Beth Comstock overcame fear, her introverted nature, and myriad obstacles in her path to become an extraordinary corporate leader—and in the process learned to Imagine It Forward, which also is the title of her brilliant new book.
imagine it forward / ge / nbc / jack welch / jeff immelt / pr / cnn / cbs / creativity / fear / change / failure / steve jobs / susan cain / college of william and mary / diane sawyer / ted turner / astrology
From the earliest of ages, we’re taught that there are two types of people in this world: the timid, creative and perhaps skittish introvert, and the affable, gregarious extrovert. After our guidance counselors administer a brief Q&A and brand us as one or the other, they bid us well in our journey, often leaving us to believe that there really are only two personalities in life—and that whichever we’ve been assigned is simply a cell to which we must adapt.
But what if in truth they’re less a set of cells, and more a collection of brilliant rooms with doorways connecting them?
Groundbreaking corporate executive Beth Comstock grew up in the small town of Winchester, VA—daughter to a quiet, reserved dentist father, and a school teacher mother who was so wildly outgoing and plugged into her community that Comstock has dubbed her “the unofficial mayor of Winchester.” As a result, Comstock has said, her mother pushed her to be a “joiner,” and to get involved with as many things as possible. Yet Comstock was the definition of shy, and felt most at home inventing games and custom worlds with her friends in the neighborhood—a universe free from rules, the constraints limited to the corridors of imagination.
Comstock, a lover of nature, studied biology at the College of William and Mary, and spent a summer working in a Rubbermaid factory—where her fellow employees took bets about whether she’d last until the end of the day. She lasted the entire summer and absorbed lessons that are explored in this episode of Design Matters—and one gets the sense that people have been placing wagers on Comstock’s chances at success ever since, as she met unknown after unknown head-on with a resolve and determination that would characterize her brilliant working life.
But first, perhaps, she had to fail, and she had to settle.
Comstock dreamt of becoming a science reporter on television. After college, she worked as an on-camera correspondent for a Virginia government news service (and also as a waitress in a Mexican restaurant, given how well the gig paid). Seeking to ascend the ranks, she applied for a meteorologist position in Salisbury, MD—and bombed the interview by mispronouncing the town’s name. Then, after doggedly pursuing a local news director for an interview, he erupted—telling Comstock she looked like she was 12, and demanding to know why he would put someone like her on television.
She was crushed. She had always lived life by the rules and the expected, according to established paths, expectation, tradition, custom. So she succumbed to the negative feedback and gave in to her college boyfriend’s marriage proposal, setting her dreams aside to live life as a wife and mother.
“Everything was happening too fast,” she writes in her new book, Imagine it Forward. “It was as if someone else was narrating my life.”
But soon enough, something snapped. A gnawing urge had been growing within her and an internal voice was increasing in volume, and she did a remarkable thing that so many do not: She listened to it.
In her mid-20s, Comstock made a series of her own decisions that would be the genesis for everything that would follow: She’d get a divorce. She would focus on her career and building a life. And she would do it all on her own terms. As she has since written, the key isn’t to always make the right decision—it’s to act decisively. So with great terror and the looming unknown, she did.
After a handful of gigs, Comstock nabbed a job as publicity coordinator for NBC’s Washington bureau—and then she became head of the department and moved to New York City. In 1989, she took a job leading CNN’s PR. And then came the wet hand of Ted Turner that further redefined her life. Comstock was tasked with running Turner’s schedules and appearances when he came to the city, and she did so flawlessly—but she would also do so rather anonymously, disappearing into the background and avoiding the gaze of her boss at events, so much so that she doesn’t think Turner even knew her name. She was fully cognizant that she was likely missing out on career advancement and the other perks of being recognized for work done exceedingly well, so she decided to lead a coup against her shyness. At the United Nations, where Turner was set to receive an award, he swung by the bathroom first. When he emerged, Comstock extended her hand and formally introduced herself in the tiniest of voices. Turner shook her hand, and waited to see if she had anything to add. Comstock looked down. He walked away.
She was devastated at her inability to step up and engage for the good of her career. So she decided to more forcefully address her biggest fear, concocting a plan to engage with someone every single day by asking them a question. A forgettable daily encounter for many the extrovert, yet an intense prospect for the rest of us. And by the power of painful practice, Comstock grew, and so did her confidence.
The work followed. She led PR for CBS East Coast entertainment. She served as VP for NBC News Media Relations. Her wins were significant in the industry, and likely remarkable to many who knew the shy side of Comstock. And then Jack Welch, GE’s legendary CEO, came calling. GE owned NBC. Welch had heard tell of her work, and wanted her to serve as VP of corporate communications within GE. As she writes, it was a leap of faith, and a necessary one at that: “This was a path I had to follow, even if I had no idea where it was leading me.”
One moment that stands out in Comstock’s subsequent work for the company: Her reaction to the events of Sept. 11, 2001. Comstock felt that GE, the most American of companies, should act—they had an opportunity, if not an obligation, to show the country resolve, that things would be OK. Working with GE’s external agency on a print ad, Comstock wasn’t happy with what was being proposed—until she saw a pencil sketch of the Statue of Liberty, her sleeves rolled, bearing the message, “We will roll up our sleeves. We will move forward together. We will overcome. We will never forget.” She thought it was perfect.
… But nobody else at the company did. They thought it did not feel like a GE ad, and would get the business destroyed in reaction. But she trusted her gut, and booked placement in the major newspapers. The night before it ran, the anxiety (read: panic) kicked into high gear. If it tanked, would she get chastised? Demoted? Fired? She turned over every outcome in her mind, as she does, prepping for each possible scenario—a practice she has since said allows her to in fact feel comfortable dreaming large without barriers, never ruling anything out because of perceived risk.
Still, in the moment she was terrified. But when the ad launched, it was a colossal hit. An instant classic. It popped up all over New York and the country. It was, seemingly, what the U.S. needed in that moment: Optimism. And Comstock had delivered it, through all the fear, all the adversity, all the doubt.
A bone-rattling lesson for a shy introvert, but a vital one for a career: As Comstock has since written, “If failure is not an option, then neither is success.”
More high stakes positions followed. She continued to rise. She became chief marketing officer of GE. She became president of Integrated Media at NBCUniversal. She became SVP of GE. She became vice chair of GE. The innumerable successes for the corporate exec with the curious biology background mounted with each title change, landing her on the likes of Forbes’ Most Powerful Women list: She put GE’s products and services on a new, environmentally friendly path; she served as a key player in the development of what would become Hulu; she worked on GE Lighting and the company’s smarthome initiatives that were years ahead of their time.
And then, in December 2017, she retired from GE following the departure of her friend and champion, CEO Jeff Immelt. Reflecting on her extraordinary journey and evolution from shy kid to high-powered executive to author and now, free agent—and looking ahead to what comes next—one recalls Comstock’s description of when she was happiest growing up, inventing games alongside her neighborhood comrades:
“Nobody told us what to do. There were no consistent rules. We just used our imaginations to create worlds for ourselves out of nothing, the epitome of what play expert Stuart Brown calls ‘self-directed play.’ We’d construct cities from branches and leaves in the fields near our houses. We’d make up outlandish imaginary characters. We’d put on impromptu carnivals in which we’d all be clowns, ringmasters, animals, daredevils and fortune tellers, with the roles rotating if we felt like it. We were like jazz improvisers trying out every possibility and riffing off each other’s ideas until we found the melody. Nobody felt ashamed if an idea didn’t work out. We’d just move on to the next possibility.”
—Zachary Petit, Design Matters Media Editor-in-Chief
By Beth Comstock:
Imagine It Forward: Courage, Creativity, and the Power of Change