Beth Comstock is exactly the guest that this podcast is designed for. She is a leader who took on challenges of the largest scale and rose to the role of global leadership taking on challenges that others didn’t want to, yet huge demand for the results existed. Sound familiar with the environment? She started from very humble beginnings which she shares in the book to become CMO of GE to become vice chair of GE, which was the number one company at the time. She led cultural change and her book Imagine It Forward: Courage, Creativity and the Power of Change tells both the gripping story of her humble starts and growths and the ups and downs and the challenges and the ins and outs and shows that humans, regular people can achieve global solutions as she did. So as you expect I recommend reading the book. I would love for her with the skills that she has and the experience that she has to take on environmental challenges. But even more than that I would love that her book leads to another generation of people who follow in her footsteps of taking on global challenges to take on the jobs that others don’t want to do because it’s important to do. In this episode she shares some specific stories about environmental challenges that she took on and challenges that are really corporate but related to the environment that are directly applicable to work that people who are listening to this podcast probably really care about and probably could apply what she did to their lives. So let’s listen to Beth.
Joshua: Welcome to the Leadership and the Environment podcast. This is Joshua Spodek. I am here with Beth Comstock. Beth, how are you?
Beth: Great, Josh. How are you doing?
Josh: I’m doing very well. And great to talk to you here. Since the last time we saw each other at the summit I’ve been reading your book and I wanted to say it’s a wild ride but it’s actually a fairly straightforward story, lots of little stories of you but it took me through an emotional journey. You’ve had many ups and downs in your career and there’s so many different angles. It’s hard to figure out where exactly to start because it’s about leadership. It’s about personal growth. It’s about lots of technique and things that worked. And it’s got all these names that come in and out of front-page people including yourself. And I wonder if I can start with the big question first?
Joshua: What is the book for?
Beth: I wrote the book especially for people mid- to early-career who are trying to navigate change and looking for some encouragement, some practical advice, some tools. But I also think it’s really for anybody trying to navigate change in an organization which is all of us these days because it’s hard and mostly I wanted to just chronicle the messiness of change and innovation. We throw these words around in organizations which talk all the time and we roll our eyes at the idea of innovation partly because we don’t accept how hard it is. And change management books tend to be you know step one, two, three, then everybody changes and it’s great. Yeah, my experience was there’s a lot of struggle, a lot of self-reflection, a lot of personal development. Change really starts with you and you’re kind of making things happen and that’s what I was trying to bring to life here.
Joshua: Yeah. I have to say when I recognized how much I was… Some of the stuff I recognized from things in my life. Some of the stuff was beyond my experience. And I felt like it actually gave me a better picture of what is to come in organizational change, cultural change than if someone had given here’s step one, here’s step two, here’s step three. Because I mean you’ve been through many ups and downs, a lot more ups and downs and I feel like that emotional journey that what you shared is a more inside view of what actually happens. Is that what you wanted to share that inside scoop?
Beth: Yeah. I think I mean not inside like juicy gossip although it is parable of that in there but I really just wanted to just exactly to share the highs, the lows, the messiness of it, the hardness. It’s hard work. I thought a lot about… There’s a couple of things happening but what we mostly I believe need in organizations are more people willing to fight for the future, to bring creative problem solving but to do the hard work. And so this notion of kind of we all dress up like we’re innovating and companies we use the buzz words, we maybe have people like me who call chief innovation officer or chief marketing officer, and then we lose patience, we lose the will to keep going in. So it was kind of like we were dressed up for nothing. And it’s hard work and that’s what I wanted to share.
Joshua: You mentioned a few things that made it hard work. We get stuck on things but also I think you mentioned there’s never enough data. You always wish you had more, people get comfortable with the way things are. And you talked a lot about our own internal hurdles are the biggest thing… We tend to hold ourselves back. I guess that’s what… I mean you started with a very vulnerable…I mean it’s seemed like the early parts you’re talking about. I mean we only recently met for the first time but I’ve seen your name a lot and I think of you as someone who’s a very big character, must be very charismatic but then you start off very humbly. I mean I think of you as someone who’s confident and accomplished but you start off as being…Correct me if I characterize you differently but maybe innocent to naive at the beginning when your pre-NBC, even pre-CNN days.
Beth: I think it’s probably a bit naïve which I am even now, an optimism and I think some of that’s probably healthy. But yeah, it’s a journey of learning, it’s a journey of learning.,, You know leadership is this journey of learning about yourself as well as learning about the market and the people we work with. And I felt I took a big risk in sharing very personal stories, stories not just of successes but of failures of that internal conversation most of us have in our head, the doubt, the lack of confidence. I took a risk in sharing that but to me it was essential to kind of work through those things to be able to move forward and build a career and kind of be part of making change happen in an organization. So I try to sort of use myself as an example of what I… I had to open myself up to say this is what I learned, I think to be authentic about it.
Joshua: I have to ask a personal question as someone who’s writing my second book now. Was that hard? How did it feel when you were sharing those things? Was it gut wrenching or was it natural or was it cathartic?
Beth: All of the above. I mean it was very hard. I’m a reserved person. I talk in the book about being reserved and shy. I’m also an introvert and I had set a challenge for myself several years ago. I was going to open myself up more. I tried to document that. Open myself up to my curiosity, to discovery. It’s kind of what has distinguished me in a career about what’s next and new about going after change. But it’s very scary. So I once again I kind of leveled up with this book. I had to open myself even more, talk about things that didn’t work. I started the book with one of my most personal stories and failures of my divorce when I was in my 20s and moving forward. That’s not how most people start a business book yet it was essential to my character and learning how to go forward in the face of uncertainty and not knowing what you’re going to do in that moment when you know I got to make this work. And it gave me the confidence that I could do this in other places and so I felt it was important to share that.
Joshua: I’m glad you did. It’s very engaging and much more engaging I think than had you just said “Here is how to.” I have just to say also maybe this will sell a couple of books for you that even before the starting with the divorce, you start with the CIA thing which was… That was really exciting and also raised the big questions of why we are so short-sighted. And I think there’s so many different frames to look at this from of imagination and how do we have more imagination and… Oh, I totally forgot. Something I meant to say at the very beginning of this was I don’t know if you meant for the book to be read this way. You talked about various big challenges facing us humans one being climate change as a subset. You didn’t mention all of the environmental issues but there are a lot of them and your book read perfect as a challenge and a clarion call for not just action but change in perspective of personal responsibility and acting even when you know… All the things you said about leadership perfectly applied to acting in the environment. And I wanted to say that in the beginning because everything you’ve been saying now I think could be when looked at in that lens I think would help a lot of people get off of feeling like, “If I act but no one else does, what difference does it make?” It lacks meaning in one’s life, it lacks purpose and what you do I don’t think I saw any blame in the whole book. I don’t think I saw any guilt or anything like that. It all seemed like “What can I do?”
Beth: But you might have seen some guilt for sure because I think that is part of my character. But I do believe that…
Joshua: I mean you didn’t assign guilt to anybody else.
Beth: No. And I think it’s that sense of kind of you have to… I feel I realized blame robs you of your agency like the fact is you have to take action and you get to the point where you see a better way, you have to take action to make it happen. And climate change, the environment were incredibly formative experiences and topics for me to see that and I try to document that somewhat. But I agree with what you’re saying they’re overwhelming, there are these huge systematic changes that are required and it’s not…. It’s health care. Education. And we could all go on and on and becomes overwhelming. But if you see a better way, you have an obligation to make something happen, to take action.
And so for me it was a formative experience when I was at GE, I had worked at the company when we had some bad environmental challenges with PCB, chemicals in the Hudson, the EPA saying, “Get them out.” The company was fighting in favor of the science and I would play part of the role of the next team we came in and said, “Hey. We see a different way. We think that actually we can help be part of the solution. We can be part of creating a clean tech future. We have to open up, we have to partner more with NGOs and people who were criticizing us before, we have to be open to criticism, we have to invest money and make in the future. We have to potentially upset some customers because we can see that we believe in that and we’re going to make it happen.” That was formative to me not just in my career but in my life of seeing what you can do.
Joshua: I made notes. I’d really love if you could share more of that story. On a personal level, I’m increasingly getting invited to corporations to come in and help them reduce their waste and some of them are major global companies that produce a lot of what’s in the oceans right now. And I would love to hear either a personal story of… Because you’re I mean internally challenged, the company was internally…Internal to the company there’s just so much conflicting interests. I wonder if you could share any angle of that we could learn from.
Beth: Well, I mean in some ways it’s I think kind of a case study of what sort of to me the opportunity to meet change early and kind of shape the future. So at the time I had been recently named chief marketing officer at GE and the opportunity was quite clear in the beginning but that I saw for marketing was hey, we could take our title seriously and live in the markets and start to understand change, see trends kind of see where the world’s gone. Now we can’t predict the future but you can start to see where things are going. And we started to pick up signals from some early adopter clients, especially those in Europe saying, “Hey, GE, can you help us? We’re seeing regulation we want to be cleaner greener companies but we can’t go broke doing that. Help.” We heard this in energy, we heard it and transportation, we heard it in aviation, you know rail and aviation and so we set to work to just go into discovery and created a kind of challenger team in the company to understand it and started partnering with others to help us understand what it could look like and at the other end came something we called Eco Imagination. We did sessions where we dreamed with customers. We said, “Peer out ten years into the future.” Mind you this was 2005, it sounds kind of quaint now to say look out to 2015 we gave our customers kind of virtual currency saying, “Imagine you had a budget from us. Where would you put it? In solar, in wind, in energy storage.” And together we started to get a blueprint of what the future might look like. And we put money to work in investing in technology. We held ourselves accountable. We came up with this really rigorous scorecard based on products we wanted to have higher standards. We invited outside company to help us make that data transparent. We set standards and targets for ourselves to reduce emission, reduce water. We took it very seriously.
And it was necessary and it was a risk. I mean people didn’t want to take that risk and the company, one, they didn’t necessarily believe it was going to be true. Two, they thought given our history of fighting the EPA on the Hudson we wouldn’t be taken seriously yet we had that capability already within the company. Our customers wanted us to do it. We had shaped the opportunity and make it happen. So it was about messaging, it was about strategy, it was about investment but mostly it was about partnering with a new set of partners to make it happen and hold ourselves accountable and open ourselves up to say, “Here’s what we’re doing.” Over the course of a decade or more it generated revenue, it changed the way we worked, grow our brand value. We got better technology. All that happened but it started with seeing trends in the market, taking a risk having some courage and kind of making it happen.
Joshua: I have a lot of questions on that. And the first thing that comes to mind is the accountability you talked about, the transparency. Was that within GE, among GE and its suppliers and buyers or to the whole world or all of all the above?
Beth: All of the above. I mean we worked with the company in the early days called Green Order, a guy Andrew Shapiro started it. I don’t know if you know Andrew, he has now a venture company but we’ve hired Green Order to help us cope with a scorecard. One we validated that every product we certified as eco certified eco imagination had to deliver both the economic and ecological impact for our customers. We scorecard it ourselves in emissions, in reducing waste, in reducing all kinds of things and we had not Green Order validated but we had an advisory board, people from NGOs, some were our customers, some were academics and we asked them to hold us accountable. We said to our employees, “Here’s our targets. We’ve all got to get there.” They became a rallying cry for employees to get into it so they took it and made it their own in a way. It wasn’t like top down, “You must do this.” It was because employees grabbed it and said, “I’m going to work with my customers in a new way. I’m going to redo how I do supply chain.” So we planted the seeds but everybody kind of grabbed it and made it work.
Joshua: Am I overstating things? From what I hear is that you took a major liability and by taking leadership and lots of details and that if there’s one word to capture a lot of the things but the end result I’m hearing is improved morale and rallying cry that people liked what came of it.
Beth: Yeah. They didn’t all like it in the beginning. As I said there was a lot of fear but especially it was a mission for the company, we were going to be ecological and economic are and have impact and people like that. I mean over time the brand value grew. We started recruiting new different kind of people to the company because they could see a different mission for GE. So all those things we could only you know we imagine that we couldn’t have expected them exactly to work out. And it kind of created a momentum. I mean sadly I would say despite all that it was still hard to move fast enough. I’d say in the early days investors never saw it as a big enough opportunity until much later and then they wanted to know why the company wasn’t bigger and things like solar and storage. So I think the tension was always “Did enough people take it seriously? Could we move fast enough?” And I would have liked to have seen us do even more but it did move sales, it did move customers, it did move brand. And for those things I feel we made a real impact.
Joshua: So say there was a company right now that produced a lot of say single use containers that got used once and thrown away and that was a major part of their business or say it’s an apparel company to produce a lot of things such as get there fast fashion but they get used up really quickly. Is such a transformation available to them? Can they look at these challenges they face which they tend to see as existential threats…. Is it possible that there could be opportunities to take a leadership place in the market and to see this as a way to engage their employees and turn it into something moral building? It’s hard for them to see that that’s possible. It’s seems to me possible. You’ve lived it. Well, not the same thing, something similar.
Beth: Yeah. I think it I mean it absolutely is possible. I think you have to have a real commitment, a patience, a willingness to play the long game in this. And you’re doing kind of two things at once. You don’t just suddenly snap your fingers and your old way of working goes away. It just doesn’t happen. I mean look at the clean tech world, the world [unintelligible] with the debates we were always having were centralized energy generation fossil fuel generation versus distributed wind solar renewable. Today even both of those things still exist. So if you are a single-use plastic company you see the trends, you see what’s plastic is, what’s happening in the environment, you see the data. It’s much of it irrefutable. The world is going that way. But you can’t just expect to suddenly change everything overnight. So you still have to keep operating kind of the core way of doing but with a plan to grow some of the new more sustainable impact ways and then plan to accelerate that faster. So you kind of have to do both things at once to build the confidence and the capability and then kind of accelerate that. So it’s just you know kind of doing both things at once and that’s often hard, scary, not always rewarded with investors and profit in the early days and that makes it even harder for many companies.
Joshua: There’s no way at the beginning to say what’s going to happen in the end. It seems like a bit of faith or you just don’t know… And you can’t possibly, as you said if I heard you right, you can’t predict what’s going to happen until it happens and as it turns out in your case it sounds like… I’m sure there were not wins but it sounds like there were enough wins to make it worth it.
Beth: Yeah. I mean there were things that were… I mean we tried so many times to create energy storage solutions, battery technology. If you took money much money at something at the wrong time, we waited on other things so you are having to experiment and try a number of different things. The idea is to try to do that in a way that you’re doing them at the right time at the right level of investment, you’re creating a portfolio of options so that when change shows up, you’re ready. So if I run a single-use plastics company, I’d be out testing different materials, I’d be looking for different people of my supply chain, I’d be looking at my customers who are partnering and starting to ask for a new kind of impact from their suppliers. If we bring in an ecosystem together, I’d be looking at universities. These things it takes time you’re going to have to build a road map of five to 10 years to get the kind of impact you want and you’re going to have to do with a lot of partners to make that happen.
Joshua: How about personal change? Because with PCP it’s not really the same thing. I mean GE I don’t think of it is selling a lot of consumer things. I mean I don’t buy jet engines but consumer plastic is like if people themselves at the company are using the product and producing a lot of waste and if they stop using the waste, a big … Well, maybe this is getting too much too far afield from your history but I wonder…
Beth: I mean that was exactly the things we were going to reduce our own emissions. We’re going to change our own way we work, not just expecting our customers to do that. We had to change the way we work. It was the same with digital transformation. We had to go digital before we can get our customers to buy digital software. So yeah, I think that’s essential part of it. You have to change your way of working, your impact. You have to hold yourself accountable for working differently if you want to see that change happen. You can’t just expect everybody else to do it.
Joshua: OK. I’m glad you said that because that’s one of the things I talk about a lot is that I think like your central headquarters has got to stop producing so much waste if you want others to produce. I think you have to solve some of the problems you expect others to solve yourself or at least face them and not just say to others, “Solve this problem.” You have to actually work on it.
Beth: You must because how can you have credibility and you have to hold yourself open and accountable? I don’t know how you cannot do that. So yeah, I’m with you.
Joshua: OK. And the flipside is also if you do do it and you get the reward, in my experience as I mentioned before we start recording that food has been such a big thing for me. What I thought when I decided to go for packaged food, I thought I was cutting out a lot of things from my life. And I guess technically I was but the actual result is that I eat so much more vegetables and vegetables have so much more flavor than the packaged stuff that I actually have more variety than ever. And what I thought was deprivation and sacrifice became joy and discovery and adventure and exotic and all these different things that I was like, “I had no idea there was so much great stuff around the corner.”
Beth: Yeah. I mean it’s essential and I think the fear… When we launched Eco Imagination the fear some people internally had and some skepticism from let’s say the media was, “Hey, this is just “greenwashing”. You’re just doing this as a marketing slogan, as a brand campaign.” And how do you answer that if not say, “But no. Like this is so serious. We are changing the way we behave. Hold us accountable. We’re going to share with you our progress. We’re going to share with you what we’re doing.” You are for progress because otherwise you do set yourself up. So I think it’s essential but again it’s hard, you’re driving a systematic approach to change. And what I say we found often our customers were it wasn’t just “Give us a cleaner product.” or “Give us a digital product.” but “How’re you doing that?”
I will give you a good example. We created something in Eco we called Treasure Hunts. It actually started with GE Capital of which you’d think well what do they have to do with clean tech. But they had for example they’re franchising business, they had a lot of fast food restaurants that they wanted help with reducing their energy footprint. And so we had been doing treasure hunts inside the company like How can we go around find treasure? Like Where are things we can cut out energy usage and waste? And we had already done that process internally. Our customers were asking for help so they could be more efficient and because we had done that internally it was easier than take it to our customers and get people much more engaged and they could see a better way of working but because we did it ourselves it validated and we kind of worked it out and gave them a whole different way of thinking about it. It was actually a service offering. It ended up becoming a service offering as well.
Joshua: I bet also that when you do it yourself you have more leverage over internal like if you are just doing it at your HQ, I am not sure if that’s what you did, but if you do it internally, you have much more leverage, you have controls. You can talk to people directly and you don’t have to worry about that you have more leverage to do things internally and then it’s the best way I know to solve a complex problem is to solve a simple problem that’s related and then build from that and build from there with increasingly more complex problems and it’s a simple place to start.
Beth: Yeah, well said. Totally agree.
Joshua: Cool. Are there writeups of Eco Imagination like case studies? And are the people who are in it, do they consult and provide services to…
Beth: Some of them still do. Yeah, there have been case studies at Yale and Harvard and places like that. As I said I think that the impact was real, we measured it, had scorecards. I mean if anything we got carried away in 2G fashion with metrics on metrics on metrics and if you’re not careful, you can [unintelligible]. But as I said, I think there was a lot more that could have happened. It could have been taken more seriously, more change could have happened. And so I think you look at the company at GE now and would like to have had a bigger position in solar. I know the company is working on energy storage. Some of those are timing things but some of them are just even more risk that needed to happen. So you know those things need time to play out. So as good as it was it needed even more of the company to embrace that, I think.
Joshua: The internal conflict must have been tremendous. I mean a lot of people must be thinking, ”You’re talking about reducing consumption. Are you crazy? That’s not what raises the stock price.”
Beth: Yeah. Well, I mean it was hard to make that case so we also gave it a cute name Eco Imagination, this idea of being ecological, economical and this idea that in a limited resource world what’s unlimited is our imagination and so we can create problem-solving way out of this. Again, the backbone of the book I wrote. But yeah, I mean there was a lot of conflict, even for customers as much as we had customers to buy into it. We had one big customer who sold their business because they didn’t want to be a target of regulation. They didn’t believe in that future. And so you have to be willing to sometimes get ahead of your customers, your partners and the market and be willing to potentially lose business. I mean we generate a lot more revenue than what we lost in the end. But those are scary moments when…It gives people reason to go, “See, that’s not a good idea. See?” And you need good champions. I mean Jeff Immelt was a really big champion of this at GE at the time and he got a lot of criticism, especially when you got into the political arena. There’s this Republican versus Democrat. It wasn’t bad at all but it started to be seen often as a prism of politics but it was about shaping the future and the belief that a company has to play this role.
Joshua: There was a phrase, a turn of phrase that you used, now getting a bit more general than just the Eco Imagination part. You said at one point that you grabbed a job that no one wanted and made it your own which to me is like that… There’s so many opportunities to lead out there and so many people who want to lead. And I feel like the jobs that no one wants are the ones that are often the ones that lead to the biggest leadership opportunities.
Beth: I think so. And that is kind of like my specialty. And I try to document it throughout my career I talked about a time I had left CBS to come back to NBC and I was doing publicity and at NBC there was a job open that had been open for months and no one wanted it. The news division, it had a really tough time and it almost shut down because of some troubles. And I felt I just had to take that challenge and it was one of the best jobs I ever had. I took on this marketing assignment, chief marketing officer for G.E. when they hadn’t had one for 20 years. Few people in the company even knew what marketing was and let alone thought it was a good idea. I took on fighting for clean tech at a time that people are like, “This doesn’t make sense.” So I feel it’s much easier to grab those opportunities because no one’s looking at them than to try to fight for the ones that everybody’s already got their line assigned to.
For me sort of being the one that fought for the outside to fight for the trends and the insights and where’s the world going was an easy path when I was at GE because most people were looking inside. They were focused on the process. They were focused on the day to day operations. Few people were looking outside and trying to see pattern recognition and understand that and so that was kind of an easy path in some ways because it was right there. But you have to see it, you have to sort of take some risk. Not everyone’s job is you’re able to do that but everyone has in their jobs some ability to add a little that, I like the term job crafting. I did name it but I borrowed that from some researchers this idea that craft your job a bit to include more the roles and responsibilities that you want. As long as you’re meeting what the company needs, there are certain skills you bring, certain capabilities, can you craft what you’re doing to allow for more of that to happen?
Joshua: I have to do a little plug here directly to the listeners is that if you’re listening to a podcast called Leadership and the Environment, they probably want to take leadership roles. And I feel like a lot of people feel like, “Well, the environment is an interesting and important thing but I don’t want it to get in the way of me leading in my company.” And doing what others value but aren’t doing seems to me… And I try to bring on people on the podcast who took on those challenges and it led to them leading. And I feel like that you didn’t do it… Well, you did it in some areas of the environment and lots of other areas as well. I call it the grunt model of leadership. I think there’s a lot of grunt work for most of leadership roles.
Beth: Yeah, it is and you’re you know everybody is like, “Why would you take on that job? I don’t care. Maybe they have such low expectations.” for you and like you’re like, “What I got to lose?” To me there’s often nothing but upside especially if everybody is like, “That’s a stupid job role.” If you see an opportunity and then go for it. I mean I think you have an obligation if you work in an organization to make things better. And so if you see that, don’t you have to fight for that? Yeah, often we feel like, “I can’t do that. My boss won’t let me. The company won’t let me do that. They don’t see me that way.” It’s like “What, did you ask them? Did you test it? Did you do a little project to show you could do it?” And often we don’t do those things because we are actually afraid, we’re afraid we’re not going to be successful, we’re afraid to try it. So I think you really have to interrogate yourself to know… Sometimes those are real excuses, your boss won’t like you. But often we just have to kind of push forward and give some of those things a try.
Joshua: Yeah. I have to add here that I feel like a lot of what you just said you summarize things that are presented in a lot more richness in the book. You don’t have time to go into [unintelligible] like the what’s a gatekeeper. And do you have to listen to them? And give yourself permission to do things. This is why it was such an exciting book for me is that you lived through these things and you didn’t just say…What you just said… When you read the book you also get the stories behind all these things and what led you to… You’re not just saying stuff that like you read in a book somewhere, you’re saying stuff that emerged from your life stories.
Beth: So like an example of… I mean I do my sort of an underlying thesis of change management what I’ve learned is just permission granting. You have to give yourself permission to go, if you see a better way, you have to give yourself permission to take action and make it happen. And the permission can be for the smallest things for yourself but seem big. It can be permission to challenge that gatekeeper, the person who’s saying no, who won’t let you through the gates. I talk in a book about once there was a job that had been open for a while and I thought it had my name on it and I was fuming that they didn’t call me about it and I finally got the nerve to go see the head of H.R. and he said, “Yeah, we thought about you for that job but you are a young mother and this job requires travel so we didn’t think it was right for you.” Wow, like I missed that opportunity to put myself out there because I was waiting for someone else to tell me it was OK. And I did and I ended up getting the job. But those are the things that you have to kind of grant yourself permission to say, “I’m going to go for that. I am not going to wait for them to come from me.” Those are kind of early management challenges but it happens to all of us every day. We find some alibi, some reason that really you just got to kind of give yourself a little permission, “I am just going to try that. I’m just going to ask that question, just going to pitch that idea. And OK, they said no, I’m going to try a different way because I really believe in this. I’m going to try to find other people to help me make this idea better.” So it kind of brings out a resilience and a persistence in you.
Joshua: That story with Bob was the one that I was like that’s when I wrote, “She didn’t blame anyone.” I mean you could have gone with a lawsuit there and you’re just like, “Prizefighters keep getting hit but they don’t go down.” And you just didn’t go down. And then you, I wouldn’t say won the fight because it wasn’t a competition but that was to me like taking responsibility, developing yourself and growing, putting yourself out there against internal resistance and that to me was one of the more exciting parts I have to say.
Beth: Well, it’s not that I didn’t think of these things. Of course, like, “I can’t believe this guy. I can’t believe her.” You know whatever. I mean we all have those feelings or somebody or the gatekeeper says, “No, you can’t do this.” You know I guess I can’t do it. Well, wait a minute. I believe in it. I talk about trying to pitch the NBC Experience store and you know Bob writes “no”, it took me three passes to get him to say yes. So what I realized is he was testing me. Frankly, probably the first time he was in his gut. He was testing me was I passionate, was I willing to go the distance. He looked at me finally and when he said yes after three tries and he was like, “I tried so hard to say no I tried so hard but you made it hard because you you’ve made it better and I believe you’re going to work to make this succeed.” And so it was a good lesson for me that he was testing me. And frankly I was kind of testing myself.
Joshua: I would love to keep talking more about the book and your experiences. I want to switch to…The other part of the podcast… We’ve been talking leadership. So the environment. When you think environment is it something you care about? Is that something important? Is it something that is… What do you think about when you think about the environment?
Joshua: I think it’s Mother Nature, it’s our world. I mean it’s very important to me. It dates back to my childhood. I just have always been a nature freak. I played in nature when I was a kid with my friends, I went to nature camp when I was a young teenager and you know preteen. I studied biology. I’m just passionate about it. So I was a biology major and because of that I think I see the world of business differently. It’s about an ecosystem, it’s about things thriving together and it’s not a win-at-all-costs. Nature doesn’t work that way. And so perhaps that’s the point of view I gravitated toward in education and it’s a point of view that I think gave me a bit of a different perspective in business.
Joshua: So it sounded like the first thing that came up was like a childhood, something going all the way back and maybe even when you were studying biology and majoring in it I feel like, tell me if I’m reading it wrong, that there was a childlike joy in it in what you’re doing, not just… I mean some people it’s like the white lab coats in engineering but for you it sounds…Am I right? It was more like a playful or like a…
Beth: Yeah. I mean playful part of it but just the joy, the discovery, the curiosity. I mean absolutely, I’d say it was as much the discovery of it, just the surprise and delight of it.
Joshua: One thing I do on this podcast is I’d like to give people, listeners a chance to hear leaders acting on their environmental values. And I wonder if… I invite you at your option to do something that you may be have thought to do or would like to do to act on those values environmentally. And a couple of things I say. First is it doesn’t have to fix all the world’s problems all by yourself overnight. But it can’t be something… Something that you’re not already doing and something not telling others what to do because we have enough people telling others what to do. But I wonder if there’s anything. And usually people don’t have something [unintelligible] but some people do. Is that something you’d be interested?
Beth: Yeah, no absolutely. I mean I think a lot about this. I mean two things… Well, I guess I will not tell what I’m doing because you said not do this. So I mean I’m definitely making a commitment to reduce my waste footprint for example. I’m already underway but I’m accelerating that even more. Just you mentioned it earlier but I too am less packaging focused, more reusing things, trying to just really think through my waste. And the second thing is just continuing to be much more plant based in how I am and how I eat and how I live.
Joshua: So with the packaging and the plant based it sounds like that originally came from what you talked about before about where biology also came from. And I wonder if we could take one of those things and make it into a SMART goal.
Beth: OK. Give me an example of what you mean by that?
Joshua: So I mean the main one is usually specific and time sensitive or time bound. And so for a lot of people if they do less packaging, they’ll say over the next month they will not get… Maybe when they get coffee, they’ll only get it when they have a reusable mug with them. What started it off for me it was I give myself a chance to go for week without buying any packaged food and that ended up being transformative for me. And some people they’ll say for some amount of time they’ll go for zero meat or half the meat that they used to have or something like that. And what I’m interested in is if you’re up for it and you go for it, then to talk you at the end of that period to hear how the experience was because one of the main things driving this is in the sense of community is I think that a lot of people feel like they don’t know anyone who is doing these things or they look at leaders of the world and the leaders are talking about a lot of stuff but they are not unnecessarily doing these things. Actually, one of my previous guests told me that the number one predictor of someone going solar is not how much money they’ll save, nor their politics, it’s if their neighbor has solar. And so I want people to share that it’s not only them so that listeners can feel like, “Oh, Beth is doing this.” or you know the people on this podcast for people at home to say, “That’s what it’s like.” And sometimes it’s easy and sometimes it’s hard but only by hearing what the people share can they find out. And I want to make that public. That’s one of the goals of this podcast is to make people feel, make people see that it’s not just you, dear listener, you’re not the only one who’s doing this. In fact, people in your lives are doing this.
Beth: So I think… I don’t know if this is a week or a month. I think a week, I guess I would like to see if I could do a week without any plastic.
Joshua: Big challenge. I’m sorry, to me that’s big but to some people it may be small.
Beth: Yeah. Well I guess I have to think about that. I think if I already have like lotion in plastic I mean I think I mean not purchasing anything for a week, if I can do no plastic purchase. I think that would be perhaps the most realistic challenge.
Joshua: So would you be up for talking in a week or so?
Beth: Sure. Yep.
Joshua: So it sounds like a SMART goal. It sounds like for me that would be a pretty big challenge. Now I’m thinking about when I do it myself too.
Beth: Yeah. I don’t know if I’m going to be successful but I’m going to be very aware of it.
Joshua: OK. And what you share acting is more effective at raising awareness than not acting and hoping that awareness will lead to action.
Beth: Yeah, yeah. It’s a good way to put it.
Joshua: And I guess maybe after we close, then we can schedule. What I’d like to close with is these two questions. One is if there’s anything that I didn’t ask that’s important and worth bringing up. And the other is if there’s anything you want to say directly to listeners on leadership, the environment or anything else we talked about, anything else?
Beth: You covered a lot of good topics so thank you for the opportunity. I guess just to kind of close I can just reiterate what we said. This notion of because some of the systematic change that we’re staring at in the world around, the world is never going to be slower than it is right now. The disruptive nature of change and we look at things like climate change and feel like, “How can I ever make a difference?” The reality is what we really need right now is just a creative problem-solving and people using their imaginations and giving themselves permission to act on it. Don’t wait for somebody else. And so here I’ve just agreed I’m going to do this challenge. That’s where it starts small challenges. That’s what I learned in the course of leadership for myself I had to get out of my own way and my awkwardness, my introversion and I had to give myself small, little small challenges like you’re talking about, to introduce myself to someone and to go to an event and not just go turn around and go home but to actually go up and meet someone and then go home, to put an idea out there and not feel shy about it. So just do small acts, small deliberate steps. That’s the way change happens. And so it just that’s what you got to do. You can’t just sit and say, “It’s up for somebody else.” or “What I’m doing doesn’t matter.” because it’s about getting to action.
Joshua: And I’m going to add to that that if you read her book then all of what she said, it all comes from experience. Everything she just said has a story behind it that’s in the book. With the exception of what’s to come in the next week which I’m eager to hear.
Beth: Yeah. Me too. So weeks starts on Monday, we’re having on Sunday. So we’ll start it like Sunday to Saturday.
Joshua: OK. And then after we hung up we’ll schedule. Beth Comstock, thank you very much.
Beth: Thank you, Josh. Thanks for having me.
I loved her openness, I’m sure you could tell. I can’t wait to apply her experience with Eco Imagination to my corporate clients, increasingly people who are listening to this podcast and saying, “Can you help me change my company?” If you act, people will follow. I also can’t wait to apply her personal experience to my life. I buy stuff that’s in plastic and mostly avoid food packaging but there’s other stuff so it’s hard for me not to listen to her and feel inspired back. So I hope that you do too. I hope that you feel inspired as well.
My model for taking on tasks that others don’t has long been Martin Luther King or the Montgomery Bus Boycott. At the time Rosa Parks was a criminal the weather was consistently over 100 degrees and for over a year he had to organize people not to take the bus, to walk and to carpool but they didn’t have the Internet to organize. Phones were not so easy to work with at the time. I don’t think many people saw nonviolent civil disobedience as a strategy that could work. No one knew this was a future Nobel Prize winner. People today I think may see Martin Luther King is too big or civil rights is too far from their personal lives to take what he did and apply it to theirs. Well, Beth applied the same technique. Grab the job that no one wants and make it yours and like a prizefighter don’t go down. Does that sound like what the environment could use? It’s also what will bring you success so I hope that you follow in her footsteps. Her book goes, as I mentioned several times, goes in a lot more depth than we could in the podcast but she lived it and she did it and she’s, as far as I can tell, she’s just getting started. Anyway, I can’t wait for conversation number two and to hear how she went with the plastic challenge.
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