NBC* is known for shows like “Saturday Night Live” and the “Today” show; GE is known for making airplane engines and refrigerators. But Beth Comstock, who was a senior executive at NBC before becoming GE’s vice chair, says it’s not just what a company makes that determines its culture.
“I found I was more able to be more creative at GE than NBC,” Comstock said on the latest episode of Recode Media. Part of that, she explained, is because GE has a hand in so many industries; but another component is how much more “territorial” people were in the media business, which hindered innovation.
As the author of a new book about creativity, “Imagine It Forward,” Comstock told Recode’s Kara Swisher that many companies today would rather be seen as innovative than actually innovate.
“I think people dress up for innovation,” she said. “They all have on the fancy clothes. They hire, probably, people like me they call the chief innovation officer and they’ll hire Ideo or someone to come in and speak, and then they pretend like they’re innovating, but they don’t want to do the hard work.”
“They have to get the right people,” Comstock added. “They have to have people like you. They have to make sure you are going to succeed. They can’t have the antibodies come in and say, ‘No, Kara, you can’t ask that.’ They have to pay you. Well, they have to give you room. They have let you fail. There’s that whole thing, and then the short-termism takes over. They’re afraid to say to investors, ‘Yeah, Kara hasn’t figured it out yet.’”
And just “letting you fail” isn’t good enough either, she explained. GE had to learn a more modern, tech-like way of experimenting with risky projects.
“The old GE way was ... we end up throwing in $200 million and we had to write the business off as opposed to what we should have done and what we ended up learning how to do,” Comstock said. “Let’s invest $10 million with one customer to get it right. Then we can invest $100 million when we’ve proven that we’ve gotten it right.”
* NBCUniversal is an investor in Recode’s parent company, Vox Media.
Below, we’ve shared a lightly edited full transcript of Kara’s conversation with Beth.
Kara Swisher: Today, I’m talking to Beth Comstock, the former vice chair of GE. She’s also the former president of integrated media at NBCUniversal, where she oversaw the early days of Hulu. And she’s also the author of a book called “Imagine it Forward: Courage, Creativity, and the Power of Change.” Beth, welcome to Recode Media.
Beth Comstock: Thanks, Kara. Fun to be here.
We’ve known each other forever.
Oh, wow. We don’t want to say how long.
We don’t want to say how long, but nonetheless, you’ve had quite a career. And one of the reasons I want to have you on here is because I think it’s really important, not just for women, but just in general, to talk about how people’s careers go. ‘Cause yours has shifted really drastically.
Yeah. I never would have imagined having this career.
Yeah. Exactly. So let’s talk a little bit about what you’ve done. Before NBC, I’m blanking about where you were.
Well, I actually started a career, I wanted to be a journalist and I wasn’t very good at it.
What was wrong?
So pretty quickly I ... I wasn’t confident. And pretty quickly I got behind the scenes. I actually worked, I grew up near Washington, D.C., and I worked in a version of “Wayne’s World” back in the day for public access television.
And then from there I ended up going to NBC. I joined NBC as a publicity coordinator.
And then I worked my way through ...
Just press releases, right?
Press releases. Yeah. And I worked my way through media from there. I went to CNN, I went to CBS, back to NBC. Then NBC lead to GE.
So it makes sense to nobody but me.
Right. Okay. All right. But at NBC, you did a lot more than that. You weren’t just a publicity coordinator.
No. But NBC moved me to New York and I went through publicity and then I got into more promotion and I went to GE, became chief marketing officer, they shipped me back to NBC and I led the digital ... the early days of digital media. Which was incredibly informative.
Right. So GE bought NBC.
GE bought NBC in like 1986 or something like that.
And had it for what ... a dozen ...?
Almost 22 years, something like that.
22 years. Right. Exactly. So talk about that. Talk about doing that. Because this was the early days of the internet. I think that’s probably when I met you. When you were working on that stuff.
Yeah, it was. And that would have been in the mid ... probably like around 2006 would have been when we started that. When ... Take people back to that day. That time. It was YouTube, just on the scenes. And media, everyone was panicked, because it was cats playing the piano on video.
And they were like ...
They were good cats, though.
Yeah. They were good cats. But one part was like “hahaha, so cute.” The other was, “Oh my God, we don’t know how to do this.” And people were panicked. And YouTube hadn’t yet even been bought by Google at that point.
And so I was brought in. I had done some disruptive things at GE.
I launched our clean-tech initiatives. So they’re like, okay ...
She knows digital.
“You can figure something out. Go figure out digital.”
And I had no digital background, clearly. But I had marketing background.
Right. And so how did you look at it? At the scene? This was what year?
It would have been 2006.
Right. So later.
I’d been there for a dog’s age by this time.
Yeah, yeah. By that point, yeah.
Kara had been in on the scene for 12 years at this point.
You were way early. Yeah, exactly. But this was ...
Such a loser.
This was just the start of it in media. And so I went in as the head of digital media. No one knew what that meant. The first thing ...
And this is post the AOL-Time Warner merger.
So everybody was not ... this is pre ... Facebook was very early.
Facebook was still ... I mean, maybe ...
Google had just gone public, right?
Yeah. It was all that phase. And again, YouTube was not ... it was growing, but people were not sure about it. Everybody dismissed it. And yet they knew they needed to be there.
Right. And so how did you look at it?
So I looked at it ... I mean, I knew I wasn’t a technologist, so I knew I couldn’t look at it as, you know ... I couldn’t code. I didn’t know the first thing ... I looked at it as a marketer. I’m about behavior. How are people’s behaviors gonna change? How do we think about it?
I remember having a bitter debate with one of the programming heads. And it was like, “Well, what if the programming schedule goes away?” “Oh, that’s never gonna happen.”
“That’s never gonna happen! People will always need a television.”
This is the famed NBC.
Like, what was the night? What was the “Friends” night?
Must-see TV. They had created it. So that was the thinking at the time, you know, people are always just gonna watch TV. They want a schedule.
And you brought this up. What if there was no program?
Yeah. And it was that kind of stuff. I remember we would have fights about DVDs. At the time, since I was in digital group, we were selling our content to Netflix. Think back, they were sending out their DVDs, still in red envelopes.
And NBCUniversal was really happy to take the money. And they couldn’t ... no one could imagine that they would actually be streaming things on the internet. It just seemed like a DVD company at that ...
Business and why not take the extra dough.
Exactly. So there were those kind of things. And we’d have bitter fights about who wants ... we’re gonna have to digitize. And they would be like, well, okay. Send everybody a DVD, but we’ll send them a digital file, but they also have to take a DVD. Well, but that defeats the purpose.
So I learned a lot about just, you know, the challenges that people ... the games, the magical thinking.
Why was that, from your ... because we did talk. I remember talking about it. I was like, everything’s gonna be digital, so I don’t know why you people are messing around with things.
Because they were afraid, first of all. They were really afraid. They didn’t know how to make money doing that. They ... remember being back in the DVD days, it was like Thursday or Tuesday drop in Walmart. And you know, they knew their world. And so the idea that anyone would want something different challenged their point of view. They weren’t good at it. So, they were afraid.
So how did you push back that internally? Because you were the digital person without digital experience or technical experience.
Yeah, so the first thing I did was I hired a lot of people with digital experience. I hired some great people like George Kliavkoff, who’s gone on to do some great things in digital. He had come out of MLB. You remember, that was a great training ground back in the day for a lot of folks coming out of digital.
So I hired a bunch of people like George and just brought them in and said “help us build a strategy.” Let’s figure out what to do. One of the first things we did didn’t work out. We hired ... we acquired a women’s community, iVillage.
It was really painful. It was really painful. It was a good idea.
What was the thinking behind it?
Yeah. I always liked the strategy.
Yeah, she ... well, at that point she had gone and it was run by a guy named Doug McCormick.
Right. iVillage was an early, for people that don’t know, was an early online world like Planet Out and others.
It was like a community for women.
Women. And it was on AOL. AOL had vested in it, its greenhouse program, I think. I think it was one of the greenhouse properties.
Yeah. Exactly. And then it spun out and Hearst had an ownership stake and anyway. So, the strategy was it’s community, right? It’s women. An engaged community. Let’s combine it with the Today Show.
Bravo. And we could bring community. I mean, in theory, we could be Facebook.
That was the theory then. Yeah.
Right? In theory, we could have been. But like most companies, one, it was not a very progressive technology. So we knew that, but frankly, I think we overpaid for it.
And just the antibodies that happened in companies. I mean, we brought it in, at the time I deputized Lauren Zalaznick, who was running Bravo, to help lead it. And we start to see the things that happen in companies. Everybody’s like, yeah but I want to build my own stuff. I don’t want to support that new thing. I wanna do my old stuff. So it was a lot of that that happened.
Right. So you bought iVillage.
Bought iVillage. It didn’t work. It took it a while not to work.
And the dumb things companies do, I mean, we moved it to New Jersey. No one wanted to commute to New Jersey, everybody left.
Why did you move it to New Jersey?
We ... a lot of us didn’t want to move it to New Jersey, ‘cause the company felt they were going to get better tax incentives by going to New Jersey and so they basically ...
So all these hip internet people had to move to New Jersey.
Exactly. And take a shuttle bus from, you know, Grand Central or something. It was horrible. So that’s what companies do, right?
I had no idea about the New Jersey part.
Yeah. They moved out to CNBC, they had ... you know, CNBC had that new ...
Englewood Cliffs or whatever.
Exactly. So the building was beautiful, but no one worked there because they all quit.
Oh, God. I’ve been there. I don’t even want to go there when I go there.
Yeah, yeah. No, it’s like going to a ...
Sorry, Mary. But I don’t want to.
It’s like going to another country.
So we were doing that.
So iVillage. What else did you do?
iVillage. We started our own in-house content studio. It was very early at the time. I loved that effort. We had a bunch of young folks we brought in. They were independent filmmakers and they were making crazy cat videos.
But of course, the traditional NBC looked down their nose at them. But I remember one of my favorite one was like, I think there was one that was quasi-viral hit, The Easter Bunny Hates You. Microwave Gorilla. I mean, they were doing ... it was a lab. And I loved that part of it.
The Easter Bunny Hates You.
Yeah, it was pretty good.
I forgot that one.
The Microwave Gorilla was one where you’d have ... you’d actually tell the gorilla what to microwave. It could be a Barbie doll, a baseball ... all kinds of crazy things, and you’d watch it explode in the microwave. That was as exciting as it got.
Oh, wow. That’s really art. It’s art.
It was really art. But it was different, right?
The mothership didn’t like it. They didn’t know how to make money ...
Because you were busy doing the big shows. Like, let’s ... we know how to get a star, we know how to do a big show, we know how to do ... that’s CBS with “CSI,” but whatever. Whatever formulaic show.
But what those things helped do is they then give a little bit of competition for people, for the big “SNLs.” And you recall at that time, “SNL” put out their Lazy Sunday video.
Which, for its time, did break the internet, right? It was that Chris Parnell video. And so that’s part of what we were doing, was seeding that kind of agitation in the company so that other people would want to go do it.
I remember meeting a lot with Jeff Ross and Conan on trying to get them to do more videos. So then that was a lot of what we did in the early days.
Which they did.
Which in comedy, it worked really well.
It worked really well, yeah.
And now that’s it. That’s how I watch “SNL.”
I watch it in clips.
That’s exactly the way I watch it. And usually on YouTube or Hulu or something. Yeah.
And then, so out of that came a lot of trial and error around what ultimately became Hulu.
Talk about that a little bit more.
Yeah. So what was interesting about that, is true big company, you know ... the first idea that the teams were going after, more the traditional teams, were, “Hey, let’s build our own thing. We’re gonna charge everybody to come and view our videos, but we’re gonna do it ourselves.”
Well, pretty quickly, everybody realized that wasn’t gonna work. One, it wouldn’t be a good experience, all that. So then out of desperation, we weren’t ... we were struggling. iVillage hadn’t taken off like we thought. Fox had been struggling. Take you back then, they had acquired Myspace. It was not working out well for the same reasons.
They killed it.
They all killed it.
Oh, man. This is like my history. I’m like, “Oh yeah, I forgot all about that.”
Yeah. So out of a lot of trial and desperation we got together, News Corp and NBC, and we said let’s launch something ...
And what was the thinking behind that? The idea? Was it ... streaming was coming. That some sort of ... you needed somewhere for your shows to go, instead of just on NBC.com website.
Right. Exactly. And also you didn’t ... we were afraid of YouTube. Google had just bought YouTube at that point. So suddenly, it was threatening.
Right. But they didn’t have content like you. And you didn’t want to put your content on YouTube, because it was ...
No, they were trying. I mean, Eric Schmidt and people like that would show up all the time trying to get us to put stuff on YouTube.
But Philippe Dauman has sued them at CBS over ...
Yeah, and Jeff Zucker wanted to.
Zucker wanted to. Because a lot of the stuff was being uploaded and Google was taking no efforts to take it down. Or very minimal efforts, essentially.
And with the team I worked with, we were ... we encouraged that, because we thought it was a good way to get adoption.
You got the “SNL” stuff on there.
Yeah. We figured we’d figure out how to make money later. But the thing was to learn how to do it.
But you didn’t want Google to own your destiny, correct?
No. Not at all. So that was the idea. Let’s start our own thing. And I think we tried three different things that didn’t work. So we got together. We actually went to Viacom, they said no. They didn’t want to be part of it. So in the early days, it was just ...
The thinking behind that is if you have everybody there, it’s better to have all ... it’s like TV, right?
No. You get everybody’s content. So it would be a must-see kind of destination.
So we knew that much.
Right. So you got News Corp.
And just NBC and News Corp in the early days. And then we knew ... we both had failed at bringing things in-house. We knew we had to set it up separately. We knew we needed an entrepreneur to run it. So we did an exhaustive search and came back with Jason Kilar.
Who was from Amazon.
Who was from Amazon. And he had run the DVD division at Amazon.
Right, right. A great entrepreneur.
Yeah. He was great.
And started this. So what were the difficulties of doing this? You were overseeing this. What were the difficulties?
Everything was difficult, I mean, because the ... Inside a company, everybody wants to do it themselves. We set up funding and everybody’s like, “Why are you giving Hulu money when I should have that money? I’m ‘SNL,’ I’m Bravo.” So you had to officiate that. We put a team together ...
“Because it’s the friggin’ future, you idiot.”
I know. Exactly. But everybody gets very territorial.
Jason came up with a really clear vision. It’s about the consumer experience.
Take you back to that time. What we would do at NBC, which was horrible, we’d have to make a quarter, make a year. So somebody’d go, “We need a couple more spots in ‘ER’ to make our quarter,” and before you know it, the ... “ER” is more ads than it is “ER.”
So the viewer experience was getting bad. And Jason was like, “I’m gonna create a new viewer experience. I’m gonna make it clean, simple,” and that was his vision. He had to be given room to do it.
Right. Pre-rolls and stuff.
Exactly. And that’s another thing. Because I was doing ad sales as well and every advertiser’s like, no, we’re gonna have our one-minute or 30-second pre-roll. And he was like, no. We’re not gonna do that. In fact, for the first ...
Post-roll, right? They did post-rolls?
Yeah. And for the first, I think, three to six months, he had no advertising, which made everybody crazy. But what it meant is he had to do things he wanted to do. He could come to the mothership to Fox and NBC and take whatever he wanted, but leave behind the crap.
Right. And figure out what would work. And so everybody was questioning what would work.
Because it wasn’t just repurposing shows, although that’s initially what it was.
It was initially what it was. And he had a budget to do original shows, but look how long it’s taken them to really get a couple of good shows.
Right. Right. “Handmaid’s Tale” is it. That’s all they’ve got.
Right? So I remember it was like $50 million a year we had committed to fund in programming.
But that wasn’t the general idea. It was a place for repurposed content, essentially.
Yeah. It was originally for both.
And have a good player.
Have a good player. And to that end, I’ll give you an example of the dumb things companies do. So we had spent $5 million on a video player in-house at NBC. And Jason looks at it and we go, “Here, great news. You don’t have to do this!” And he goes, “That’s a piece of crap.” I think he said something like “it looks like Tokyo lit up at night or something.”
And so, you know, in a traditional company, you would have made him take it, ‘cause otherwise you’d have to write it off and all.
And he’s like, “No, I’m not gonna take it.” And so someone like me plays a roll of championing that. “No, he doesn’t have to take it. Sorry, finance, get over it. He’s not gonna take it.”
Right, right. Exactly.
Stock options were a big issue. GE only ever paid in one currency, but they had to have their own equity. That was a fight to be fought.
Because they were fighting against Google, initially only just Google and then later Amazon and the others came in.
Right. And they were startups, so they were going to have their own equity. Eventually we brought in Providence Equity and some others to kind of validate it, but they needed to be paid differently.
How hard is that within a big corp?
It’s really hard.
Yeah, I remember once HR calling me up and going, “Jason’s hiring people without a nondisclosure agreement,” or whatever. Like, “So?”
“He’s a different company.”
“So?” “Well, he’s not doing this or that.” “Yeah? He’s running the company.” So all those things, they’re like always breaking some perceived rule which isn’t a rule at all.
Yeah. The problem is, when you have to even go back to that ... we were just talking about some stuff I’ve been doing. And I just can’t.
Like, someone was saying, you should come visit our newsroom. Like, no. I can’t. I actually physically can’t, because it makes me nervous.
Well that’s why if you were to ... let’s say you were Jason at that time. You would have been the exact right personality. Because you had to challenge ... you have to be this challenger. It’s a challenger brand, if you will. So it only works inasmuch as someone can challenge.
And is allowed to.
And is allowed to.
And that’s why they don’t want to be at these big places.
Because you spend a lot of time ... When Walt and I were at the Wall Street Journal, we had a lot of troubles with them. And they, you know, they didn’t have troubles with us. They just gave us a lot of trouble. We used to call them “the weasels.” Like, “this is a good weasel, that’s a bad weasel.” And so ...
I’m sure Jason had a lot of names for us too.
Yeah. It was the weasels. Oh, God, that weasel.
But in some ways, we needed to fail in those ways to know we needed him. And they were expensive failures: Myspace, iVillage. But you needed to do that. So you probably were early for Wall Street Journal.
Yes. Very much so.
So you were kind of their guinea pig.
Exactly. And they ... and we left. So that’s why.
And so, when you were doing that, you had the two and then a third came in, right? You were trying to get ABC in?
Yeah, we were. And so eventually Disney did come in. Yeah.
How hard was that to get you all ...? Were you all as a group understanding the threat that you were facing? The existential threat.
I think everybody understood it, yeah. I think people ... but then how do you do it? Everybody wants to do their own thing. That’s always the challenge. I remember going to Viacom and they were like, “No, we’re gonna do our own thing.”
Right. That’s CBS. Yeah.
We lobbied Dauman. I remember that meeting and you had people in there like Tom Freston and Judy [McGrath]. I mean, they were in there lobbying like, “We want to do this,” and they were like, “No, we’re gonna do our own thing.” So that’s often what you were lobbying against.
Right. So you had Viacom and CBS. Two separate things with two separate content buckets. You had Fox, which you had, you had ABC, and then there was Time-Warner, too.
Eventually, yeah. I had left by then.
But I’m saying, you had to go and get all the ...
You had to go and get all of those. I think the best thing that the team did was getting the private equity group, Providence. Because that validated the model. They gave it a valuation, gave cash.
And did you understand the power of the big internet companies at the time? Did you ever imagine ... well, Google hasn’t done that much and Apple hasn’t done that much, surprisingly.
Well, Apple’s interesting right now.
Yeah, yeah, because they’re sort of in it and not in it.
Yeah, but they’ve been doing these interesting deals, with the A24 deal they just announced today.
Exactly. Yep, exactly. And it will be interesting, because I find them the least content-focused people on the planet. Like, it’s so interesting. But they’re very good at music. They did a nice job. But they have to dig, they have to wade a lot deeper into this content space, obviously.
But you know, Amazon waded right in and stuff like that. Did you ever imagine ... I’d say Amazon and Netflix are the most aggressive. Did you ever imagine they would do this?
Amazon, no. I mean, I think Amazon ... Netflix, yeah, because you knew it was their name. Net ... Internet Flix. Netflix. You knew.
I think Jeff Bewkes called them Lithuania or something like that.
Is that right?
Do you remember?
Yeah. And Google was the big threat at the time.
Yeah. Which turned out not to be.
We all thought ... not to be. YouTube’s been a pretty good force, just in a different way.
Yeah. It wasn’t original content. Right. They’ve tried. Susan’s tried recently, to do that. And so you were ... when you look back on that, what mistake do you think you made? Or the company made?
Well, I can talk a lot about what I made. That’s what I tried to do in the book.
Exactly. We’re gonna get to that next...
One, I think the big mistake I made, personally and with the team, is kind of the cool kids versus the not-cool kids. And I think that happens a lot in change and I hired a bunch of digital Turks and we were gonna take on the world and I was out with my face on every magazine cover, like, “Yay, digital’s the future.” And I didn’t spend enough time building the bridges and building the partnerships internally.
And then, therefore, they ...
Therefore, they dug in. It became sort of them against us. And I remember once one morning waking up and I was reading the New York Post. And there I was ...
Don’t be embarrassed.
Yeah. I read the Daily Mail every day too. But there I was, Page Six, there was this quote that I was “so stealth that I could take out your kidney and you wouldn’t even feel it.” And at the time, I was quite distraught by that. Now I think it’s quite a compliment.
But at the time, I was ...
Why were you distraught? I would be thrilled!
Yeah. I needed a dose of Kara then. I needed to channel you.
Oh, my God. I wish I had ...
Because it was my own colleagues, basically. It was drive-by shooting and …
Did you take anyone’s kidney out? See, I would have taken the kidney.
Yeah, I should have. I’d like to know whose kidney they thought I took. But ... and that was ... there was many of those, but that was the best.
So you’re a crafty woman. You know that was misogynist, too.
Come on. Crafty lady who stealthily comes in and takes your kidney.
And I also understood, because I was sent back from GE, and they thought I was the corporate spy. I remember showing up at Universal ...
Which you may have been, but go ahead.
I may have been. I remember showing up at Universal and one of the top dogs, it wasn’t Ron, who I became friendly with, but one of the top dogs said, “Look, you’ve got a couple strikes against you, and I’m just gonna tell you I’m never gonna work with you. One, you used to work at NBC, and two, you’re here from GE, and I’m just never going to work with you.” So that was ...
Like my AOL-Time Warner book.
That was the environment, and so everybody was out for everybody and so that’s the learning. I think you can fall into that, which I did. Or you can rise above it, which I didn’t.
That’s a great story. I was in Page Six, it was about my pregnancy. I’m not going to go into it, but it was quite funny. That was where it was announced. They thought Jeff Bezos was the father. I will not go into it, but he’s not. Or else we would have a plane right now for my children, but we do not.
Maybe that’s a juicy story.
Yes my baby daddy Jeff Bezos. What an incredible experience that was. We’re here with Beth Comstock. She is a kidney stealer and the author ...
A proud kidney stealer.
And she ran Hulu for a while. You worked for GE. She’s been all over the place at NBC, but she’s also the author of “Imagine It Forward: Courage, Creativity, and the Power of Change.” So we were just talking about this. I was asking you what you think you did wrong there and you referenced the book. So talk about what you’re trying to get through in this one because you’ve obviously ... I want to get to your experience at GE, too, but talk a little bit how the book came together.
Well, I think navigating change and being somebody who’s about innovation in a traditional company is a hard job. And it’s messy and everybody always writes these change books like it’s one, two, three, a perfect process and there’s never a mess. And it’s a mess. I could’ve called it “Fail Forward” and I almost did, and I think that’s what I was trying to do.
To share all the failures and the things that didn’t work to get to what worked. Like the discussion we just had about how you get to Hulu through a lot of things that didn’t work. I felt like you had to share it and the bad behavior that people bring to work — the territorialism, the us-against-you — and then you miss the opportunity. You don’t see things because you’re too focused on the here and now and we’re not fighting for the future. I wanted to chronicle it and I wanted to encourage people coming along in their career. We’ve got them in every company. They want to fight the rebels. Like, let’s encourage them.
You were also in a notoriously territorial business, media. They just literally can’t help themselves.
They can’t help themselves.
So you wanted to sort of use your stories of your long career to talk about what you could do. I sometimes don’t think it’s possible to change it. You just have to leave and do your own thing.
I think both are good options. I fought for a long time in a big company to make change happen and we did. We got clean tech seeded, we got digital seeded. Those things, but it takes a lot of energy, and you have to really feel committed to the mission.
And they’re waiting for the fall.
They’re waiting for the fall, waiting for it.
Let’s go very quickly with the rest of your story. You went from ... After Hulu you went back to GE and you were the highest-ranking woman there, is that correct?
Yeah, one of them.
Yeah big company.
Big company making airplanes engines.
I was overseeing the marketing and sales and real innovation. I seeded a venture group at that time.
What does that mean, innovation? I remember we talked about it...
It can mean a lot of things, but it was really just trying to cope with new business models, new lines of business. Trying to grow money, revenue, from new sources is really what it was.
And GE had made most of its money from big manufacturing, jet engines.
Yeah, and even traditionally had done a lot with GE Capital and financial services.
So financial services, jet engines. What else? Heavy machinery.
A lot of energy generation, railroad locomotives.
So it was a heavy manufacturing company.
Heavy manufacturing, and I felt incredibly creative there, which I think people would find surprising. I found I was more able to be more creative at GE than NBC.
Oh wow. Why is that?
I think one, the company was big. The role I had was to go across the company, so I got involved in different healthcare, different industries.
Also we’ll talk about how, what a problem that could be, because it’s Beth sort of landing wherever she feels like, right?
But it was good for a curious person. I got to connect dots and see patterns and create things. Like we created a big health initiative. We created a clean tech by doing that. So for me it was a great way to be innovative. At media it was very ... You mentioned it earlier, it was very territorial. It was very my team, me, and it was all about me. I found GE much more mission-based.
Yes, because there’s no narcissists in media, you know, you never run into ...
None of them. They’re never there.
By this we mean all of them.
Everybody is a team there, publicist ...
Actually I think I’m an egomaniac and not a narcissist, I’ve decided.
And what’s the difference?
Narcissist, it’s all about them. I know it’s not all about me. I just love myself. That’s very different. Very different.
I think that’s a very healthy interpretation.
I think so too. We just talked about loving yourself.
No, I said it earlier, but I love that piece you did in Slate where ... You had a manager at one point, “You’re too confident.” And you’re like, “Yeah, I’m fabulous.”
I love that.
I just recently said to someone, they were like, “Don’t be arrogant.” I’m like,” Arrogance is when you’re inaccurate about your abilities. I’m accurate. I’m fantastic.”
Have you always been that way?
Yes since I was 4, 5.
I’m fascinated because I am so opposite of you. I’ve never been ... I had to work really hard to learn that.
I love myself. I think I’m great. It’s just I can’t help it. It’s just like ...
Was it your mother or is it just genes?
No are you kidding? My mother and I were in a war that never ends.
Because I had good parents?
No, she tried her best, I don’t know, it’s just the way I am. I think gay is part of it. Like, you don’t care what men think of you. I know it sounds crazy. You don’t get judged on stuff the same way. There’s a really — I hate to do a Roseanne Barr joke, but she said, “I don’t know why lesbians ... they think lesbians hate men, they don’t have to sleep with them.” I love men. I have sons. I think men are great. I don’t know, maybe I’m weird.
But in some ways, to relate to what you’re saying, I do think at GE I was different. I was a woman in a very male-dominated culture and I was marketing creativity in a very engineering culture and in some way, that difference, I grabbed onto it and it allowed me to be much more creative.
And did they want you as you move through the company, when you’re in charge of innovation, at such a sketchy ...
And everybody rolls their eyes when they see you.
Yeah exactly. What would that mean from your perspective? Because innovation is critical. You can’t make innovation happen, but you can like, it’s kind of an interesting ...
You can seed it, you can stock it, seed it.
That what I mean, but I think a lot of people think it’s just an idea that pops into their head of Thomas Edison or blank, but it’s not.
Not at all.
Speaking of GE.
You’re seeding it. You’re constantly going out and discovering. So a lot of my job was to be this kind of outsider inside, which I love this concept of, enough of an outsider to keep my perspective, but I had to speak GE, I had to translate it back. I had to be different enough but enough to be accepted by them.
The idea of innovation is really interesting to me, because how do you make it? Like people do think it’s not makeable and there are elements, I was just writing about this recently. There are elements that bring it into force. One is tolerance, open-mindedness, willing to take risks, craziness, diversity, all kinds of things. And then the decline of innovation is almost the exact same thing as closed-minded, is closed borders ...
These are the things. I mean, it’s opening up, to me it was opening myself up. I feel like if I did anything in my career, it was helping to open my company up. You have to get out in the world and discover. You have to go where things are really weird. You have to make room for it and people have to see it’s valuable. You have to go with your teams. I remember going to Saudi Arabia really early in my career at a time when women don’t go to Saudi Arabia, but we found women were dying of stage-four breast cancer. If I hadn’t done that and with the team we never would have found that.
So you have to force those kinds of things and then you have to have fight for the future. And I think that’s a big indictment on companies today. Here’s what I worry about with innovation. I think people dress up for innovation. They all have on the fancy clothes. They hire, probably people like me. They call the chief innovation officer and they’ll hire Ideo or someone to come in and speak, and then they pretend like they’re innovating, but they don’t want to do the hard work. It’s hard work.
So what is the hard work?
They have to get the right people. They have to have people like you. They have to make sure you are going to succeed. They can’t have the antibodies come in and say, “No, Kara, you can’t ask that.” They have to pay you. Well, they have to give you room. They have let you fail. There’s that whole thing and then the short termism takes over. They’re afraid to say to investors, “Yeah, Kara hasn’t figured it out yet.”
We have to invest.
We have to invest.
You work for Jeff Immelt, who’s pushing this and he had seen a lot of trouble, at the end it was up for the Uber job and stuff like that. Does it have to come from the top? Because he really did. I remember we interviewed him...
You have to have somebody at the top who is championing it. I couldn’t have been as successful as I was or allowed to fail as much as I was if I didn’t have a champion in him. But if it was me just going around saying, “Jeff said,” I wouldn’t have lasted. And I did that early. You just got to say, “Jeff said.” People like, “I’ll show you. I’ll tell Jeff what I think.”
Right, exactly. But the concept is to go around to each of the divisions and let them come up with it.
Let them come up with it. You’re seeding that discovery, you’re going together ... so, Saudis, back to that. We took a colleague in healthcare and we just lived in Saudi for a while and understood that women were dying of stage-four breast cancer. Why? One, they can’t drive. They couldn’t, so maybe we need a mobile mammo unit. When they get in the mammo unit, there’s a guy standing there and they have no clothes on. That makes them very uncomfortable. So they’re not going for that reason. We came up with digital avatars. We came up with all kinds of things, but that was us seeding it with them and then they had to own it.
They had to own it and ...
Then it became ...
How do you then go to like a jet engine part of your thing and how do you do that?
Well, I found aviation the most innovative and open for innovation, which would be ...
I don’t think planes have been innovative at all. I wish they would be-
You’d be surprised at how innovative they are, and these are, they’re highly regulated. So any kind of change, you need FAA approval. But what I loved about those guys, like 3-D printing was coming onto the scene. They were very open. We did things like open challenges. We said, let’s redesign a bracket that holds a jet engine in place.
And see who can print it.
And see who can print it. The idea came from a 20-year-old Indonesian science student. That was eye-opening. The engineer said, “Nobody can do it if we can’t.” This kid in Indonesia can do it? That got their attention.
We seeded little 3-D printers around their offices, the most sophisticated engineering pods. And you’d see what happened. Some of them scoffed at it, “That’s a toy.” But some of them were really curious and they started playing with it. They prototyped it, they took it to customers and then everybody’s like, “Hey, this is possible.” And kinda they make it their own. That’s what has to happen in innovation.
And one of the things you guys were doing a lot were sensors, right?
A lot of digital industrial internet was about embedding sensors and controls. And so you have to seed it. I think where some of that was, a couple of things that companies do — and innovation and digital’s an example — you throw too much money at something too early.
Which Jeff got in trouble for.
That happened often. Big companies do that. I think we really learned to see things and let them breathe in more of a VC role. We probably learned a little too late, but I feel like that was incredibly important.
I wanna finish up with GE. How hard is it to get a big company to do that because at some point you’re doing what you do. Well, and I remember interviewing Bob Iger once and he moved very quickly into digital, more than other people, early. They haven’t done everything perfectly. They had that horrible Disney service. They did all kinds of mistakes.
Iger started another one, too.
Yeah, I know, whatever. We’ll see. But one of the things he said is “if someone’s going to eat your lunch it might as well be you.” And so the pushback, he said, was just enormous, because if we could do one thing, well, you’re sort of like, you didn’t draw a dancing monkey and the dancing monkey works. Do you keep drawing the dancing monkey? You know what I mean? You keep doing what you always did instead of questioning it.
Yes. You have to create the funding. You have to create the people. We hired a bunch of entrepreneurs to come in and we gave them a different compensation. We gave them different payment. You had to protect those people, had to protect their ideas. They couldn’t get killed off just because you need to make a quarter. So you have to make that happen.
And what are the key tenets of doing that?
Well, one, you have to find the right people. You have to have good capital allocation and I think this often gets confused with investors. You have to allocate some money, but you’re trying to test a lot ideas early so that you have confidence when you finally invest in something.
I’ll give an example of what we didn’t do well. We were looking at energy storage at one point in clean tech.
This is for batteries?
For batteries and the old GE way was throw — we end up throwing in $200 million and we had to write the business off as opposed to what we should have done and what we ended up learning how to do. Let’s invest $10 million with one customer to get it right. Then we can invest $100 million when we’ve proven that we’ve gotten it right.
Instead of making a big press release, “new batteries!”
And it took a lot of money and then you got to write it off. So that’s what companies do wrong is they scale it too fast, too soon. They put the wrong people ...
And then they call it a failure.
Right. And you know, somebody who likes to run a $10 billion business is probably not somebody who wants to start a business where they have no revenue.
Because it makes them feel like ... I think doing investments is really interesting. Things like how you do investments. I was just interviewing Arthur Sulzberger, who’s now the publisher [of the New York Times], and I said, “What would you do with a billion dollars?” He’s like, “Well, we don’t want a billion dollars.” I was like, “You don’t? Here’s what I would do.” And I thought it was 10 things and it was really interesting.
Why didn’t he want to?
Because he was saying we should make our billion dollars ourselves. This was the idea of whether they should look at a Jeff Bezos-like investor and I was like, “What if you went around and bought all a bunch of local newspapers and made them as good as the New York Times and owned local ...?”
That’s a good idea.
I know it is. And they were like, “Oh you need money for that. You need investors.” It’s the mentality of how you invest in and what you to try to take a risk like for what the next thing is versus where you are now.
I have a couple things. I liked the old business school tool of like 70, 20, 10: 70 percent in the core, 20 in the adjacent tenet and new. To me, hiring a group of folks who come out of venture and had done startup work, bringing them into the company brought a huge discipline and patience and ability to sort through the people we needed. That was critical and I think companies aren’t willing to do that.
Tell me more about this book. You say, “Imagine it forward.” What does that mean? I get the courage, creativity, the power of change. Obviously change is powerful, but it can be non-powerful.
It can be non-powerful. I’m really just trying to say, there’s so much change happening in the world.
Another buzzword like innovation, change.
I know these buzzwords ... because we’re struggling, because we don’t have a better word for them, but they, we’re all being disrupted and you shouldn’t be surprised. There’s so much change happening, but you can actually get out in the world and see things early. You can do critical thinking. It’s what you’ve been writing about and talking about and companies like Facebook, they didn’t imagine forward some of the potential scenarios.
None of it!
So this is about, actually, creative problem solving. To me, it’s that I, if there’s a problem I feel we need to solve related to this, it’s not having enough imagination in our companies, we’re too short-term focused. We’re not creatively thinking through problems to — solutions for the new problems. It’s just that simple.
And again, how do you get that? Where does that have to come from?
Well, I think it has to come from everybody, but especially from leaders. I mean, leaders can’t delegate it. You had a really interesting column about your chief ethics officer.
I was just bringing it up.
And I think like even a chief innovation officer, like people like that are good to seed in. But if you delegate all that to that chief, nothing’s gonna happen.
So it’s gonna come from the top.
I thought your piece ended with that kind of thinking that everybody’s got to have a little piece of that, and I think when we’re talking about navigating change, change has to be everybody’s job.
The only reason I thought there should be one like that is because then everyone knows it’s important.
Well, I think there is symbolism ...
The word “chief” is next to it. People pay attention.
But I agree that’s symbolic, but if that’s all you do, you’re not going to succeed.
If you’re deciding whether there should be Chik-Fil-A in the because they’re anti-gay in the cafeteria, that’s really not ethics.
Yeah. So if there’s one person that’s going to bring in outside perspectives, provoke the culture, do sort of these imaginative scenarios, there’s a ton of ways to ...
So talk about, ‘cause imagination can be very nerve-racking to people like having causing it, and one of the things I wrote about this week was I’d asked Elliot Schrage, who was the head of comms and policy at Facebook, and he was onstage so I had him trapped and I said I was in the audience and I said, “Who is the irritant at Facebook?” And this was 18 months ago, “Who’s the irritant in the room? I’m just curious.”
Well, we argue a lot, I’m like, “No, that’s not what I’m talking about. I’m talking about someone who says no and who can say no and who can push back on Mark Zuckerberg,” who’s the controlling shareholder and founder, obviously famous, powerful and stuff like that. “Who gets to say no to him? ‘You’re wrong, you idiot,’ kind of thing.” And it’s a really interesting discussion because he didn’t really answer it, but I think one of the problems at companies like Facebook is there’s a lack of irritants.
There’s a lack of irritating people.
And I had to play that role and I don’t like irritating people and you need to invite them in from outside. You need to do that. You need to say, “Tell me something I don’t want to hear,” but this is what I saw in the cultures I worked with. We actually called it “success theater,” this notion that everybody pretends like everything’s perfect, and, “Yes, Mark,” “Yes, Jeff, whatever you said, let’s do that.”
And they don’t take their own initiative to challenge because they fear they’re going to look bad, lose their job, get demoted. And so you have to encourage better feedback loops. You have to have, you probably do need some symbolism. There needs to be a chief irritant, probably.
I could have that, I would be literally...
That would be your job.
Everybody would wanna hire me for that job.
Well, let’s map that out.
It’s interesting because when I was thinking about your book, you’re using “imagination,” but really, you have to ...
Agitate it forward. You know what I mean? Like the idea. Because I think when you do the imagination thing, to get it actually done, you have to be irritating or agitating.
You have to do both. You have to think creatively and then you have to agitate for a better future. It’s just that. And somebody has to do it.
And there’s a cost to that. How do you look at that? Because there’s a cost to the person who does that within an organization.
I would not have lasted at GE as long if I didn’t have a champion who was like, yeah, I expect you to… But Jeff didn’t like me asking these things. We had huge debates about solar energy, for example, huge debates about digital. The answer was always, “Well, we don’t know how we’re going to make money doing that.” Well, no one does. We’ve got it ... It’s real. So somebody like me has to come in and go, “But it’s real. No, it’s real.”
Directionally, it’s correct.
Directionally, it’s correct. So we’re gonna try some experiments. We’re going to do some things. We’re gonna try things at a small scale to just figure our way forward.
And that’s going to be too small and then...
Then you know it and that you’re learning through that, too. But you need somebody who keeps coming back.
What’s interesting ... I just interviewed Elon Musk, you know, he’s the one that’s pushed forward all this electric car stuff and if he wasn’t irritating everybody — and he can be very irritating — it wouldn’t have happened. I absolutely credit him with pushing on.
What do you think Ford’s in there for? Why do you think BMW’s there?
Because he paved the way for them. He made it. He was the early risk-taker, right? He was de-risking it for them. So you need somebody in your organization who is willing to take the arrows.
But can companies do that? Can they foment that imagination, creativity?
Some can but ... and I really am trying to narrow “imagination” a bit to be creative problem solving because I do worry for what ...
Well, okay, let’s just talk about ... When we were talking about Facebook, who are the bad guys that could come in and use ... What are the scenarios for the future?
Yeah, they never thought of that.
What’s the worst that could happen? We always think about the best that can happen. What’s the worst? What if suddenly everything, suddenly advertising went away tomorrow. What would we do? We don’t challenge ourselves in companies enough. We have business plans that show exactly how we’re gonna grow in three to five years, but we don’t have ...
This is scenario-building.
It’s almost like you’re a CIA agent where you ...
I was gonna do that for a living.
Were you? A CIA agent?
Yeah, I couldn’t. I was gay. It was a whole long thing. But I wanted to do scenario-building. I was obsessed with the idea of what are the 10 things that could happen ... that’s how I do my reporting actually. That’s my little secret.
Journalism is a great background for that.
I make up things all the time, and then one of them is right.
Yeah. Because then you’re testing. You’re constantly testing.
Yeah, then I’ll call people and they’re like, “How did you know?” And I’m like, “I just made it up. Turns out to be true.” One of them is true. Like it’s interesting and it’s always pushing against something.
And you do those kind of exercises.
I want you to talk about sorta some of the tips in the book, what to do to do that, and how you free a company that way because I do, I think if you’re not ... but my whole premise is everything that can be digitized will be digitized going forward. And if you’re not creative, you’re finished.
That’s why I wrote the book.
It’s all about creativity and strategic thinking.
So, talk a little bit about some of the things you have to do to imagine it forward.
There are thought exercises you can put yourself into. One I love is, think back 10 years ago to something that seemed strange or weird and now is mainstream. And then think ahead 10 years what that might be. So you think back 10 years, I mean, I was just in Las Vegas at the ... there was a cannabis convention next door. I mean, medical marijuana, I think marijuana ...
Huge now, right? Ten years ago, it seemed silly to think that would be. So, I think that’s a good kind of ... tattoos.
So, you were just there just because why?
I was there ... I was doing something with Autodesk in Las Vegas. But I like to think through weird scenarios, you know? Think of the opposite. What if the opposite of what you think is gonna happen happens?
Gimme an example.
I don’t know. Let’s try to think of a media ... I don’t know. Everybody thinks that everybody’s gonna go to subscriptions and media content. What if suddenly they decide they wanna go back to advertising?
What does your advertising look like?
What does it look like?
Are you constantly thinking through some of those different scenarios? I mean, this is an easy one, but what’s the worst that could happen? I think companies don’t spend enough time thinking through these things. I always liked those red team, blue team exercises that came out of the military, where you deliberately seed one point of view versus the other and you kind of set up a cage match. We did that with our clean tech work.
And the team, there was the pro-climate change and the anti-climate change, out of our research labs. So these were very well-regarded scientists. And the pro-climate change was so compelling, the other guys capitulated. Like that’s it, we get it, we’re all in. So I think you have to set up those kind of things in your company. It’s not about a business plan. It’s not about a monetary ... yeah, you gotta do some of that, but that’s often where strategy ends in companies. And I worry that we’re too short-term focused. I think that ...
Well, how do you change that? Because you’re sort of at the mercy of Wall Street, right?
I don’t ... well ...
People have talked ... even Donald Trump has talked about that. That’s one thing he said I thought was quite intelligent. One.
Yeah, I mean, I think there are ways, certain parts of your business that you have somewhat predictability, somewhat predictably you can operate. Then you have to create a separate lane. I think if you’re really serious about innovation, and your investors are serious about you having a future, you have to have a separate lane where you’re investing in some of these things, longer return, you’re testing ideas ...
How do you decide which one of those ideas should be? Because I think people are very conservative in what they pick, like what they should be.
I’m constantly thinking of wrecking all my businesses and starting again.
But you’re unique that way.
People need more people like you who are in that lane.
But how do you decide which one to pick?
Well, I think you’re not picking specific ideas as much as you’re picking a vision of the future. So, clean tech. How are we gonna get there? What are our capabilities? Solar, wind, energy. Now we’re gonna test different ways to get there and then we’re not gonna do geothermal or whatever. So you’re constantly picking against your strengths. I think people often try to, especially in media, everybody tries to copy ...
Let’s go to media. Where is media right now, overall?
I think media’s confused. I mean, look at what you’re able to do. Somebody who’s good, you can create your own brand, your own media platform, you don’t need NBC to do that.
Right. Talk about the bigger ... what does an NBC do? What does a New York Times do? What does ABC do? What does a Fox, which is now gonna be owned by Disney, do?
Yeah, and ABC, apparently their game is just to get big, but where does that end? I mean, how are they ... if I were an investor in Disney, I’d be wanting to know what are the new things they’re seeding? Isn’t that what we should be asking for?
So where does media go from here? I think it continues to get more and more fragmented. And then what happens? Everybody ... then we’re gonna say, “Oh we need a new network. We need somebody to come in and reaggregate.” So we start the cycle all over again.
Did you ever go back to the person about programming and say, “Ugh, looks like I was right.”
What happens with programming?
Well, I mean we’re seeing what’s ... but right now, how many skinny bundles, or how many different over-the-top services can any of us have, right?
We can’t have 100 of them. Then you’re back to cable again. So somebody’s gonna come and reaggregate them. They’re gonna create different services. I think these cycles just keep repeating themselves.
But how about how people are consuming media, for example?
Well, I think people are ... one, I think they’re a bit overwhelmed right now. So I think people are gonna be looking to the Kara Swishers of the world to say, “Tell me what to watch. Help me navigate this.” You’re gonna be looking for guides.
Right, which are people, not computers.
I think it’s people. It has to be people. Computers are not gonna do a good job at it.
Right. And then who are ... are there new networks? Will it be Google and Amazon? I’m just using media as the example. You could pick any area.
I don’t know that there’s a big-scale network. I mean, look at the ones who’ve tried. Vice, what did they end up becoming? A traditional broadcast network, right?
So, I think it’s just a lot of fragmented small pieces and you go to people whose sensibility you like.
I get it. But does that put the cable companies and distributors in powerful positions, or not?
No, because they’re not ... what are they doing to ... I mean, if you’re talking about giving broadband, those guys have huge position. But they’re not ... why do I need to go to Bravo right now? I don’t need to go to Bravo. It used to be, I needed them because they represented my psychographic a bit more. But now, I can go and do ... I can go ... so I think the broadcast networks go away.
And you bought a lot of advertising, right?
How did you begin to change your thinking on that?
Well, I think advertising doesn’t go away. As long as you have an audience, you can do advertising. But we were able to go much more direct-to-consumers to what we’re talking about when I was doing marketing at GE, and go direct to people who bought our products. So you need to do both. And I think that’s what’s hard right now is you need those platforms for the big events, and you also want those micro-targeted micro events. Both exist ...
It’s interesting. It’s fascinating because I was just literally watching, I was talking about where does that ... I was trying to think about where advertising goes, and then I saw this beautiful Elton John advertisement that you couldn’t ...
I’ve seen that shared a lot today, too. That’s really something.
But it got shared, is what’s interesting. It’s not on TV. I didn’t consume it there. I didn’t notice whatever the hell company paid him.
Yeah, what company was it? I couldn’t ...
I don’t know. It’s some company.
That’s part of the challenge.
That’s the problem, right? Yeah, exactly.
And GE had that great, “We Bring Good Things to Light.” Was that you?
No, we actually got rid of that one in my day.
You did? I liked that one.
It was a great ... it was probably one of the best taglines in the company’s history but it stood in the way of the company going forward.
Because it was light.
It was about light. People thought it was we bring good things to light, exactly.
Light bulbs. That’s enough with the light bulbs.
Exactly. And it wasn’t about creating the future in technology.
What was your tagline?
Imagination at Work.
Oh, that’s right.
But we didn’t do it as a ... I think frankly taglines are kind of over. We did it as a way to rally the employees. It wasn’t about, everybody needed to remember our tagline. But we did get into a lot of original content, and I think that’s what brands have to do today.
Meaning making ...
Meaning we made our own movies, we made our own stories. We found different ways to distribute them. We would go to platforms like a Recode early or BuzzFeed in the day and try to get our stories out on those platforms early because it was about telling our story in an innovative way.
Right. All right, so, some of the other suggestions for being, doing things. Give me the three things that have to change at a company.
Well, I think they have to give themselves permission to take risks. And so they have to have that track of near term and long term. They have to have a lane for the future. They have to ... so they’re giving themselves permission to try things and fail.
Two, they have to just get ... open up and invite new ideas and criticism and open themselves up. They have to get out in the world and discover. They can’t be so focused. Those I think would be the key things. And I think just much more collaboration and partnership and experimentation has to happen.
And again, when you have to do that in a short-term environment with people that aren’t ... I mean people at the top of companies are older, and I don’t mean to ... I mean, I’m old, and I think I do innovative things. But how do you train the younger people to think like this? Because they do seem to fall in line in the end.
I think it’s a state of mind. I think you’ve got old people and young people who don’t wanna take risks, and some who do.
Yeah, but how do we get people to that mentality? Because I think the workplace is absolutely nonhierarchical anymore. It can’t be.
It can’t be, but you still but you still have people ...
But you have to be entrepreneurial as a worker, period.
You have to be entrepreneurial everywhere. I don’t care what industry you’re in. My daughter’s an actor. I tell her you’re an entrepreneur. Right? You have to be that way.
Well, she’s gotta fight for her own way.
Right, get her own work.
She’s gotta get her own work. She’s gotta sell herself every day. She has to find a crafty new way to get in there. Every ... if you’re a teacher, you have to do that. So I think we need to bring back entrepreneurs, and not in the Silicon Valley way, but in the way that fights for better. And people have to be given the freedom to try things.
All right, I wanna finish up talking a little ... I hate to do the woman thing on you but you were one of the highest-ranking women at GE, highest-ranking executives. How do you look at the landscape right now? Because it just seems not to have gotten better.
Well, as somebody who’s been working almost 30 years, I’m frustrated that it’s not better. I see my daughters, I expected them to have a better workplace than what they do. At the end of the day, I think I’m encouraged. That being said, I think a lot of women are standing up now, and we’re saying, “We’ve had it. We’re not gonna take it.” I was so encouraged by the election in the sense that a record number of women ...
I mean, wow.
But I think the thing that we’ve ...
It’s like 35 seats now.
I know, but we’ve gotta give them the room to lead their way. They can’t have a man’s job. Like, don’t give them a man’s job. Don’t take a man’s job. Take a woman’s job. Lead a woman’s way. And the more we can see women who are leading differently and bringing others along, companies have just gotta change. They gotta put heavy incentives. They gotta create a pipeline to it. Enough with the lip service. It’s, again, more theater.
And being at the top, you saw why. Why was it? I mean, I’ve been talking to a lot of the women at the top of Google, and I’m like, “You were sitting there, what are you doing?”
Well, I know a lot of us fought for it, I mean, hired a lot of women, tried to flood the zone, hire a lot of difference. What happens is people hire people like themselves. I mean, you’ve been in Silicon Valley, right?
I just wrote that. Mirror-tocracy.
Yeah, I love that line.
We hire PLU, People Like Us. Everybody does it. Don’t do that. Start there. Don’t do that. You have to build a pipeline. You have to have people that they see are different and you have to recognize they’re different. So even if you get people of different backgrounds, it’s not enough. People have to see them succeed. I think it just takes commitment, and too many leaders are too impatient. They say, “Oh, I don’t have time for that. They won’t succeed here.”
Right, they make it priority No. 14.
Yeah, exactly. So, I think they have to say, “Okay, we’re not gonna give you any more budget until you get your stats up. Show me who’s in your pipeline, and I’m not gonna let you hire anybody new until you show me what you’re doing to get these people. Next year, what are you gonna do to have five more women in those jobs? And you have to tell me why they’re not right.” They’re not doing that.
Right. Lastly, is there a company or companies you look at that you think, they’re doing it right in terms of like ... or does it change?
In terms of women?
Yeah, so you look at the tech sector, which is supposed to be the new innovative change agent, and it looks like one traffic accident ...
That’s one of my biggest disappointments as somebody who had to come out and learn Silicon Valley, and I came in thinking everything is gonna be so fresh. It was so disappointing. And these are young people, right?
But they hired people like themselves, right?
And we funded them and the world applauded them. So you do not look there. I think it tends to be smaller companies. I mean, the number of women who own and run their own small business, it’s remarkable. I did a talk recently with this woman, Sarah McNally, who owns McNally Jackson Bookstore, and just the passion she brings and the employees that love her and they don’t wanna leave. I think a lot of where you’re seeing it, people, like you’re saying, I’m gonna start my own thing, I’m gonna do my own thing. And so, I look to that for encouragement.
Right. I’m just a bad employee, Beth.
That’s what it is?
I recognized it early on. I just was. I was negging my bosses almost continuously. I was like, there’s something here that’s working for me, the negging. But it’s not a good ...
But it would take a strong boss to say, “I need to listen to Kara and I need that feedback.”
Yeah, and that’s why I don’t have one.
And I really think management as we know it is dead.
Back to what you said, people even in Silicon Valley, they think it’s command and control. It’s not.
And so, more people need you.
And more people who are irritants.
So what are you doing next?
I’ve been working on this book this year, and I’m gonna go off and rediscover, sort of go on a wandering tour.
What would be your absolute thing that you haven’t done that you wish you had done? You don’t wander.
I’m gonna wander. I think I’m a good coach. I’m gonna help some leaders. I don’t wanna go back to big business. I’m done with that.
So, I’m just gonna go wander.
You need to get on boards, Beth.
I’m on the Nike board, so that’s a good board to be on.
Yes, you are. You need to fix some things over there. Yeah.
They’re working on it.
All right, okay.
But yeah, I may do another board but I’m gonna wander around. I’m gonna re-enter business in a very different way. I really want to lean into my expression, do more creativity. Maybe do more writing. So I don’t know.
Good. Beth Comstock, thanks for coming on the show.
This article originally appeared on Recode.net.