GE’s Beth Comstock: “Leadership is About Navigating Tension”

Beth Comstock, vice chairwoman of GE, was recently interviewed for Adam Bryant’s Corner Office column in the New York Times. I’ve followed Beth’s career for many years as someone who champions innovation and advocates for big ideas within a large, naturally risk averse, corporate structure. She strikes me as an unconventional and observant leader and also very relatable. Adam Bryant’s interview reveals some fascinating insights into her views on leadership.

Here are some key excerpts from the interview:

On perfection and asking for help:

I’ve had to learn to ask for help, rather than waiting until everything is perfectly done. Sometimes you feel like you can’t put an idea out there until you’ve looked at it from every angle, as opposed to saying, “Here’s a seed of an idea, help me make it better.” In those early days, I was afraid to put something out there if it wasn’t totally baked and perfect.

On teams:

Being part of collaborative teams, I’ve come to appreciate the power of them a lot more than I did early on. When you get the teamwork right, it’s like magic because everybody has a role. You’re different, but you come together and you have a mission.

Those are the things I really love about work. When it hasn’t worked, it’s because the team hasn’t been right. The dynamics aren’t right.

On tension:

Leadership is about navigating tension. Tension is actually good. If everybody on the team thinks something is good, it’s probably not that good. Leadership is about understanding that things are never going to be perfectly balanced, and understanding how to use that tension to move forward.

I’ve tried lately to try to incorporate more tension. As you get more senior in your career, people often don’t want to tell you the truth because they want to please, and they want to handle things so that they’re not bringing you just the problems.

So a great question I’ve started using is, “Tell me one thing I don’t want to hear. It’s O.K. to give me some bad news. In fact, I want it.”

Beth was interviewed by Scott Belsky at the 2011 99U Conference when she was GE’s Chief Marketing Officer. Here she discusses advocating for your ideas within a large organization and what it takes to keep those ideas alive.

This video also happens to be a great example of one way to show your leaders on camera: in conversation with a noted expert. The interview format suits Beth’s style and helps her open up and get her ideas across without the feel of talking at an audience.

This is something we at Tribe have been experimenting with. For example, one of the CEO’s we work with was recently interviewed by Bill George, the Harvard Business School professor and author of True North, on camera in an internal video that helps portray the CEO’s style and vision to his employees. In fact, we tried it ourselves when Tribe’s CEO was interviewed recently by David Brancaccio in a new series of videos called Leadership in Focus.


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