Leadership Lessons From Beth Comstock for Businesses of All Sizes

I recently had the good fortune to interview Beth Comstock, a former GE executive, for Salesforce’s Leading Edge series. She’s an inspirational leader, the best-selling author of Imagine It Forward, and a true #girlboss! Although Beth spent much of her career at one of the world’s largest and best known companies, her advice is relevant to leaders of businesses of all sizes. Here are a few of the things I learned from Beth about how to be a great leader in today’s rapidly changing world.

Embrace digital transformation

There’s a lot of fear out there about the future of work. Many jobs as we know them today are going away, which is scary for a lot of people. Digital transformation isn’t about eliminating jobs, though — it’s about a new way of working. If you look at automation as a simple way to free you up from mundane and repetitive tasks, you’ll find that it enables you to be more human and to do what you like to do.

Make room for creative problem solving

We can’t solve the new problems that are emerging every day as digitization takes over with the same old tools. Creative problem solving isn’t about putting on a beret and hanging around with a paint palette (although that’s fine if you want to do it!), It’s about stepping back and giving ourselves space to think strategically and find new ways to solve our problems. It’s also important to learn from partners and customers; the “I can do it all myself” days are over — so finding creative ways to work with partners may be the best way to solve your problems.

Look for the weird

What may seem strange and new today may be disrupting your industry in a decade, so it’s important to keep your eye out for the trends. When Beth worked at GE, she looked at Korean pop bands because she wanted to understand that trend’s effect on consumer thinking. Or consider cannabis. Ten years ago, medical marijuana may have made sense, but legalized cannabis was unthinkable. And yet here it is in many parts of the country. She suggests that businesses of any size can keep employees thinking ahead with a program like “field trip Fridays.” Take an afternoon once a quarter to see a retail concept that just started, talk to an emerging startup, or even look at a new art or musical trend. Small businesses often have a huge advantage in this area.

Practice social courage

This means being willing to show your true self even at the risk of social disapproval or punishment. When you’re running a business, you need to realize that you don’t have all the answers and to be okay with sharing that. Have the courage to recognize that you may need to partner in some areas and find someone to help you do something better. In today’s hyperconnected, social media intensive world, there’s a lot of shouting “see me, see me.” That makes it even more urgent that we practice social courage, ask for help when we need it, or offer assistance to others when we can.

Give permission slips

To be successful in a rapidly changing world, you need to give people permission to try new things. (At a reasonable scale of course!) The old way of management, when you told people exactly what to do, doesn’t work today. You need to set a vision and let your people figure out how to get there. All businesses, even small and nimble ones, have gatekeepers — people that are threatened by creative problem solving. You need to give everyone in your company the permission to defy those gatekeepers.

Welcome feedback

Feedback can be uncomfortable for many people, and in today’s digital world you can get a lot of it. But you’ll be a better leader if you are able to adapt yourself to getting it, and even seeking it out. One way to practice is to tell your co-workers “Tell me something I don’t want to hear.” You might be surprised at what you learn.

You can watch the complete conversation with Beth, and hear even more leadership inspiration here.

Photo via Salesforce

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