5 Questions With: Beth Comstock

December 20, 2018
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5 Questions With: Beth Comstock

Q.

What problem are you solving, and why is solving this problem personal for you?

A.

I’m on a mission to unlock people’s imaginations – their creative problem-solving skills. I worry that today – both in business and in other critical sectors – we expect everybody to be perfect. We expect checklist efficiency, and everybody needs to have the answers immediately at hand. We are not necessarily encouraging the creativity to think ahead, to problem solve, to envision both good and bad scenarios, and to do the hard work it takes to work our way through them.

Unfortunately, we’re also seeing the consequences of this mindset: kids undergoing depression and anxiety due to the expectation that they have to know all the answers and be perfect. Research shows that 65% of people don’t feel creatively challenged at work. People often think of creativity as this fluffy thing you do at the end of a big project, and that’s a mistake. I’m talking about critical thinking, judgment, the ability to use your imagination to think ahead, wallow in ambiguity – all these things that ultimately yield major success or major failure in business. We’re not training our people, and I think it’s going to lead us down a dark path. So that’s the mission I’m on these days.

It’s personal for two reasons. One is experience: I spent a career in big business, and I’ve seen times when courageous leadership and creativity made the difference. For example, when you’re literally making a market – like we did at GE Clean Energy, or in the digitization of industry – creativity is the single most important factor. And being able to react to crisis – like what happened after 9/11, or what happened after the Lehman Brothers bankruptcy. You don’t know what you’re made of until you’re forced into those situations. Second, I’ve spent years thinking about it, and have just published a book about it, Imagine it Forward. So it’s very personal to me – right now especially.

Q.

A big theme at NationSwell is cross-pollination across sectors and industries, and how insights from one can help in the others. Have you built insights in one world and taken them to another?

A.

I love that vision and mission for NationSwell. I think it’s one of the reasons I love the NationSwell Council – we’re kindred spirits in that. That’s how I navigated my career: looking for those connections. I like to think I’m creative, but it’s not that I always have the first or the best idea. I think I, and the people I’ve been able to work with, are good at connecting dots, and seeing patterns and similarities, and from there you already have a good base for creativity. I actually think that’s an unsung creativity that we need more of.

When I worked at NBC, we were just starting to see the disruption + digitization of media – the arrival of YouTube and similar forces. People saw the disruption coming in media – but you might think that was it. Having been exposed to that, when I worked in clean energy, I was able to see similar trends  coming to the energy space: the consumer revolution, the access to data and digital content. Sure enough, we started to see more consumers demanding access to their energy usage data and were lucky to be ahead of the curve. Then from there you could say: hey, this is coming to healthcare. We’re starting to see with the arrival of technology and the internet that more people are engaging in diagnosis, the collection of personal data, and building their own online healthcare communities.  So it wasn’t just communities in media that were forming: you could start to see where those trends were heading, and how they might play out in other industries.

Q.

In terms of NationSwell, what role has the Council played in your life or work?

A.

I remember meeting Greg early on, and he had this vision. Usually when you meet visionaries early on, the shape of their vision isn’t yet crystal clear, but his passion was just so overwhelming. You just had to listen to him. And so there was just something always from that early day of a gut instinct that Greg’s going to make something important happen here. From the beginning I just have been so taken by the vision of NationSwell to connect with people who believe in mission, and I know I have met so many people that I wouldn’t have otherwise. I always looked forward to my NationSwell encounters, because I’m always going to walk away feeling like I’m a better person, because I’ve learned something from someone around a table, I’ve made new connections, and I’ve been inspired. It’s pretty profound to think that you get that from a membership group.

I see the politicians that NationSwell brings together, the community organizers, the business executives, and there’s usually some common thread of change, innovation. You can often find a teacher who inspires you much more than a fellow business colleague. That’s what I get out of NationSwell.

Another big lesson from NationSwell came from a conversation about candor, honesty, and transparency. Someone there said their favorite question to ask was, “Tell me one thing I don’t want to hear.”  I’ve taken that question. It’s become one of my mantras, and I’ve been able to apply it in my leadership days in leading a team.

I set up a team at GE that called the Culture Club – not because we liked Boy George, but because if you’re going to change the culture we have hold each other accountable.  It was people from all levels of our team – and we met on a regular basis, and our core mission was feedback, accountability, and culture. And after being inspired by that question at NationSwell, it became our question. That question is so profound to me, and I love that I was able to discover it via the NationSwell Council.

Q.

If you could pick another Council member and say, “I wish more people knew about the great work they’re doing,” who would it be?

A.

I’ve just been so impressed, especially with many of the veterans groups and their commitment keeping their service alive – helping veterans and having veterans help other people in need. And I think NationSwell gives you a great platform to experience these. I didn’t come out of the military, and I don’t have a family that was in the military so being exposed to these people who are just so passionate about what they do is deeply inspiring.

I’d call out three Council member-led organizations in this tradition:

The Mission Continues [founded + led by member Spencer Kympton].  TMC does an amazing job of allowing veterans who have returned home to continue their service via volunteer work in their own communities, helping them to find purpose, community and success in the process.

Team Rubicon [cofounded by members Jake Wood and William McNulty].  The Rubicon founders saw two problems – a sclerotic and slow-moving disaster relief system, and redeployed veterans who wanted to continue serving and being part of something bigger than themselves.  Now Rubicon deploys thousands of trained veteran volunteers every year to disaster areas around the world, delivering relief and saving lives.

Arts in the Armed Forces [led by members Adam Driver, Joanne Tucker, and Lindsey Miserandino].  Most people know Adam from his work as an actor, but he’s also a former Marine. AITAF does great work providing free, live arts performances to all branches of the armed forces, providing service members with both thought-provoking experiences and a starting point for bridging the civilian-military divide.

Q.

What’s the biggest lesson you've learned in the last 10 years?

A.

To me it boils down to one word: change. The pace of change is just so fast for all of us – and accelerating.  We all know that, but we’re not really developing ourselves to be more adaptable to this pace of change. And in organizations we tend to think, “Well, there’s a simple checklist, there’s a framework for change, I can manage change, and we’ll get through this.” The reality is, you have to navigate it, but you can’t force people to change. Ask anyone in a relationship: you can’t force someone else to change. It’s the same way in your company or your organization, and I think what I’ve learned is this: people have to find their own way through change.

So if you’re somebody who’s part of making change or getting an organization ready for change, expose people to what’s happening earlier. Let them find a way to get comfortable with it and how it affects them. You can’t always force it on people. So the best we can do is create a surround sound: of storytelling, of outside forces that we can start to bring in and expose, trends that are happening, innovation spaces where people can tinker with what’s new, and find their own way there. That’s my biggest learning.

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