Beth Comstock: Resilience

When you faced adversity, whether you failed, or you’re learning, paying it forward, or you know with conviction you’re right and the rest of the organization isn’t there, what gave you help and resilience in those moments?

Beth: There are a lot of times I was totally panicked and about to get bombed. I had this pattern of recognition that i realized after a while. If you press too hard for something, it really won’t happen. And just when you give up, just when you're like “Okay, you're on your own, figure it out,” people start to get into your ideas. Sometimes you can push too hard.

But it's back to what you were saying that you see the patterns. It's not my idea. You just see it. You spend enough time in discovery and talking to people, and understanding it. And the other thing is, perhaps it's just me and my background, it was the power of story. To me, strategy is story, and strategy is a story well told. It's creating a vision. Getting people on board with my story really gave me the fortitude that it wasn't me. It was the team. We believed in that story.

I don't know if any of you have read Yuval Noah Harari’s "Sapiens" or any of his work, but in "Sapiens," he talks about imagined realities, and kind of why I named my book "Imagine it Forward" was just this ability to harness story and the power of imagination to imagine and shape the future. That's innately human. We do that. But in BigCos we forget that sometimes. It's all just the logic and the numbers. I think when I reflect on it, it was the power and belief of that imagined future, and we were going to make it real.

Ecoimagination started in with Jeff Immelt, who was the CEO and Chairman of GE at the time. The good thing about GE was that we were in so many industries, and in a job like mine, you get instant pattern of recognition. Jeff was hearing from different customers, "Hey, we're seeing regulation happening in Europe in cleantech, and help us, GE. Can you help us?" So he asked me to take these seeds of an idea and see what was happening. We had a small pickup team that went deep into discovery, but it wasn't until we started dreaming with a core set of customers. And we actually did a whole dreaming session. It became the way we worked. We told our customers to imagine 10 years from now, and we gave them a virtual currency. We weren't smart enough to give them Bitcoin, but asked them if they had a million dollars of GE's investment money for technology, where would they place it? We dreamed together. We created that imagined reality. It was solar, it was wind, it was storage. And together we wanted to invest in that. It was really powerful.

But it was the dreaming with customers that gave you conviction to stay with it. In Imagine it Forward, you talk about how there wasn’t a lot of internal buy-in and support for it early. You were the one that batted heavy for it.

Beth: There wasn’t a lot. I remember Jeff Immelt told the New York Times after it was successful, “At one point there were two of us who thought it was a good idea.” I was always grateful that he was the other one. I remember one of the toughest sells for me was the salespeople—and I was in sales and marketing— but they were petrified. We were ahead of most customers, and for most of you, this is what happens when you innovate. There's always the alibi: our customers will never go for this.

It’s about segmentation and asking the right customers. We actually had one customer pull his energy contract worth $100 million. Jeff Immelt never told me or the development team because he knew, and I give him a lot of credit for that. It would have been easy for him to quit this idea and gave the sales team validation, but he didn't tell us about it. It was only honestly about five years later that I learned we lost that big account. And again, I think he knew we had enough momentum. We talked to enough other customers, but there's always gonna be that tension of no, you can't do that.

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