Lessons from Corporate Innovators

Beth Comstock -Author, Imagine It Forward and Former Vice Chair GE

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For this tenth episode of Agile Giants, we have quite a treat.

I’m joined this week by Beth Comstock. Beth is probably best known as the former Vice Chair of GE, specifically leading innovations. She wrote a really transparent book called Imagine It Forward: Courage, Creativity, and the Power of Change, which is a really interesting blend of a reflection on her time at GE, the good and the bad, almost a memoir, as well as a nice set of best practices and observations for corporate leaders responsible for innovation.

We use her book as a jumping off point for the discussion, but I can’t recommend strongly enough you pick it up yourself if you’re interested in digging in further. It’s available wherever books are sold.

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Full Transcript

Sean Ammirati: 00:08 Welcome to Agile Giants, lessons from corporate innovators. I’m Sean Ammirati, your host, co-founder and director of the Carnegie Mellon Corporate Startup Lab, and partner at the early stage venture capital fund, Birchmere Ventures. Each week, I’m going to talk to guests who are experts at creating startups inside large corporations. I believe fundamentally, a startup within a company is the same as one inside the proverbial garage, a group of entrepreneurs trying to make the world a better place, using new ideas and inventions. However, I also believe some of the techniques and processes are just inherently different. This podcast is going to explore those similarities and differences.

Sean Ammirati: 00:56 Welcome to episode 10 of Agile Giants. A few months ago, when I started this, I never could have imagined how much fun this would be. It’s been great to get so many encouraging messages about how this is shaping your perspectives on innovation. If you’re enjoying the podcast, please consider leaving a five-star review and comment on iTunes. It really helps other folks find this content.

Sean Ammirati: 01:19 For episode 10, we have quite a treat. I’m joined this week by Beth Comstock. Beth is probably best known as the former Vice Chair of GE, specifically leading innovations. She wrote a really transparent book called Imagine It Forward: Courage, Creativity, and the Power of Change, which is a really interesting blend of a reflection on her time at GE, the good and the bad, almost a memoir, as well as a nice set of best practices and observations for corporate leaders responsible for innovation.

Sean Ammirati: 01:48 We use her book as a jumping off point for the discussion, but I can’t recommend strongly enough you pick it up yourself if you’re interested in digging in further. It’s available wherever books are sold. Again, that’s Imagine It Forward: Courage, Creativity, and the Power of Change.

Sean Ammirati: 02:10 Welcome to another episode of Agile Giants. I’m really excited today to be joined by Beth Comstock. Beth, I’m guessing almost everybody who’s listening to this knows who you are and your story, but just for the few who may not, could you start just giving people a little bit about your background to get started here?

Beth Comstock: 02:26 Sure. Thanks, Sean. Thanks for having me. I am somebody who spent a career in business. I most recently was the Vice Chair at GE, who led innovation.

Beth Comstock: 02:37 I grew up as a marketer. I worked in media, and have recently published a book called Imagine It Forward.

Sean Ammirati: 02:43 I’ll say this a couple of times throughout, but if you haven’t gotten the book yet, you should absolutely get it. I thought actually, the book would be a good jumping off point here. The full title is Imagine It Forward: Courage, Creativity, and the Power of Change, and I thought it’d be good to start with this concept of the power of change and being a change agent, which is certainly something that you can tell through the book you did at GE, but you draw this analogy, which resonated with me as a, beyond being a professor here at CMU, an early stage investor. You said:

Sean Ammirati: 03:10 “a change agent is like an early stage investor. You put down a lot of small bets, and a few large ones on the belief that one or more will blow up big, and lead you forward. You learn from each failure in this evolving portfolio of strategic experiments.”

Sean Ammirati: 03:23 My gut is that most people who read the book and aspire to have a career like yours are like, “Yeah, absolutely. That’s what I want to do.” I think my sense is, the tricky part from a lot of folks trying to do what you’ve done is getting senior executives to buy into the strategy of making a lot of small bets and a few bigger ones. I’m curious maybe this as the first jumping off point, if you could talk a little bit about how you got people to sign up for this strategy.

Beth Comstock: 03:45 Yeah. Well, I think it’s … You’re exactly right, and sometimes you’re just doing it before it’s ready to share. I adopted …

Beth Comstock: 03:54 This was over a lot of learning, of years of learning, but I came to adopt and I found this especially first when I was working as Chief Marketing Officer in our marketing budget, I always made sure we carved off 10 to 15% of our budget for experimenting for kind of new methods of marketing, early efforts in digitization, new partnerships with startup media companies.

Beth Comstock: 04:18 Also, that we were testing new things, one it gave the team an opportunity to try things, less money at stake, so it just became kind of a way of working, and kind of expanded from there. I’ve made it a practice even in my personal life, so I guess I’d start with saying no matter what you’re doing, you probably have some kind of discretionary ability to carve a little bit of experimentation off.

Beth Comstock: 04:47 Here’s what I mean. Even if you have no budget, you have time, but my guess is you may have a little bit of budget. You don’t need absolute approval for every single step you do. Can you take a little bit of that, your budget, your time, your people’s time, and go see, go discover something new, test, something out. It doesn’t mean you have to invest in a startup, but then, that’s the VC kind of model. That’s what, as you know, investors do. They place a lot of different bets. Why are you doing it?

Beth Comstock: 05:17 Because you’re spending less money. You’re doing it in a way that the failure isn’t going to bring you or your company down, and you’re learning. You’re trying to say, “How fast can I learn about this new area so that when I want to put serious money to work, I’m more confident about it?”, so I absolutely believe everybody needs to think about that opportunity in their life and work.

Sean Ammirati: 05:40 Yeah, 100%, and I think that’s right. You could obviously do that in your own personal life. Did you then share those early wins, and sort of the early time that you’d carved out with senior execs that you’re interacting with, or how did you get them bought into that same philosophy?

Beth Comstock: 05:54 Well, yeah. I mean one, I think I have this core belief that one, you have to give yourself permission. A lot of change is about just permission-granting of you and your team.

Sean Ammirati: 06:04 Yeah, 100%.

Beth Comstock: 06:04 Yourself and your team. If you’re constantly going to somebody and saying, “Can I do this?”, then half the time, they don’t know what you’re talking about, especially if it’s not their area, and so you have to show them something.

Beth Comstock: 06:16 Those experiments, the ones that worked, you’re able to say, say, “Look, this worked. Now, what if we grew it from here?” “What if we did it with your customers? What if we …” I’ll give you a good example, when we were looking at GE, and kind of the arrival of new ways of manufacturing, the digitization of manufacturing, 3D printing. It started with a really small group of us that just went out and kind of explored makerspaces, and then we kind of seeded some 3D printing technology with some engineering teams and kind of said, “Let’s experiment.” It was out of them playing with it that we were able to build confidence.

Beth Comstock: 06:57 It wasn’t because we said it was a good idea. It was like, “Look at what this engineer came up with. Look at how he or she took it to a customer and did a prototyped a part in plastic before you even get to metal.” It kind of builds on itself, but it’s those examples, it allows people to kind of see what’s possible, and then they start to own it more. That’s what I found helpful. You’re seeding momentum in some way. You’re kind of giving people an experience so that they can adapt it and make it their own.

Sean Ammirati: 07:30 I want to come back to that sort of industrial internet and the industrial part in a minute, but one of the other sort of general things that I took away from your book, which I found interesting because as someone who’s spent a bunch of time with more traditional startups and now spending more time looking at corporate startups, you talk about in your book the importance of constraints, and even call constraints the fuel for creativity. This is something that you hear startups talk about all the time. Yet, most other corporate entrepreneurs that I talk to, corporate innovators, they don’t tend to grasp the power of that. They tend to think about what they can’t do.

Sean Ammirati: 08:03 You say in the book, “Constraints fuel creativity. Sometimes having a smaller budget or a tighter deadline, especially in the early days, forces you to hone your idea. Look at your constraints as a source of creativity, rather than a temporary hardship to overcome.” I was curious if you could talk about maybe one or two examples from your time at GE where these constraints actually did fuel your creativity, because I think it’s a missing thing in a lot of the corporate entrepreneurship conversations today.

Beth Comstock: 08:29 Yeah. Well, here’s the mistake that established companies make, and I’ve seen startups make this mistake too. They’re overfunded, and I know people hear this and like, “What? You don’t know my company? I mean, I worked for a notoriously tight-fisted company. Budget wasn’t overflowing at GE”, but big companies mistake money and time.

Sean Ammirati: 08:50 Sure.

Beth Comstock: 08:50 They think if they just throw more money at it, they’re going to get there faster, and some things need kind of tested and worked out before you can scale it, and so I’ve just seen it time and again that when you … You have to have some oxygen. You have to have some money, some people often, but it’s like MacGyver. If anyone watched that show back from the, whatever it was, the ’90s or whenever, it’s just how creative can you be with what you’ve got?

Beth Comstock: 09:18 It’s again to create some examples and proof points. We did that in our digital storytelling, where we would, rather than hire a big, expensive advertising agency to spend a million dollars on an ad, we’d hire a creative shop out of Chattanooga and say, “Hey, can you go tell a story about nanotechnology?”, and do it in a really inexpensive way so that we can prove that storytelling about science is really effective, and let’s just go place it on Facebook or other places we can do for cheap.

Sean Ammirati: 09:50 Yeah.

Beth Comstock: 09:50 We don’t need to buy a Super Bowl ad. Then, you just sort of see what happens. People like it. Before you know it, it becomes the slow-mo video or whatever, becomes a viral hit. That’s the way I saw those things work. You’re just really looking at things like a laboratory, and the constraints work in your favor because what often happens when you have more funding than you need, more time, more people, is you take on too much. You do too many things.

Sean Ammirati: 10:19 That’s right.

Beth Comstock: 10:20 You’re not focused, so I’ve always liked the idea that, especially in the early days, you just have to be … That’s what startups do so well. They don’t have a lot of money, so they’re focused on solving one problem really well.

Sean Ammirati: 10:33 Yeah, that’s right. They call it premature scaling and startups, but I feel like this conversation is missing a little bit on the corporate side, and I really appreciate it, how you talk about-

Beth Comstock: 10:41 [Crosstalk] … We call it premature scale. We called it that at GE, premature scaling, and we had an example where we’re starting an energy, a battery storage company, battery to power, wind and solar, and we had good technology, but we thought, a lot of people thought it was like another business unit, and they’re like, “If we just give it more money, it’ll grow faster”, but we hadn’t even proven the customer base yet. We had one customer. We didn’t know if we could get one to two, or even three customers, so yeah, we mistook the ability for intention and quick speed to scale, so we ended up investing like $200 million into this company before we had a proven customer base. I had to write it all off.

Sean Ammirati: 11:26 Yeah.

Beth Comstock: 11:27 We were premature scaling. It wasn’t ready to be given that much amount of money, and it forced the team to make decisions of a later stage company, and act like a later-stage company than it was.

Sean Ammirati: 11:40 I want to talk about one other sort of general point that I took away from your book, and then I’ll get to some specific things you did there, but you ended up with a couple other folks coining the term industrial internet, which I remember like as an outsider, when that came. The whole story is interesting and worth reading in your book, but one of the points you make when you talk about this is the power of language, and how once you get the right language and can tell a story, it allows you to sort of grow and evolve quickly, but getting that story right is challenging. Obviously, you have some domain expertise here, because you had time in your career where you were in marketing and communications and things like that, but for folks who might want to do the same thing you’re doing but don’t have that background, what tips would you offer them on how to create this shared language?

Beth Comstock: 12:25 Well, I’m glad you raise it, Sean, because I think in the midst of change or trying to make change happen, or changes foisted on you, we get lost in translation.

Sean Ammirati: 12:35 Yup.

Beth Comstock: 12:35 You get the cool kids versus the not cool kids, right? Like we get it, you don’t. Often, we use the very same words, but we mean different things. One, you’re trying to … When you’re trying to navigate through change, you have to have a vision of a better place you’re trying to get to. I mean, why are you making the change? Because you believe there’s something better, or someone believes there’s something better, so why?

Beth Comstock: 12:58 Like, what’s the story? Is it just because I said so? Is it because we’re going to grow 10%? I mean, often, these are not enough. There has to be a, “What’s in it for me? What’s better going to look like?”, and so I think you’d need to spend time in your story.

Beth Comstock: 13:11 I mean, to me, leadership and vision are about telling a story, “Here’s where we’ve come from”, “Here’s where we’re going”, being very precise on words. For us, an industrial internet wasn’t a very sexy phrase, but it was what it is. There’s the internet for consumers. Well now, we need internet for machines, and in fact, we need internet for industrial machines because the kind of data, an aircraft engine needs, is going to be much different than your iPhone. Imagine if your jet engine tweeted at you.

Beth Comstock: 13:42 If you were working in the service department at Delta, what would it say? “Hey, I’m okay up here. I don’t need to come in early for service. Things are good”, or, “Hey, actually, I’m not running so well. You might need to bring me in a lot faster than you thought.”

Beth Comstock: 13:57 That kind of ability to give people a relevance, a way to say, “Okay. Well, I get that. Now, what’s in it? Oh, what? You mean I’m going to be more productive? I’m going to be able to schedule things, and have my budget set, and save money, and help my pilots feel more confident?”

Beth Comstock: 14:13 Those are the benefits, so you have to keep building your story as you go on, but I felt in most of business, and this is startup and established company, we think the story is what we do at the end. It’s the brilliance of the founder or the business leader. “I’ve launched this business unit. I’ve launched this product. Now, get me a story”, as opposed to, “Well, what’s the reason you’re doing it?”

Beth Comstock: 14:37 “What problem are you trying to solve? Why should I partner, buy from, work with you? What does it get me?” If you can’t answer those basic questions, you don’t really have a strategy, and I bet you probably don’t have much of a business or a product either.

Sean Ammirati: 14:55 Yeah. Yeah, 100%. I mean, even like that story of like, “What if your jet engine tweeted at you?” I think that was in the book as one … it does sort of bring it to life, but then, you talked about sort of how then, once you had this industrial internet sort of umbrella, you were able to use it in so many different ways from interviews with the CEO of GE and Marc Andreessen.

Sean Ammirati: 15:18 Like just, it sort of became this kind of thing you guys could come back to over and over again. How did you know … You said when you were in the meeting though, when the term industrial internet came up, everybody just sort of just knew it was that. How did you guys know that was like you had hit it, you were ready to sort of push beyond and had this power of shared language at that point?

Beth Comstock: 15:35 We had been struggling for awhile. Most of these things you’ve been struggling, you just can’t find the words, so, and we were trying to differentiate ourselves from the consumer internet or …

Sean Ammirati: 15:48 Right.

Beth Comstock: 15:49 It’s just like, “Yeah, that says what it is.” The other phrase that really helped us was, “Physical meets digital.” It wasn’t everybody’s like, “Hey, every company’s a software company. Well, wait a minute. My jet engine’s not going away. My MRI machine is not going away”, so it had to be the marriage of the physical meets the digital.

Beth Comstock: 16:12 Then, you had to say, “What’s the benefit I’m going to get?” It is a bit of an “Aha” moment when those things happen, but they’re premeditated and they’ve taken a lot of energy and a lot of dimensions from the team to get comfortable with what you’re talking about, and the same with your customers. We came up with a, what we called a customer maturity model, so it’s kind of Wonky, but it was basically like, “Who are the most ready to change and willing to adopt digital technology in their industry?”

Beth Comstock: 16:41 Let’s have the story and conversation with them, as opposed to the ones who aren’t ready for it. That’s another thing. Have you segmented your audience, but in the right way? Some people just aren’t ready or it’s not as relevant to them right now, so we, in the beginning, again, good marketing. We went and said, “Okay. A lot of …”

Beth Comstock: 17:01 Ironically, you think it’s going to be the CTO or the CIO doing technology. We think maybe our best audience is the CFO, because this is a productivity story. This is a, “How do you get more return for your investment?”, and so you need to also think about who the audiences that’s hearing it, and what’s their readiness to kind of be part of that discussion?

Sean Ammirati: 17:27 You had this customer maturity model. I mean, who saw that within GE … I assume that was an internal model. Did the sales team see that? Like, who did you expose that maturity model to?

Beth Comstock: 17:40 Yeah. We would have expose it to the digital development team. They really are the ones who developed it.

Sean Ammirati: 17:45 Okay.

Beth Comstock: 17:45 Then, it was largely for the salespeople and the leadership teams, because in the early days when anything’s new, whether you’re trying to sell it to a customer, or your boss, or your colleagues, they don’t know what you’re talking about. That’s new concept. People are like, they need to hear it multiple times. They need to hear it over and over. They need to see it, and so you know, for one, salespeople are out, promising everything that we couldn’t deliver.

Beth Comstock: 18:11 They didn’t have the expertise. The customers didn’t know half of what they were talking about, and so you needed some way after some trial and error to kind of ground everybody, so yeah, we largely shared it with the development team and the sales team, just as a way to just leverage our activities so we weren’t wasting everybody’s time and mismatching a customer who wasn’t ready to do anything right now.

Sean Ammirati: 18:35 The book is this amazing blend of me as sort of your experience, and almost like a memoir of your time at GE, with also like all these really practical things. There are a couple of things that you talked about from your time at GE that I thought it would just be interesting to have you elaborate on a little bit. The one that that really jumped out is, you talk about Hulu and sort of what you did with Jason and the team there. I guess I’m curious like now, with the benefit of hindsight, what do you think were the big lessons for you from helping Hulu within the NBC organization, which was part of GE?

Beth Comstock: 19:09 Well, a couple of things. One is our digital team had experienced some things that didn’t work so well before we got to something in Hulu that worked. We had acquired iVillage, thinking it was going to be a bigger digital platform for us. As a company, we mismanaged some of it. We needed more investment than we knew. We were trying a lot of digital things within each individual network, and so we just saw a lot of things that didn’t work, at the same time, News Corp, Fox, they did the same thing. They had MySpace.

Beth Comstock: 19:42 MySpace didn’t end up working out so well because they tried to kill it, and so out of a lot of missteps, came a need to try something different, and so kind of the two of us got together, so that would be … One is, often out of failed attempts or less than stellar attempts, you figure out what you need.

Sean Ammirati: 20:02 Yup.

Beth Comstock: 20:02 One of the things we figured out was we weren’t so good at seeding the innovation. We needed more of an entrepreneur, and we needed a different game plan. Two, we needed a partner. Fox and NBC were good partners because we both had had that experience and we were both frightened of getting taken over, having our business model taken by Google and YouTube or someone else, so that partnership of wanting to share risk and reward. Then, the third lesson was that we couldn’t do it ourselves, that we had tried some things.

Beth Comstock: 20:35 Back to what we were saying about premature scaling, we spent too much money on the wrong things. We were caught up in some of the bad things companies do, team fiefdoms, budget wars. We needed to seed it outside the company, and so that’s what led us to Jason Kilar. Really, for our teams, it was just, “Hey, we want to start this video service. We want it to be open, and we know enough to know we can’t do it ourselves, so we need to find an entrepreneur who can.”

Beth Comstock: 21:03 Out of it came a lot of running rules that I think were instructive, but I’d say those three things were really critical. As I look back, I think I probably underestimated the failure piece of it, and the partnership having just real honest discussion. We went out and talked to several different partners who didn’t want to join with us. Viacom was one. Disney ended up coming in later, and now they’ve got Hulu, and they just weren’t ready, so sometimes, you try to force partnerships that aren’t ready. That one was just one that was ready, and we were both committed.

Sean Ammirati: 21:38 When does it make sense for a company to make one of these that’s a little larger, slightly outside the organization in partnership with the collaborator, in your case with Hulu, versus try to do it internally?” You had tried internally, as you said, with things like iVillage first. Do you think you guys needed to do those internal experiments to be able to sell management, the board, whomever on this external joint venture type approach?

Beth Comstock: 22:05 Yeah. As it did, but I think neither Fox nor NBC needed to … In hindsight, we didn’t need to spend the money. We did. We both spent about $500 million each on MySpace and iVillage.

Sean Ammirati: 22:14 Yup.

Beth Comstock: 22:16 That’s a huge cost of learning.

Sean Ammirati: 22:18 Yup.

Beth Comstock: 22:19 We could have done it with some reasonable money, but in a more thoughtful way, so I don’t think you needed to have that kind of failure.

Sean Ammirati: 22:26 Yup.

Beth Comstock: 22:26 Fear propelled both of us to make acquisitions that had the right strategy, but maybe we should have been more honest, where we really set up to handle them inside. I think a lot of companies are dealing with that even today.

Sean Ammirati: 22:40 Yeah. You had to do the iVillage experiment but in a different way?

Beth Comstock: 22:44 Yeah, and are you willing to give up the control piece of bringing an outside entrepreneur in? It was only through ourselves kind of messing up that we realized, “We’re not really good at this.” Just because you’re good at producing television shows, like we produced this … I talked about in the book iVillage Live, and we didn’t produce it in a digital first way. We didn’t produce it in a hybrid way.

Beth Comstock: 23:08 We produced it the old TV way, with a few digital embellishments. It was not good. We didn’t have the right people producing it, so you had to kind of go through that to learn it, I guess.

Sean Ammirati: 23:22 I think it’s helpful in the book as you point out, like when you guys were doing that iVillage thing, like Facebook was just emerging at that point, right?

Beth Comstock: 23:29 Yeah.

Sean Ammirati: 23:30 It’s easy to think like, “Oh, wow. I mean, who wouldn’t think that iVillage would need to be integrated with The Today Show, or with your … At that time, it probably just, there was no roadmap, so you guys had to sort of build this roadmap, and then ultimately, land on Hulu, was my sense reading.

Beth Comstock: 23:47 Yeah. No, that’s it. That’s it, and leave yourself open, and set up those running rules. I mean, the Hulu team had to get paid in different equity. That was supposedly a red line within GE, and there’s only one equity.

Sean Ammirati: 24:02 Right.

Beth Comstock: 24:02 Well, no. They’re going to get paid in Hulu. They’re going to have their own incentive plan. They’re eventually, hopefully going to go public or get acquired, or something. They have to have a different incentive plan.

Beth Comstock: 24:13 People are taking bigger risks, and so we’re going to recognize them differently. It was a huge fight.

Sean Ammirati: 24:19 When you talked about that in the book, I immediately flashed back to reading Jack Welch’s book, Straight From The Gut, where he talks about there’s only one equity, and thinking like, “Man, that had to be like sacrilegious in the company at that point.”

Beth Comstock: 24:29 Yeah. Exactly, and so you have to be willing to say that, “That actually doesn’t serve us in this purpose.”

Sean Ammirati: 24:36 Yup. I think there’s a lot of things you could answer to this question, but I’m really curious without prompting you much your answer to this question. What are you most proud of from your time at GE?

Beth Comstock: 24:45 Well, I’ve had a lot of time to think about it. I wrote a book to help me synthesize it.

Sean Ammirati: 24:49 Yup.

Beth Comstock: 24:50 I think I’m just really proud of some of the work we did with some of the teams. I mean, especially the marketing and innovation teams I work with. I mean, we were really good together. I know I feel I did some of my best work with them, and I hope they feel the same way. We just challenge each other, and we are corporate venture teams.

Beth Comstock: 25:14 I know it’s one of the best corporate venture teams out there. I mean, Sue Siegel and the team she put together. We just said, “If we’re going to do this, we’re going to really do it.” We weren’t perfect, but I feel proud of that. They didn’t all work out. Company is in a tough place now, but we were able to work together, we were able to grab the future earlier than we would have otherwise, and I think the company benefited from it.

Sean Ammirati: 25:40 Let’s stay on that for a minute on talent, because you talk about talent throughout, and it’s interesting. One of the things though that you mentioned that jumped off the page at me was how to deal with people who might be really great at seeding innovation, and getting these early stages developed, but they may not be “Scaled operators”. You talked about a guy who was the CMO at GE Healthcare had two PhDs and MBA, and ultimately, just didn’t, that here was no career path for a guy like him. If you were tsar of all these large companies trying to do this, what path would you give someone like that so that they can stay at a place like GE, instead of move on?

Beth Comstock: 26:21 Well, I think it requires a whole series of people in the organization to recognize you need more of the entrepreneurial spirit, these kind of instigators, and we were late to that at GE. I think most companies are, because you dream and scale, and everybody walks around in a company, talking about how big their P&L is, and how many people they oversee, and so the one that comes along is like, “I really don’t care if I have a lot of people. I don’t need a ton of money. I just want to start this idea. I want to get it going. I want to see from kind of idea to launch, to get it growing. That’s where I get my kick. I don’t want to run a $40 billion company.” The companies don’t know what to do with those people, and so they tended to be written off as dabblers, or you know not operators.

Sean Ammirati: 27:15 Right.

Beth Comstock: 27:15 They have a different skill set, and it took us a while to appreciate that. We had to create kind of a … We had to create not kind of. We had to create a separate track, so I’m big on at least two speeds of operating in a company. You need your core.

Beth Comstock: 27:28 Yeah, you still have to innovate there too, so you’re not off the hook, but you need your kind of, “What’s new and next?” That’s very much analogous to the work you’re doing, and what you see startups and venture capitalists doing. You’re taking these people who are good … They’re okay with ambiguity. They’re okay.

Beth Comstock: 27:44 They don’t know the answer. They just see a problem they want to solve, and they know how to bring people together to do it and marshal resources, and they’re okay with trying different things, until they get to what works. You don’t need to fund them a lot. You just kind of need to get out of their way and make sure they get what they need, and there are milestones. They’re not just sitting around, contemplating the clouds, and you need to give people the ability to come in and out of their jobs to see if they launch something and it doesn’t succeed, that they can still progress in their career, they can go try it again, they can do other things.

Beth Comstock: 28:19 I’d say that’s what I learned painfully, and I don’t think companies, established companies are really set up with that because it’s all about optimization, efficiency, productivity, and we don’t stop and think not only about the people we need to get to what’s next, but the capital allocation, the incentives. All those things go together.

Sean Ammirati: 28:42 Yeah. I 100% agree. I mean, that’s a lot of the research we’re doing here at CMU these days, is trying to figure that out, but if you were in charge, what would … I think his name was Jean-Michel. What would he be doing? Like what would his next step have been so that could have been a path for a guy like him inside GE? Not him specifically, but just people like in these sort of seeders and innovators-

Beth Comstock: 29:04 Well, he had had enough, so he tried, and tried, and tried, and he’s like, “I’m not going to be successful here. I’m going to go.” What would we have done with him? One of the things he seeded was the Home Health business.

Sean Ammirati: 29:16 Yup.

Beth Comstock: 29:17 What did the company do? We gave it to a scaled operator, who expected profitability and X number of customers before it was ready. We would have given him more time and a small team to really seed what needs to be doing to define what problem we’re going to be finding, to find the most meaningful partners, not force a partner on him just because of corporate convenience.

Sean Ammirati: 29:42 Yeah.

Beth Comstock: 29:42 When we did those things, when I saw that with different leaders who had that opportunity in our aviation business, we had one leader, Brad Mottier was his name, and he created a whole business, small jet engine small business plane division by being allowed to do that. This is in a business that’s very structured, highly capital-intensive. I’d say maybe the benefit they had in aviation is they are used to long-term planning. It takes a decade to get a new jet engine out. I can point to those examples. I wish I could point to more of them.

Sean Ammirati: 30:21 Yeah. As you’re talking, I was thinking about some organizations, like actually Microsoft that did this for a long time, where they had like a management, track and then just like an expertise track, so if you’re a really good engineer, they didn’t make you manage engineers. You just could become better, and more and more specialized, brilliant engineer. It seems like you almost need the same thing for innovation fellows or something like that. There needs to be some way for them to keep growing without necessarily scaling their operations.

Beth Comstock: 30:48 Yeah. I mean, look at the value they’re creating. Look at the training they offer to other team members.

Beth Comstock: 30:54 And it’s not to say they may not go and scale one of these companies. I know Cognizant, I think used to have a effort where they would take establish P&L, kind of scaled operators and make them go back, and do these kinds of seedling companies as a way to their development. I’m not sure everyone’s cut out for that, but I always thought that was quite interesting.

Sean Ammirati: 31:14 Yeah, it is. It is. I could talk to you forever, but I’m going to end with one last question to be respectful of your time. I like to ask every interview guest at the end to offer some career advice, because I have students who listen to this as well, but I was thinking as it relates to you, your sort of the whole book is really career advice, so we’re going to work on how we get your book into their hands, but I was thinking a slight tweak on it for this interview might be … In preparation for the interview, I was listening to a conversation you had with Kara Swisher on her podcast.

Sean Ammirati: 31:43 At the time, you were sort of exploring what you are going to do next, and it felt like a sort of very broad exploratory process. I guess as you’ve gone through this exploration, like any lessons you would have for students who might be much earlier in their career, but similarly trying to figure out what do they do after they get their MBA? What do they do after they get their master’s in computer science or robotics?

Beth Comstock: 32:08 Well, I’m not sure you need an MBA, or if you want to think [laughing] … But if you’re in getting your MBA program, great.

Sean Ammirati: 32:15 Sure. It’s a little late for some of them, but yeah.

Beth Comstock: 32:17 I think that’s the point. I think whatever your expertise that you’ve been training in, doesn’t mean it necessarily has to put you on the path. I hired a lot of MBA grads into GE, and I would like to have seen a lot more of them try for some of these entrepreneurial jobs, so I would say don’t be limited by your expertise. How can that be a springboard to something else? You come out with a toolkit. You’ve got a great network.

Beth Comstock: 32:45 I’m big on at least having a certain amount of your career experience center and figure-it-out jobs. It’s not like every job you’re going to take has to be the perfect title, hopefully get paid decent enough money, but they are going to be jobs that you need to take for the experience, for the fact that you don’t know a lot about it, so are you prepared to take some of those figure-it-out jobs, where the description’s ambiguous as part of the skill-building that you’re learning? I’m not sure we’re teaching that enough in schools, so that would be some advice. No matter who you are, if you’re getting out of school, especially early in your career, you can take some risks, and try a few different jobs.

Beth Comstock: 33:25 I think, especially if you have a thoughtful strategy of why you need this experience in that, it starts to round out your story, so there isn’t a linear path necessarily in building your career. Take those jobs often that other people don’t want or don’t seem as obvious because you have an ability perhaps to be more entrepreneurial, to bring some new flourishes to it that other people don’t see, but I think there are a lot of opportunities to be much more entrepreneurial with your career in established companies and in startups. That would be my advice.

Sean Ammirati: 33:57 Thank you so much for joining us today. Really, really appreciate the time.

Beth Comstock: 34:01 Thanks, Sean. Really nice talking to you.

Sean Ammirati: 34:11 I hope you enjoyed this episode of Agile Giants. If so, consider sharing it with a friend, and if you think it’s worth five stars, which I hope you do, please go to iTunes, and rate it so that others can find this content as well.

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