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Generation Flux

Generation Flux: Beth Comstock

A conversation with Beth Comstock, GE's chief marketing officer. She is responsible for Ecomagination and Healthymagination, GE efforts that account for billions of dollars in sales.

Generation Flux: Beth Comstock

"In a big company, you never feel you're fast enough." Beth Comstock, the chief marketing officer of GE, is talking to me by phone from the Rosewood Hotel in Menlo Park, California, where she's tapping the pulse of entrepreneurs in Silicon Valley. She gets a charge out of the Valley, but it also reminds her how perilous the business climate is right now.

"Business model innovation is constant in this economy," she says. "You start with a vision of a platform. For a while, you think there's a line of sight, and then it's gone. There's suddenly a new angle."

Executives at GE are bracing for a new future. The challenge they face is the same challenge staring down wide swaths of corporate America, plus government, educational institutions, and more: These organizations have structures and processes built for an industrial age, where efficiency is paramount, but adaptability difficult. Changing direction within these embedded systems is rough terrain.

Within GE, Comstock says, "Our traditional teams are too slow. We're not prototyping fast enough, not innovating fast enough. We need to systematize change."

At first blush, Comstock doesn't have an eclectic career path—she's spent more than two decades within GE's various divisions. But that hasn't limited her embrace of flux. While she can dress and act the part of a quintessential corporate soldier, she's also got a sweet spot for creative types who can bring her fresh thinking—and can spur GE forward. She's brought in folks like Benjamin Palmer, the groovy CEO of edgy ad firm Barbarian Group, to help inject new ideas and processes into GE's marketing apparatus. "We're creating digital challenge teams," she explains. She's also trolling among cleantech and health startups, pointing to Luke Fishback at home-energy service PlotWatt as an example. "We're doing a lot more work with entrepreneurs," Comstock says. "It's part of our internal growth strategy. It creates tension. It makes people's jobs frustrating. But it's also energizing."

Comstock's path of flux has proceeded from NBC to the C-suite, where she conceived Ecomagination and Healthymagination, GE initiatives which have been core to the reconfiguring of the company since the 2009 financial crisis. "I've always gravitated to the new," Comstock says, in trying to explain her comfort with change. "Part of it is who you are. I grew up in media, in news, and developed almost an addiction to go from deadline to deadline. It's intoxicating."

"I'm propelled by curiosity," Comstock continues. "I like traveling to new places. I'm always renovating at home. My formative years at GE, every two years I moved to a new assignment. Today everyone feels out of control. How can I be in all the places I need to be? Digital technology is pushing people, pushing the pace. Change is unlimited, time is not."

Comstock is struck by the resistance executives have to all this change. "Every time I meet people, the talk always gets to, 'Given email, social media, how do you manage your time?' It's group therapy everywhere. 'How do you deal with the pressure?' Some people say, 'I declare bankruptcy.' But they're not embracing change. They're just giving up."

On the other hand, Comstock says you need to be vigilant about embracing every little new thing. "There are change junkies, who change just for the sake of change. Sometimes you may change for the wrong reasons." And despite her attraction to startups, she contends that big players like GE still have significant advantages. "Change is good, but change and scale is better," she says. Referring to the analogy of a big business as a supertanker, Comstock notes: "It may take you longer to decide to turn [if you're big], but once you make the turn, you can make it fast and have scale. For all their speed and agility, most entrepreneurs can't scale that way."

Generation Flux

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A version of this article appeared in the February 2012 issue of Fast Company magazine.