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The Proteus Leader Show #30: Imagining It Forward

Joined this month by longtime client and colleague Beth Comstock, Erika discusses practical takeaways from Beth’s new book, “Imagine It Forward”, helping people and organizations understand what’s next and navigate change.

00:00-01:11 - Introduction

01:12-03:11 - How to Liberate the Forward-Thinking Parts of Your Business

03:12-05:10 - How Fear Hinders Navigating Change

05:11-06:58 - How Leaders Can Help Others Overcome Fear of Change

06:59-10:12 - Ways to Empower Your Teams

10:13-14:11 - Encouraging People to Take Risks

14:12-15:14 - Closing

Intro: 00:01 You're listening to the Proteus Leader Show with Erika Andersen, where you'll get practical tools and insights for leading and managing and staying ready for future. Erika is the founding partner of Proteus, a firm that focuses uniquely on leader readiness. A nationally known executive coach and bestselling author, you may already know her as one of the most popular leadership bloggers on Ready for something you could use today? Here's Erika.

Erika: 00:30 Hello everyone, and welcome back to the Proteus Leader Show. I'm really pleased that today's guest is my longtime clients, Beth Comstock. Beth has built an amazing career from storyteller to Chief Marketer to GE Vice Chair. She worked for nearly three decades at GE, leading efforts to accelerate new growth and innovation, initiating it's digital and clean energy transformation, seeding new businesses, and enhancing its brand value and inventive culture. Now she's offering her gifts more broadly to the world, helping people and organizations understand what's next and navigate change. So Beth, welcome to the show.

Beth: 01:07 Thanks Erika. It's great to be here. One of my favorite strategic brains is yours.

Erika: 01:12 Oh, thank you! So this will be a wonderful meeting of the mind. So let's just jump right into focusing on your new book, Imagine It Forward. You note, and I couldn't agree more, that the world will never be slower than it is right now and that we therefore all need to get good at change. So in the service of that, you encourage your readers, and I love this phrase, to liberate the forward-thinking parts of the business. So can you tell us more about that, what that means, how to do it?

Beth: 01:39 Yeah. Well, I think what's happened over the past 100 years or so of business is, we've looked for efficiency, productivity, really mechanistic operating systems that we've needed to optimize today. And you know, that's an important part of business. But unfortunately I think what it's done is it squeezed the imagination out of us in our businesses, and I'm specifically talking about imagination - I'm kind of honing that definition to be the ability to harness our imagination, to creatively problem solve, to figure out potential new futures, both good and bad, and work our way through that. And because the pace of change is so fast, I actually think it's different than what many of us in business - either we're taught in business school or have learned through experience - it's not a linear march. It's much more emergent, meaning, you know, change is happening all around us, it's creating new patterns and if we're not careful, they disrupt us suddenly, even though they've been forming gradually. And what I think we need to do in organizations is have more recognition that we have to fight for the future, plan for it, and that there are simple steps that we can take to make ourselves more aware of that change. So it's not surprising before it's too late. That's really what I'm arguing for is just how do we liberate the strategic parts of our company, the ability to not only think ahead but to take actions toward it.

Erika: 03:12 Boy, I really agree with that, especially what you're saying about, "it's not a linear march." I think that's what all of us have learned in business school, exactly as you say, is how do we do more of the same thing? And how do we do it more efficiently and faster and more, you know, in those ways. And often that doesn't serve us now because the change is not just linear and incremental, as you say. So, one of the things you've said is that what holds us back most, and I assume from these new ways of perceiving operating, is fear. So talk to me about that. Have you seen that show up in business?

Beth: 03:47 Well, I think it's all the bad behavior we see when we try to navigate change at work. Change happens. None of us like it when it's forced on us, but it's a fact of life. The reality is I think more companies need to kind of find their inner entrepreneur - it's not something that's just left to Silicon Valley. It's about making change for the better. To me, you see a better way, you have to act, you have to make it happen. And that's what our businesses need to be doing. And so, to me the fear is what holds us back in the sense that, some people may see a better way, but they don't want to take the risk to make it happen. What happens if I fail? What happens, if I don't know the answer? What happens if, you know, somebody calls me out, there's all kinds of fear and so what it does is, it challenges people, it allows them to hang on too tightly to what they know because it's their base of expertise often or they're afraid they're not gonna know how to navigate what's new or next, that what got them there may not be what gets them forward. So it's just a lot of fear and it's why people protect what they have. They are afraid of losing what they have and I think we don't talk enough about that at work, that people bring their fears and because of that, probably don't help themselves navigate change and certainly don't help themselves deal with one another.

Erika: 05:11 Yeah, I think you're absolutely right. So how can you, how can we help people get past that fear so they can access those more imaginative parts of their brains?

Beth: 05:22 Well, it's a couple things. One, I think you just have to admit there's fear. I think if you're a team leader, whether it's a team of two or a team of 200 or 2000, I think there are times when you have to admit, you don't know the answer. Admit that we are in unprecedented times, we have to figure it out. To me, I kind of boiled it down to three simple areas. One is this notion of empowerment and permission granting, and I think you have to give yourself permission to take a risk on something you have to give the teams you work for, if you manage people, permission to try things. You're trying to do it at a smaller level, but you're giving them permission to figure it out. So I think that's really important. The second area, and I'm passionate about this, is you just have to get out of your office, you have to live in the world and discover kind of what's strange, weird, what's challenging your view. Go where competition is, understand where your customers are living. Go to things where maybe things in your industry are emerging early so that you start to get a pattern recognition and an awareness for some of these new things earlier so you're not surprised later. And the third thing is really just this kind of making room for experimentation, testing, learning. You know it's much more navigating the risk, not trying to mitigate the risk and I mean those are simple things to say but very difficult things to do. It's really about simple behavior change that I think we each need to do for ourselves and encourage our teams to do.

Erika: 06:59 That's great. And it's kind - so, the third question I was going to ask you is can you give us some practical tips which you've just done, so I'd love to dig down into that. So let's talk about that first one of empowerment, which I think is, I totally agree with you, is critical - is, giving people the space to take risks and not get punished and stuff like that. So how do you, how does a leader go about doing it? How does the leader create that kind of environment?

Beth: 07:25 Well, I think one leadership - I've thought a lot about this just in terms of my own learning and you know, we say whether you're a new time manager or you've been doing it the bulk of your career, management doesn't mean you control your people.

Erika: 07:40 Right.

Beth: 07:40 It means you empower them, it means you help them, coach them, you guide them to get the work done that you need done. And it starts with leadership vision. You know, a leader is about creating a story and a vision for the future. And then the encouragement, the resources, the space for your team to get it done. And especially in changing times where we're in unprecedented territory, there is no checklist. So if your team's waiting for you to tell them what to do or you're waiting for them to expect you to have all the answers, you're not going to compete as well. So I would say first is just accept that as a leader you have to have good vision.

Erika: 08:19 Yeah.

Beth: 08:19 And I think you're changing the kind of questions that you're asking. So instead of, you know, what's the answer? I think it's, what's your hypothesis.

Erika: 08:28 Hmmm...

Beth: 08:29 What problem are we trying to solve? You know, I think simple questions: what did you learn? Not, why did you mess up? What did you learn? Well, I think in some ways - and you're constantly refining that - it's a big mindset shift for managers today, I think, because most of us, even people who are first-time managers, I think there's this archetype that we're supposed to tell everyone what to do.

Erika: 08:55 Exactly. That's exactly right, that people think management is telling people what to do.

Beth: 09:03 Yeah, I think that works in change as much. I just don't. People have to find their way through change and you have to encourage them.

Erika: 09:10 I love that. So what I'm hearing is, have a really clear vision which is also flexible because that future change, but really clear and keep people up to date with that. And then just get really curious. Like what are you learning, what do you think, how might that work?

Beth: 09:26 And ask your team - one of the questions I loved that I adopted really kind of late in my GE run was this question of - and I'll come back to this later on feedback, but one question you can put to your team that's incredibly empowering: Tell me one thing I don't want to hear. Usually you don't

Erika: 09:44 Right!

Beth: 09:45 But I love it because it is a way to - what you're trying to say to your team is bring me the problems early. Let's figure out how to solve them together. You know, and I'm going to tell you what you don't want to hear. So you're establishing that trust and transparency pretty early on. That's how you get to empowerment.

Erika: 10:03 Oh, that's lovely. It kind of - I don't know what the word would be - but it sort of un-demonizes mistakes.

Beth: 10:11 Exactly, exactly.

Erika: 10:13 That's great. Well, that's a great kind of segue into your third thing, which was risk, you know, getting people to be okay taking risks. So I'd love to hear a little bit more about that.

Beth: 10:22 I mean, I think so you've empowered people, you've encouraged them to get out and see for themselves, and discover. And the third thing is this notion of really experimentation and to me it risk is really acting on imagination. You imagine new possibilities and you take actions against it. What companies do, especially big companies is they throw a lot of money and maybe the wrong kind of people at solving it at the wrong time. And really in those early stages you're just trying to figure out, is my hypothesis solid? Can I get from one customer to many? Will this even work? And so you need different kinds of people who are comfortable with the ambiguity, who are good at kind of testing. And you're saying to your teams like, figure this out at a smaller scale with less money, you know, less expectation until we're somewhat confident that we have a capability that this trend is manifesting in our space. So you're trying to, I think just kind of de-risk the idea a little or lesson maybe lessen the risk of the idea at an earlier stage.

Erika: 11:28 Yeah.

Beth: 11:29 And then with confidence you can kind of scale and add the resources and people as you see the things develop in the market. One of the things I feel like I learned late in my career, was we often invested in the wrong people. You think you need your [inaudible] operators at every step of the, of the process and you don't. There are so many people in our companies who are more entrepreneurial, okay with ambiguity, like seeding ideas and never want to be the hundred million dollar operator. They liked getting an idea from zero to 10. This is the chance for them. They are good at, at mitigating, helping you understand that risk. And so that's where I think we need to focus. And the last thing I'd say about that is, it's about feedback loops. And I'm happy to come back to that, but I think experimentation and what we talked about, and empowerment, the big takeaway of all this is, are you getting the right feedback early enough so you can adapt and go a different path. And so that's what you're doing at this early experimentation phase.

Erika: 12:37 So in the early experimentation phase, it requires, it sounds like almost continuous feedback, like how's it going, what have we found, what didn't work, all that kind of stuff.

Beth: 12:46 Exactly.

Erika: 12:48 I love the distinction you made between the folks who - those early stage folks who - what they really love is to just explore, investigate and figure out new stuff and they're not really concerned yet - and shouldn't be - about scale and results. They're just trying to figure out if this is even a good idea to pursue.

Beth: 13:04 Exactly. And we often hold them to the wrong measurements.

Erika: 13:10 Yes!

Beth: 13:10 How is it that you would ask them for profitability when you don't even know if you have a viable idea. But that happens in companies. Companies dream in scale. Startups want to be big; big companies want to stay big. And so the idea of deliberately nurturing people who dream small on the path to get big, it's just, it's not something that companies think about often.

Erika: 13:32 That's great. Oh my gosh, this has been so great. I always promise our listeners that this will be quick and digestible, and you've given us so many wonderful, clear kind of practical ideas, but I think game-changing ideas, in a short period of time. It's been lovely. You know, I sometimes, at the ends of these podcasts, wish I had another hour and a half!

Beth: 13:52 Love that you do this and I will share with your listeners, I mean one of the things I've always learned from working with you and I encourage my colleagues to work with you on was just don't lose sight of the vision and the strategy, meaning the steps you need to get there and it's just, it's a continual process and if we're not investing in that in our companies, we're not going to have a future.

Erika: 14:12 Yes. Thank you. And I absolutely agree that the wonderful combination you've talked about: have a vision, a clear plan for getting there, and just be willing to relook at it, get super curious every moment like, is it working, what can we do differently? I think that's such a powerful combination. I totally agree. So thank you so much, madame. This has been fantastic.

Beth: 14:36 Thanks, Erika!

Erika: 14:36 Listeners, you can find Imagine It Forward online in bookstores everywhere. I highly recommend it, and if you'd like to find out more about how Proteus approaches change, just go to and click on the Leading Change topic. So thank you for being with us today, Beth, and listeners, and until next time, here's to creating the life you truly want.

Outro: 14:56 We I hope you're feeling better equipped to create the career, the business and the life you want. For more insights and tools for leadership and management, join us at Have an excellent day and thanks for listening.