Imagine It Forward: Courage, Creativity, and the Power of Change
September 18, 2018
Beth Comstock's new book is a great resource for thinking about the constant change swirling about us today, and how to make a positive change in your life and in the life of your organization, from one of America's top business minds and practitioners.
Beth Comstock's business history is as impressive as they come: "Former vice chair of GE, where for twenty-five years she led GE’s efforts to accelerate new growth. Named chief marketing officer in 2003, she operated GE Lighting, GE’s Business Innovations, and GE Ventures, which develops new businesses, markets, and service models. In 2006, she was named the president of integrated media at NBCUniversal, overseeing ad revenue and the company’s digital efforts."
But she opens the first chapter of her new book, Imagine it Forward, with the story of an intensely personal history of her early adulthood. She was in her mid-twenties, with a beautiful baby girl, married to her college boyfriend and living in a fancy home near Washington DC. She was, in her telling, "the woman who seemed to have it all." In reality, she knew something was missing.
The moment Katie was born, she created a love in me so strong that it yanked a fierce clarity from my depths. My vague despair morphed into a clear-eyed vision of a future that I knew had little to do with my present. I knew I had to chart my own course, be the captain of my soul. What was clear was that I had to go; what was less clear was where.
What was missing was one of the most impactful business careers of the last half century. So, she and her husband divorced, and she became a single mom, dedicated to making a life of her own. Having felt like she had let others (and the expectations of others) narrate her life up until that point, she began to write her own story—and it began with a publicity job she had landed at NBC's Washington news bureau. "I threw myself into my work," she writes. "I began to assert my ambition and test my boundaries." Doing so, she would eventually climb to the highest echelons of American business. She moved on to CNN and CBS, but would eventually return to NBC where she'd become vice president of NBC News, and then senior vice president of corporate communications of NBC itself, before rising through the ranks of the network's parent company, GE, that storied American enterprise founded by Thomas Edison well over a century ago. She would be named to both the Fortune and Forbes lists of the world's most powerful women. But it all began with the power of imagining something different, and having the courage to go forward and make it a reality. It is a personal example of what she teaches others to do: becoming "'change ready'—that is, fearless, perpetually ready to reenvision, rethink, and redesign, whatever we do and wherever we are."
Unfortunately, the standard business protocol in America today isn't of that ethos:
Instead of investing more resources in understanding the art and science of innovation, we've doubled down on the diminishing returns of financial engineering.
The story of Comstock's illustrious career, which she tells in the book alongside lessons on how to master change (in ourselves and our organizations), provides a nice antidote to that way of thinking. It includes the rebirth of the Today Show "Window on the World" and the birth of MSNBC, and helping guide GE through the aftermaths of 9/11 and the financial crisis of 2008. It crosses paths with the most famous business people of our times: Ted Turner, Bill Gates, and Steve Jobs, Jack Welch and (especially) his successor, Jeff Immelt, who tapped her to lead change at GE in 2001, and with whom she "reimagined, and the reengineered the company into the world's first 'digital industrial.'"
We took a 130-year-old corporation, with more than 300,000 employees, and transformed it from a risk-averse, perfection-seeking organization to one that increasingly encouraged speed, adaptability, iteration, and discovery.
She doesn't pretend that it all worked our perfectly. What they did "wasn't enough," she writes in the epilogue, "it wasn't fast enough." But she also believes that "there is much to be proud of," and for us, there is a lot to learn from her experience "as stage manager for one of the most public sea changes in American business." It is a story of to continual innovation in the midst of near constant uncertainty—and it is that ability she offers to teach others. Hers is a vision of change that focuses on the long-term health, viability, and sustainability of business over short term profits. It is not always easy, or pretty. "Change is a messy, collaborative, inspiring, difficult, and ongoing process," she writes, "like everything meaningful that leads to human progress." But, she also notes that "The world will never be slower or simpler than it is today." And, as the world continues to change at an exponentially faster rate, as it becomes increasingly interconnected and complex, she leaves us with this sage piece of advice:
You have to believe two things: (1) tomorrow can be better than today, and (2) you have the power to make it so.
Imagine it Forward is a great resource for thinking about the constant change swirling about us today, and how to make a positive change in your life an the life of your organization, from one of America's top business minds and practitioners.
We have 20 copies available.