid holds people back.
Change makers have tolerance for ambiguity. They’re good at pattern recognition. They’re good translators. They’re especially good at getting people to work together. They can influence and get people to coalesce as a team to go forth as a team to a new vision together. They don’t have a checklist – they are ‘figure it out’ kind of people. A lot of this comes back to behavior modification. There is a lot that people can do that they don’t need permission to do. It’s important to let people know that they have the power to understand the change.
DW: Is there a tie between being future-focused and being a change maker?
BC: Change for change sake doesn’t help anybody. Meaningful change happens because you see a better way. You see trends emerging in a certain way and you know you must do something about it. I don’t know how you can’t look at the future. In business, the tension is always the short-term pressure and the long-term value. Most business systems don’t have tolerance for the future-focus. This is why I fight for people in companies to take risks. I fight for those who fight for the future. It’s great to have partners to help you see what you’re not equipped to see – but it’s important to have this capability in the company. I’d like to also think people would have that ability in their own lives.
DW: What can people do to work against bureaucratic inertia? Is there a story to share from your experience?
BC: They just have to do it. Bureaucracies are real. Constraints are real. But if you believe in a vision of the future, you have to fight for it. You can do it in small ways. You don’t have to change the whole system. Control what you can. Change yourself first. Say you’re just starting out and you see there’s a better way to integrate with a customer. The incumbents want to keep it the same, but it’s your job to say that ‘this is what our customers want, now and in the future.’ Get out of your box. Identify patterns and trends.
I’ve worked with a lot of ‘gatekeeper’ bosses who asked ‘what do you know’? There are gatekeepers everywhere. I started to build resilience against “no.” I started to hear “no” as “not yet” and to think about different ways to pursue change.
DW: Do you think leadership is changing?
BC: Yes, but not fast enough or big enough. Digitization is forcing change. The more data we have, the more need there is to adapt and to make changes fast. Our management systems are holdovers from 19th and-20th Centuries, where it was top-down leadership by mandate as opposed to using distributed resources inside and outside the organization.
You need a leader to set a vision and make sure traction is happening. But this way of leadership can’t control rapid change. You need people to navigate it. Doing what ‘we used to do’ won’t get you there.
DW: We call it obsoledge – obsolete knowledge or long-held processes, ideas and beliefs that get in the way of an organization moving forward more quickly and more deliberately.
BC: That’s a great term. That’s what good leaders do. They champion change makers to overcome obsolete knowledge, give them the budget and the time to understand the change that must take place.
I’m noting a disturbing trend, the rise of digital expert, a cross between CIO and CTO with a little HR thrown in. It’s concerning. It delegates the responsibility for change, which won’t work. I worry we’re not thinking expansively enough to navigate the trends. This is our call to more human-centric change.
DW: There’s a lot of talk about bio-digital convergence happening. How do you think it will change leadership over the next 10-15 years? At Toffler, we believe it’ll elevate humans and create a demand for a very different form of leadership.
BC: I agree. ‘Machinification’ will elevate humans and I worry we’re not ready for it. Investment in coding is valuable in the short term but isn’t preparing people for the changing landscape.
We need critical thinking, the ability to think ahead, imagine, think critically and decisively, to take risks. These are things computers can’t do. I worry we aren’t investing enough in educating for this future.
We have a responsibility to invest in our human brain capacity, our creativity, and our willingness to produce ideas. In my book, I talk about the imagination gap that has been created by the rising importance of checklists. The last 30-40 years of businesses have elevated the importance of the checklist. But here’s the thing – checklists and tracking tasks squeeze out our creativity. Now there’s a call to action to ourselves, as leaders, and others in the organization to move past checklists to allow creative thinking.
DW: What one piece of advice do you offer to young people aspiring to make a difference?
BC: Go with your passion. That’s been loud and clear from me. Expect that will be hard work. You might not succeed the first, fifth, or even tenth try.
DW: How about your piece of advice for older, more mature leaders?
BC: Stop kidding yourself that you have control. Give yourself over. Ask questions. Coach. Know what’s happening in your organization and get out of the way.
DW: What do you now know that you wish you would have known when you started your career?
BC: Two things. First, you can’t make people change. They must go through their own journey of discovery, learning, and familiarity to find their vision and ability.
Second, people must give themselves permission to take risks and be open to change. They need to learn things they may think aren’t important now but will become very important later. If they’re behind the curve, it’s because they didn’t take the time to see it.
Beth’s book, Imagine it Forward, is described as “An inspiring and practical guide to mastering change in the face of uncertainty, from one of today’s foremost innovation leaders.” It is available on every major bookseller platform and will ship in September 2018. The Toffler Associates Award of Excellence in Change Leadership corresponds with our 2018 Future Shock Forum taking place October 15 and 16, 2018. For more information about this opportunity for future-focused leaders and change makers to gather in conversation about their organizations and societal shifts, or to request an invitation, visit the event page.
As always, we welcome your thoughts on future-focused leading, human-centered organizations, and what exhausted paradigms we need to erase in order to move forward as productive, innovative leaders. Join the conversation here and on LinkedIn, and please let us know if you’re interested in sharing your thought in an interview format.