The Beth Comstock Way To Make Strange, Serendipitous Connections

GE's chief marketing officer chats with us about her unexpected but sticky approach to bonding, the better to build business.

"A lot of people think it's a waste of time," Beth Comstock says of making connections. "If you're trying to be hyperefficient."

Beth Comstock

Oddly enough, inefficiency can be a key to productivity—if you're trying to make new things. For instance, if you're the chief marketing officer of General Electric, and you're backstage at the IdeaFestival talking to a reporter about how you find your ideas—which, of course, come attached to people.

"My professional mission is connecting," the generation Flux alumna says while we're backstage at IdeaFestival in Louisville, Kentucky. "It's about connecting dots; it's about looking at the horizontal, not the vertical; it's about finding a trend and making it relevant (to the company); it's connecting those dots that, on their own, don't make sense."

Which is evident in the portfolio of unobvious intersections at which Thomas Edison's company now finds itself, like making an efficiency machine at BuzzFeed, partnering with TaskRabbit and Star Trek for promotions, and working with hacker and maker spaces, as GE did at SXSW.

Beth Comstock, GE's CMO, launches GE Garages at SXSW.

"It can't always be 'I'm going to make this connection and there's going to be this immediate return,' " she says, echoing organizational psychology. "Part of it is serendipity, [but] there's a bit of karma."

It's an emergent strategy: Rather than following the most efficient path, Comstock says, the connector is willing to go places that allow new ideas to emerge.


Sometimes you have to go to very strange places and often meet with people who seemingly have nothing to do with your company. There's a seed of an idea. I spend a lot of time in Maker spaces, hacker spaces, where seemingly—you know, GE's a very high-end manufacturing—why would that ever be a connection for GE? There are people doing pretty amazing things and they don't work for one company, and what could we do for them? Maybe there's access to intellect, equipment. What could they do for us? We could take an idea in, get them to market. On it's face, some of these things seem frivolous or uncertain or unobvious, but that's what connectors do.

HOW TO BETTER CONNECT: MAKE THE TIME

The thing about getting to know people is that it takes time. And nobody has time, least of all chief marketing officers of hundred-year-old multinational corporations. So Comstock is vigilant about making the time to make connections.

Over email: Comstock says that her inbox is a place of "triage"—and no, she doesn't have someone do it for her. The triaging tends to land messages in three piles: the yes, the no, and the thoughtful. That last group is the hard one, since being thoughtful demands time and energy. She does the thoughtful ones first, because otherwise she would be exhausted by the time she gets to them.

Through social media: If you're going to have slack in your schedule to make connections, you need to be thoughtful with your Twitter time as well. "I find I'm much more disciplined with social media than I was in the early days, she says. "It was constantly interrupting me. Now I'm scheduling it like it's a meal."

At an event: Meet people who you "seemingly have nothing in common with." Why? Because they can drop unexpected knowledge on you and connect you or your company to insights you never would have brought back yourself.

Bottom Line: To be a better connector, you need to mind your time.

"You have to carve out that space for serendipity," Comstock says, "and then you need to let it incubate."

[Image: Flickr user Khairul Nizam]

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