Three lessons from Beth Comstock, former vice-chair of General Electric

Beth Comstock GE
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Beth Comstock was a keynote speaker at INBOUND2018 this week, Hubspot’s annual conference in Boston. Comstock is the former vice chair and Chief Marketing and Commercial Officer of GE. She’s best known as the person behind some of GE’s biggest innovations in the last decade, like Hulu. Her first book is called Imagine it Forward (due out Sept 18), so she’s busy promoting it across the country.
 
While Comstock’s main goal now is to get the word out about her book, she does a good job of sharing personal stories about her career and giving practical and pithy tips for success. Her opening remarks include a snippet from her early career when she lurked around the men’s bathroom trying to get time with Ted Turner, her boss at the time, but someone whom she says didn’t even know her first name because she was such a wallflower. The story goes that Turner came out of the men’s room, Comstock thrust her hand in his direction and received a very wet palm in return. Turner barely acknowledged her and then turned to zip up his fly. Cue the audience groans. And from there, Comstock heads for the good, and less cringe-inducing, material of her presentation. 
 
Comstock spent 27 years at GE, rising to vice chair.  She earned respect for being able ‘to see around corners’, according to GE Chairman and CEO John Flannery. So she knows a thing or two.  Here are the three best and most-actionable tips I learned from her talk. 
  1. Count to three Nos before you feel like you’ve even begun
According to Comstock, it takes at least three tries to get past a ‘no’.  In her mind, ‘no’ actually means, ‘not yet’. She said that obstacles and gatekeepers are pillars of the modern economy and that if you want to accomplish anything in your personal or professional life, you should always assume you’ll have to get past three no’s before you get to a yes. And those are actually the easy situations.  In many cases (she shared the example of launching Hulu), it takes many more than three no’s before you get to a yes. Her key message: if you want to be an innovator and accomplish anything significant, you should count the first three no’s as laying the ground work for the real work you’re about to do. 
  1. Tell me something I don’t want to hear
One of the most powerful statements Comstock used to make to her team and colleagues was, ‘Tell me something I don’t want to hear.’  She feels we live in a time of incredible fear of failure, and that bosses can do a lot to empower their people by making it okay to share difficult, awkward or tough perspectives.  By saying, ‘Tell me something I don’t want to hear’ you’re simultaneously giving permission to the person you’re talking to, and also challenging them to share something bold.  It’s a powerful combination and was one of the tools that enabled her to ‘see around corners’.  A word of warning though – if you ask the question, you really are going to hear the bad, the ugly and the embarrassing, so make sure you have a game face and game plan to be able to deal with it.
  1. 70 / 20 / 10
Comstock’s third actionable tip is her resource allocation rule of 70 / 20 / 10.  She says you should spend 70% of your time on the ‘now’. These are the tasks that have to get done today, this week and this month. Most people spend 100% of their time on the now, or very close to it. That’s a mistake, Comstock says. The ‘now’ should take around 2/3 of your time, leaving you a window of time and attention to think about two other future states – the next and the new. The first of these, ‘next’, should get 20% of your time. This is planning for later in the year or next year, thinking about how you’re going to spend your and your team’s time and what your priorities will be. The second future state is ‘new’. You should spend 10% of your time here. These are the things that might disrupt your business, the untested and unproven technologies, the whizbang ideas that your juniors have. 10% is not a lot of time, but it’s enough to allow you to explore as well as to overcome the inevitable failures that will happen – and should happen – when you’re investigating ‘new’. Comstock says if you aren’t spending 10% of your resources on new, you are far more likely to be blind-sided in 3 years than if you are.
 
These three tips are among the small and powerful things Comstock did to get things done, in both the present day as well as in the future, and that propelled her career to great heights.
 
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Lisa Shepherd

Lisa Shepherd is the author of two books on B2B marketing (The Radical Sales Shift and Market Smart). She is founder of The Mezzanine Group , a B2B marketing company based in Toronto that has worked with over 200 B2B companies in the last decade. Lisa is a frequent public speaker on B2B marketing strategy and execution and was the youngest female CEO to appear on the Profit 100.