Our April pick for the World Economic Forum Book Club was Beth Comstock's book, Imagine It Forward: Courage, Creativity and the Power of Change. Throughout the month, her inspirational retelling of her journey and career gripped our audience, who have submitted questions for her. Here, she responds to readers' questions on the themes of her book, leadership, work skills and how to be an introvert in today's working environment.
You can join the World Economic Forum Book Club here.
Q1 - Jordanka Kacarska: Unlike some of the books written by successful people, I find her book very practical. Her sharing of action items and generally strategies she used to improve things or overcome challenges are extremely useful. I have two questions for the author. 1) When she chooses who to work for/with, what are the key things that are important to her to make the choice? What has been the most difficult decision she had to make work wise and did she regret it?
Beth Comstock: I'd say the filtering mechanism I had for choosing who to work for changed over the course of my career. Early on, I was just really eager to get a foot in the door, to land a job. So I was less discerning about who I would work for or the team. I wanted to work as a television reporter, then I wanted to get a job in media. And so in the early days, I was just looking to get started. As I progressed I became more discerning. I think I would seek out managers who I felt were going to encourage a different way of thinking, encourage some openness who I felt would make me better. I also liked tough managers. I liked people who I felt were about quality and would push me to be better. In terms of the people I worked with, as I got to be able to hire a team and lead a team, I came to appreciate the value of hiring people with different perspectives. It's a lot of work. It means sometimes you have to take extra time to fill the position. But the worst thing you can do is hire people who are just like yourself. And I had to come to learn that. Finally, your last question about my toughest decision: I think for me it's always been the decisions about people. People I didn't hire or chose not to work for, who I misjudged. I regret that. I especially regret the people who I had to let go or tell them that they weren't the right fit for the job. Those are incredibly tough. Even today, I kind of shudder at the thought of those conversations. What you try to do is you try to be open about it, realize it's an emotional situation and realize that perhaps the best thing is that the person is going to hopefully find something that's a better fit for them. But those jobs are always tough and all those kind of assignments are always tough.
Q2 - Munhjin Batbayar I’m loving this book. Almost done with it, but want to reread it again. The question I have for the author: Considering her need/drive for imagination (EcoImagination, HealthImagination etc) she used startups founders and new product makers as “sparks” only. Other than safety, challenge etc., were there any other reasons that made her stay at GE - where she had to constantly battle and convince people for the need to imagine rather than choosing to work at a company that lives and breathes imagination/creation everyday?
Beth Comstock: The reality is I felt my imagination was encouraged at GE. It's not to say that there wasn't a struggle and that everyone always saw it that way. I worked for some great leaders who gave me room to discover. To build up my confidence and courage. I liked the company because it was a big platform. It was in multiple countries in a number of different industries and if you're a curious person, there was a lot to learn. A lot of dots to connect. Again, it doesn't mean it was always easy. I came out of media to go to the more traditional corporate side and I will tell you that I found it easier to be creative on the GE side than say on the NBC side where people were maybe a bit less afraid or a bit more afraid to take a risk. So I think my lesson from that is a lot of these opportunities are what you make them. And so I felt I could make a way forward from an imagination perspective at GE but also a lot of things had to come together. It was not just me, it required a great leader. The opportunity to see things and I had to push myself as well.
Q3 - Gerardo Alonso: Your book took me on a great journey. I felt as if you were my mentor and I was learning with you as you shared your lessons each time something happened. How would you suggest to someone that has a vision, like Ben from Quirky, to be validated by the business community, accounting for biases related to country of origin, gender, lack of experience? Why are the people that have the power to take decisions often blind-sighted by innovation?
Beth Comstock: On the first front, I think innovators usually are so good because they don't look for validation from the established business leaders. They want to solve a problem. That's what I love about entrepreneurs and I think you're an entrepreneur if you wake up and you want to solve a problem. You can be in a big company or starting your own. You believe you have to solve a problem, take away some pain and you do that and you become successful then business starts to notice and I think therein lies the problem of some of the established business leaders. They get good at something, their business is good and they don't look at what's happening out in the world and so they're caught by surprise or worse, they dismiss it. There's that great quote, I forget - it was Einstein or someone who said it - 'If at first the idea doesn't seem absurd, then there's no hope for it'. And I think that's part of our job, as the people pushing for change in organizations, is to bring in some of these outside sparks, these innovators within your company to bring forth the idea.
Q4 - Nandin-Erdene Enkhtuvshin I was very grateful for the author that she stood up for introverts and tells us how to use our introversion as an advantage. In particular, the challenges mentioned in the end of Chapter 2 are realistic to implement. I felt Beth was working so hard and might be unable to spend enough time with her family or friends. What time management was she was using when she was in GE as a Vice-President? Are there any tricks?
Beth Comstock: Well, I want to say first up, that I am not really good at balance. I'm driven, I'm ambitious. I like to work. That being said, I did have an amazing and do have an amazing family. I was able to raise two great daughters with my husband. I'm very proud of them but I also know I love to work and so I had to constantly make sure that my family knew they were incredibly important to me. It doesn't mean that my family always won out, sometimes business won out. I had to travel on a Sunday night or I had to miss something for for one of my kids. I regretted that, but that was essential and I tried to explain to my daughters why I had to work and why I like to work. I think part of what I had to learn was to take a little of the burden off myself. I had a great husband. I had to ask for help from babysitters and other folks from my mother and relatives. So ask for help would have been one of my kind of painful lessons learned, I didn't always ask for help. Don't expect to be perfect. My kids didn't always have the perfect things for their school plays or whatever was required. We just did the best we could. And then the other thing is maybe don't feel guilty about it. Explain to your kids what you're doing, and why you're doing it. One of my colleagues at GE, she was amazing. In that she used to bring her kids to work a lot. She'd have them sit in meetings and you got a sense of her as a mother and they got a sense of her as a mother. And I always wish I had done more of that with my daughter. So hopefully a few tips but in the end I think for myself I had to accept about myself that I like to work and I didn't always get balance right.
Q5 - Mary Turss Was there one defining moment when she felt the change to more equality had arrived?
Beth Comstock: You raise a really important point about gender diversity. Look over the course of my career, I saw a lot of progress. That being said, we're still not where we need to be - in pretty much any company. I would have liked to have seen even more progress. There isn't one defining moment but I remember a dozen of us coming together in GE and starting our GE women's network because we saw it was tough to make our way. We saw we also needed the support of the men we worked for. So we formed this network, had some great executive champions, and men, and over the course of 15 years, we went from a dozen of us to tens of thousands of women who participated in the networks, to help develop and promote one another. It was a great opportunity to see more women who were scientists and CFOs and business leaders around the globe. So I was really fortunate to be able to see the arc of that over time. Also to be part of a group that realized we had to fight for it and make it a priority. Hopefully that helps. But I'd say for all of us, men and women, we still have a lot of work to do not just to bring gender parity together, but also just diversity from a lot of perspectives, diversity of mindset, diversity of experience, diversity of background. It's too easy just to hire people like ourselves - don't do that. And so I think that it really is the one of the challenges of management for all of us going forward.
Q6 - Juana Avila “But you have to learn not to stop yourself. You have to learn to give yourself permission to imagine a better way, to envision opportunity where others see only risk.”
Beth Comstock: I really feel the intensity of your question. I mean it's scary to take a risk. Part of what I was trying to do in the book, was share my own struggles of introversion of being shy with their different things, of fear of failure and how hard it was to take a risk in this essential kind of lesson for me was I had to give myself permission. Each small step made it a little bit easier. I think it's much easier to try things in a small dimension than to go for the big thing. And yes, you may fail on a big level. So for me it was things like because I'm reserved, I would force myself for example to go to a networking event and normally I would go and not meet anyone and go home and feel horrible - or I'd go to a meeting and I wouldn't ask a question and I'd leave really frustrated at myself rather than trying something I didn't. And finally I got to a point where I was like, 'This is not going to work. You're standing in your own way.' And I had to give myself permission to put myself out there so take that networking event. I would go and I'd say, 'Okay I'm just going to meet one person' and then I'm going to go home. Next time I'm going to meet two. And so there were just small little steps forward. And to anyone else it would sound so silly but to myself I'd be like you did it. You met that person or I'd I go to the meeting and I ask a question I prepare in advance and I'd say I'm going to ask this question and not worry so much if people thought it was a stupid question. I'm going to pitch this idea. I share a story in the book about how I pitched an idea to Bob Wright in the head of NBC for this new NBC Experience Store and it took me and the team three times to sell the idea. And in the beginning the idea wasn't as good as it was in the end. And I learned a really important lesson from that experience that he was kind of testing us. So part of the 'permission granting' is you're testing yourself and and it's scary. And so I'd say test small, start by maybe asking a colleague, ask a trusted adviser, before you maybe take it to your manager. I like that hack of simply just writing yourself a permission slip, it sounds so silly but just 'I, Beth Comstock, give myself permission to ask this question'. And more importantly, you give yourself permission to say it's OK if I don't get it right this first time. You're starting to build up the confidence and yet we've all worked for tough managers that maybe don't want to hear it as often. I usually thought it was my obligation to keep trying different ways but it took time to build up that courage and strength. So maybe here's my challenge to you: What are you going to give yourself permission to try just once? No matter how small it is. What's one thing that kind of scares you at work? That's what you're going to try to do. I'd love for you to let me know how it goes. Thanks a lot.
This Q'n'A has been written for brevity.