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Beth Comstock, Senior Vice President and Chief Marketing Officer, GE

Beth Comstock leads GE’s growth and market-innovation initiatives as well as the sales, marketing and communications functions.

By London Business School Review 03 July 2012

In 2003, Beth Comstock was named General Electric’s first Chief Marketing Officer (CMO) in more than 20 years. Today, she leads GE’s growth and market-innovation initiatives as well as the sales, marketing and communications functions. She is responsible for GE-wide business platforms for ecomagination, dedicated to environmental innovation, and healthymagination, focused on better health outcomes.


“The Olympics are a great brand; it's a convening force. To have your brand associated with that, we (GE) have found very powerful.”



Connecting the dots at GE


In 2003, Beth Comstock was named General Electric’s first Chief Marketing Officer (CMO) in more than 20 years. Today, she leads GE’s growth and market-innovation initiatives as well as the sales, marketing and communications functions. She is responsible for GE-wide business platforms for ecomagination, dedicated to environmental innovation, and healthymagination, focused on better health outcomes.

Beth has held a succession of roles at GE, NBC, CBS, and Turner Broadcasting. She is a member of Nike’s Board of Directors and Trustee president of the Smithsonian’s Cooper-Hewitt National Design Museum.


GE is a huge corporation. What was the attraction for a person like you?


It is a big company. GE’s in 150 countries and has 300,000 people and on first blush that would seem very intimidating.  But I find it’s a very approachable culture.  What has kept me at GE for all these years is just this big sense of mission that the company has. We’re in these big, meaty industries -- energy, healthcare, transportation -- that really make a difference.  It’s about our technology and the impact that our technology has.

Personally, I’ve been very focused on some programmes that run horizontally across the company -- one called Ecoimagination, another Healthyimagination -- that allow us to connect the dots and take all that scale and ability and focus on big problems. Breast cancer in Saudi Arabia, for example; and clean technology in China.  And so it’s that sense of scale and ability to take on big, meaty problems that really inspires me.  

When there’s a big issue, who are you going to call?  You’re going to call GE.  And so it’s exciting to be part of that kind of energy.


How would you describe your leadership style?


My leadership style has changed over the years. I would hope that others would describe it as collaborative.  I am a person that’s very driven by curiosity.  I’m always seeking new ideas, new opportunities, I think that teams are best when you work very hard to have differences of style.  So I think people would say I’m very tolerant of diversity in the way people think.  I think the best creativity comes about from bringing different types of people together.  As a leader of a team, that’s harder to do because tension often arises when people have different styles.  

I think people would describe me as energetic.  I have a lot of energy, a lot of passion for what I do.  So I guess if I were to describe my leadership style it would be: driven by curiosity, always seeking a better way, and wanting to be part of a collaborative, energetic team.

What drew you to business in the first place?


Originally, I thought I was going to go to medical school. After that, I wanted to be a science reporter. And now here I am in business.  So you see where that took me? I didn’t go to business school and I often wonder what might have happened if I had. In some ways GE has been my business school, my finishing school, my diplomatic school.

But business, I think, it really is about understanding how the system comes together.  I was trained as a biologist so I think perhaps my brain is structured to look at systems and I think increasingly when you think about business and the complicated sort of fast technology, incredibly inter-woven global marketplace that we have, it’s all about understanding the system.  One part can’t succeed without another and, increasingly, I think, in business we’re seeing the need for collaboration, for partnership, for interconnectivity.  That’s perhaps the connection in my mind. Business is all about trying to do your best and I tend to be a very competitive person.  Business is about winning and I like that environment where people get together and try to win.


You’d rate Jack Welsh as well?


Yes.  I had to -- it was mandatory.


What’s your job description?  In your mind, what is your job?


My job is to connect the dots across GE. It’s a big company, with lots of scale across many different industries.  My job is to connect the dots to see how these pieces come together. The challenge is: how do we use the scale of the company in a meaningful way?  My job is to translate the trends and the insights from outside the company and make them relevant inside.  

So, for GE, marketing has two roles.  First, it’s about value -- finding the customers’ value, translating it with our product folks, delivering it in the right way; and second, it’s about innovation.  People are often surprised to hear that us describe marketing as an innovation function.  We’re a technology company, we’ve been that for 130 years, we have great engineers and research scientists, but you also have to innovate in how you go to market.  You have to innovate in the experience that your customers have.  You have to innovate in combining those technologies in a totally new way.  

So I often believe my job is marketing innovator.  I think I’m one of GE’s innovation forces.


The job of CMO is one of those jobs that goes in and out of fashion. GE didn’t have a CMO for 20 years before you.  Why did they need one when you came and why do they need one now?


Well, we need one now in a strong marketing function because you have to unlock that value.  GE is increasingly global -- 60 per cent of our revenues and our people come from markets outside the US. It’s all about developing new opportunities and if you don’t have marketers, how do you do that?  

Marketers are the ones that say, here’s an area that’s starting to grow.  I’ll give you a good example.  Distributed energy, meaning power off the grid.  For those of us in London or in New York, we think about energy on the grid.  If you’re in Africa, you can’t even think about charging your battery, you don’t have anything to plug it into.  So how do you start to think of new energy sources that are self-generating?  That’s what you need good marketers for, to understand that here’s a need, here’s an opportunity. How do we translate it, how do we work with the product people, how do we then take it back and package it in a way that the market wants to buy it?  

And so, for a global company like GE, increasingly, that’s why marketing exists.


GE’s long been associated with the Olympics.  What does GE get from its association with the Olympics?


The Olympics are a great brand.  It’s a convening force and I think this opportunity to bring the world together and create a stage where people understand the world coming together. We love competition.  So I think the Olympics creates that opportunity for togetherness and competition, and to have your brand associated with that, we have found is very powerful.  

We also use it as market development tool.  So since we’ve started as a sponsor with the Olympics back in Torino in 2005, the Olympics have helped us generate a billion dollars in sales. You might not think about that for a company like GE but it’s power generation.  It’s healthcare equipment.  It’s lighting.  It’s water purification.  Every Olympic venue is a small city and they are generally redesigning from scratch. So, in addition to the brand building, which I think most people understand, what was unique in our coming into the Olympics was this ability to create infrastructure and sustainable technology whether it’s in health or in energy.


You travel all the time.  How do you stay fresh, physically and intellectually?


That’s a good question for me today because I’m jet-lagged! I like to dub my life at this point life at 36,000 feet.  I like to travel, which is good.  I think staying fresh requires a couple of things.  Curiosity propels me.  So people always ask me, where do you like to travel?  And I say, anywhere I haven’t been before -- although I do love London.  I relish the opportunity to discover new places.  

You do need downtime, whether you’re travelling or just in life.  You need to give yourself time just to be quiet, to be thoughtful.  When you travel, sometimes that’s hard.  For me, this morning, it was getting up at 5.30 am and taking a brisk walk and just having time with my thoughts, planning out my day.

The other thing I love about travel that I think is important for business, certainly for marketers, is it’s all about creating a very important network.  And so when I travel, I also try to meet with different kinds of people -- not just GE people. Certainly customers are important.  But I also try to use it to meet other people -- for example, I was in Shanghai a couple of months ago, and used it to check in with the innovation community.  What are entrepreneurs in Shanghai doing?  Here in London I’m able to convene with others who are in the sports marketing arena.  I try to push myself out of what would be a normal kind of business schedule.


How do you plan your time?  Have you got an ideal in your mind that you spend so much time in the office, so much time travelling, so much time with customers?


I can tell you how I plan my time but I can’t tell you that I always do it effectively. Like many companies, we’ve got a lot on our plate. Between digital and social media, where I have invested quite a bit of time whether it’s Twitter or Facebook, I feel that’s important, to stay connected to different constituencies and audiences and my network.  Business, obviously, the day-to-day requires a certain amount of activity, and then there’s your personal life, or what’s left of it after you’ve managed those two.  

So I’m constantly re-evaluating my schedule.  I wouldn’t say I’ve mastered it yet, but I learned a great tip from our chairman and CEO, Jeff Immelt. He says that for the past 30 years he’s had this great disciplined approach -- every Saturday he sits down, reviews the past week, what did he accomplish, looks at the week ahead, makes his schedule adjustment and focuses on what matters most.  And I try to channel that when I can -- to say am I using my time for what matters most?  What’s the strategy of the company?  What do I want to accomplish?  And do these time choices match those?  And sometimes I also feel it’s important to leave just a little bit a room for experimentation, and discovery.  You don’t know what you’re going to find and if everything is so well scripted and scheduled, you might miss out on something new and exciting.


So where’s your curiosity going to lead GE next?  Where are the big opportunities, you think, for GE in the next five years?


We’ve made a big mark on emerging markets so we call them the growth markets. Certainly continued growth in China, the Middle East -- I’m spending a lot of my time in the Middle East.  Australia, for us, is an emerging market with all the natural resources.  Latin America, and Russia are important.  So I think there’s plenty of opportunity for energy, healthcare, transportation, in those markets.

Also I’m investing quite a bit of my personal time for the company in meeting with entrepreneurs.  I’m starting to partner with start-ups in the US, in Israel.  I’m going to be back next month meeting with some start-ups here in London, and we’re doing it in China, because we’ve come to the recognition that as good as we are in our technology, we don’t have all the answers.  So we need to partner with other that do -- whether that’s big governments or small start-ups. We’ve been doing some very interesting partnerships in clean tech and in health with small start-ups.  And so I think that’s going to lead to some interesting new development for us.


By being part of a big company, can you maximise the impact of what you do?


If you’re a big company like GE and you don’t use your scale, then shame on you!  I think we exist to innovate but we do it with scale.  Sometimes it’s frustrating for people in GE. I work a lot in the innovation space, and what I’ve learned is it’s never that you don’t have enough good ideas, you do.  It’s bringing them to life that’s hard. And when you’re a company of our size, sometimes ideas are just too small.  They’re best done by a start-up.  

We need ideas that scale; that can have a full impact; that can take the company to new places.  And sometimes that can be frustrating for someone in our company that an idea maybe just isn’t big enough to have the impact that we need.  But it’s what it keeps me there.  It’s very exciting to know that if you have something, you can go big.

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