[00:00:19.4] ANNOUNCER: Welcome to The Science of Success. Introducing your host, Matt Bodnar.
[0:00:11.8] MB: Welcome to the Science of Success; the number one evidence-based growth podcast on the internet with more than three million downloads and listeners in over a hundred countries.
In this episode, we discuss how our guest helped secret agents become more creative. We look at specific strategies to navigate personal change while empowering and using your imagination. How do you become more imaginative? What are the keys to sparking imagination and creativity? How do you use creativity to get through challenges and setbacks? We discuss all of these and much more with our guest, Beth Comstock.
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In our previous episode, we discussed what causes the big moments that can transform your entire life in an instant. We showed you how to create that motivation and inspiration in your everyday life, so that you could be more productive and happier. We also exposed why the common wisdom about willpower and ego depletion was completely wrong and what you should do instead. We dug into all of that and much more with our previous guest, James Fell. If you want to be happier, more motivated and more inspired, listen to that episode.
Now, for our interview with Beth.
[0:03:01.2] MB: Today, we have another exciting guest on the show, Beth Comstock. Beth is a business executive and author with a deep history of leading large companies to success through innovation and new opportunities. She's currently a director at Nike, the trustee of the National Geographic Society and a former board president of the Cooper Hewitt Smithsonian National Design Museum. She's the author of the bestselling book Imagine It Forward: Courage, Creativity, and the Power of Change. She's worked in top leadership roles at GE, NBC, CBS and her work has been featured across the globe.
Beth, welcome to the Science of Success.
[0:03:36.9] BC: Great. Thanks for having me, Matt. Happy to be here.
[0:03:39.2] MB: Well, we're really excited to have you on the show and there's a number of themes from the book that I want to dig in to. I'd like to start out with a broader question, this idea that you open the book up with this notion of the imagination gap. Tell me a little bit about that.
[0:03:54.9] BC: To me, the imagination gap is what I experienced a lot in the course of business, whether I was working in a big company or with small companies, this notion that there's a gap that we were possibility and options for the future go to die, because people are looking for certainty, they don't want to take risks, they're not using their creativity to solve new problems in new ways. To me, it's this big gap of people failing to use their imagination to figure a better way forward.
I start the book off with an unusual story, for me certainly and probably an unusual story of me; me a business person going to talk to the CIA. Now I was asked to come and speak to them to talk about navigating change. I thought it was interesting for this issue of imagination, because you may recall back in after 9/11 happened, there was a senate hearing about what went wrong. How could we have missed the terrorism that was happening in the world? The 9/11 Commission indicted the CIA, basically saying, “You have a failure of imagination. You lost your way. You weren't open enough to see new possibilities. You couldn't imagine that terrorism was taking a different route, and you failed to protect the country.”
I thought that was a great example of the imagination gap and it happens in many organizations. I was at the CIA, because they had in that time figured out how to open themselves up, get more people in from the outside. They were bringing a business person in to talk about how do you think about change? How do you navigate your way through finding better ways of doing things? That that was very instructive that something as secretive and big and old as the CIA, who had to learn how to tap into their imagination.
[0:05:42.5] MB: It's a really illustrative story. I think the question that you posed, or the idea that you posed earlier in the conversation even is really important, which is this notion that our quest for certainty often ends up harming our imagination and hampering us from really achieving the possibilities that are out there.
[0:06:00.9] BC: Yeah. I've seen it. I believe it. I think it's a couple of things behind. I mean, we want a risk-free world, a risk-free life. To me, I thought a lot about this; risk is the will to act on imagination. Risk is the will to act on imagination. I know it and it ends up saving us, because if you can't risk something to try something for a better way, how are you ever going to get out of situations?
You may recall back in 2000 or something, there was a book that came out right after 9/11 and just looking at the economic issues. It was called The Black Swan. It was about these once in a thousand-year catastrophes. Well, how many times now do we see this every day? Every day is a thousand-year catastrophe.
I think the nature of change has changed a lot. In our hyper-connected world, things are just not more – are faster, but they're disrupting more. It's just that patterns are forming from all unlikely places and they emerge seemingly overnight. One, we're not out there in the world discovering, we're not paying enough attention, we can come back to that.
We're not willing to take a risk on something that isn't proven. We might see a pattern emerging. We might see something that looks odd, but unless we have empirical knowledge, or data, or else we say, “That doesn't apply to us,” or else we say, “That's a problem, but I don't have the solution,” or else we say, “I'm going to solve it the way I've always done.” What's emerging are new kinds of problems, new kind of issues and the old way is just not going to work. That's what I – I think what I wrestled with in business and I think in personal life, as well as just understanding necessary risk.
I met someone recently. He said, “My job is risk avoidance. What advice do you have for me?” I was like, “None. I have nothing to give you, except that you're going to fail. You cannot avoid risk.” To me, that was the premise of why I felt compelled to write the book, because I saw too often in established organizations, people become afraid to try even necessary risk. I'm not talking about bet the company, jump off the tallest building risk. I'm talking about necessary risk of what you need to do to move forward.
[0:08:20.3] MB: What did you tell the CIA to help them be more imaginative?
[0:08:24.6] BC: Well a lot of what they were looking at when I was there was just how do we see things earlier? How do we collaborate across units to solve common problems? I mean, the CIA I think has an unlimited budget in some respects. From a company perspective, you almost can't imagine. In some respects, I was suggesting some ways to bring teams together to share problems, to share discovery, to not have every unit off in their own doing their own individual things, to try to be much more collaborative to share the risk and reward within their organization.
They were already doing a good job of setting up some external networks; I encouraged them to keep doing more of that. I mean, the formula to me what I learned in the course of a career what I try to put out and imagine it forward is five key – they're not really steps, but five key elements. One, this notion of give yourself permission to try new things and new ways. This aid grab agency, which is ironic, you're talking to an agency, the notion of just discovery, that it isn't something you delegate. Everyone has to make room for discovery.
You have to invite in conflict. You constantly have to bring these sparks from the outside. I was there in that capacity. I think every organization needs to bring in outsiders who challenge their perspective. They need to go see things that are weird, but that notion of criticism and agitation and beating your ideas up, sparking a different perspective. The power of story; what’s your strategy? What’s your mission? Where are you going? Why? What problem are you trying to solve and why do you exist? How's the story that people can relate to that?
Then the last piece is just create a space where you can do a lot of experimentation, test and learn new kinds of partners, new initiatives, seed small projects, and that's a lot of what I ended up speaking to them about, about ways to create accountability, focus on the experiments, be able to take risk and fail in things. In fact, in some respects with them, their challenge was how do you create more constraint? Which for many companies, whether you're a small startup where you're incredibly well-funded, or a big company where you forget what it's like to be small, you need to put constraints in the system to challenge your thinking.
[0:10:37.6] MB: I want to dig in to a number of these different topics, but let's start out with the first idea, or really even coming back to some of the early themes from the book, this notion of reinvention and the various components around that. Tell me a little bit about that.
[0:10:53.1] BC: Well, I think because of this disruptive era we’re in, we all have to get good at change. I distinguish myself in GE and my career as somebody who sought out change, wanted to understand it, learn it early so we weren't surprised by it. I had to get good at that myself. It's about just unlocking your curiosity. At the heart of it is this just need to be more adaptable. If you're really rigid, you cannot keep up with the pace and disruptive nature of change.
That's at the heart of I think what I'm talking about is just do you have your own practice of adaptation? Do you? I mean, usually when the more successful people get, the harder it is to change their ways. When you got nothing to lose, often that's the time and I think in my career when I had nothing to lose or I worked with teams that had nothing to lose, those are the times that we took the biggest risks, because we were like, “What the heck? Who cares? Let's go for it.”
I do think that notion of being ready for change and creating a practice that makes you more adaptable is at the heart of the challenges that we have right now. It's in the face of right now with a lot of data, AI, a lot of people fearing that algorithms and robots are going to take their job. At the end of the day, if we're not – we’re left with our creativity, our strategic thinking, our creative problem-solving; those are the things that are going to get you through the disruption and the change.
[0:12:17.4] MB: What does that mean when you talk about having a practice or a process of adaptation?
[0:12:23.0] BC: It's just delegating your mind and your time to doing it. I'll give you a couple of examples. I think, this notion of a mindset shift is key. I always like the work of Carol Dweck, who's a professor out of Stanford who talks about a fixed mindset or an open mindset. To be change-ready, you have to open your mind up to new possibilities. You’re grabbing agency, giving yourself permission to open up. That's critical.
How do you do that? For me, I tap into my curiosity. I try to encourage those I work with. It's this idea of just getting out in the world and going and seeing for yourself. I think you have to make room for discovery. You have to get out in the world. Why? What are you doing when you do that? One, you're just seeing new things. You're going to places that challenge you where points of view contradict what you believe, places that it's weird, especially places that it's weird. What are you doing that you're learning, you're asking? I think you're building connections and seeing patterns.
I have a really simple method I use called going on threes. I actually carry a little notebook, or I make notes in my phone of interestingness. First time I'll see something out exploring, I'll make note that's interesting. Second time I'll ask, “Huh, is that a coincidence?” Third time, I'll declare it's a trend. I don't need it certified by any futurists. I figure out, “Okay, if it's related to work, what do we need to do to learn about this? How can we discover more?” Something personally, I want to learn about it.
I think most of us are stuck in doing things the way we always do, that we spend our time the same way. I guarantee, you have a small amount of your time. I always urge people, you have 10% of your time you can take back to go do these things. It can be as simple as walk a new route to work, drive a new route to work, explore something new. If you're traveling, you're going through the airport, you have nothing to do, you're going to be on the plane, there's no Wi-Fi, pick up a magazine that you would never read. I told someone to do this recently and she told me she picked up a wrestling magazine.
You're just trying to challenge yourself to just go out. I used to do this with the teams I worked with. We would do field trip Fridays once a month or once a quarter. We would just go out and we'd go to a new retail store. We ask and meet with a startup. You can see what's happening at a local museum. You're doing these things often together, but you can do this individually. You're just trying to see what's happening in the world. Then just to give everyone a challenge of how you might think about this, think back 10 years ago to something that seemed weird, or silly, or too far out, like that's never going to happen, and now it's mainstream. What do you think of?
When I think of that, I think of things like, I just got back from Las Vegas, there was the biggest cannabis conference ever; marijuana. A decade ago, you could not have imagined it being medicinal, let alone legal. I was with some folks in the beer industry recently and they were talking about how they were absolutely caught off guard, disrupted, flummoxed by craft beer. Well, it's not like these little brewers just emerged overnight on a hot plant and took over the brewing industry. They were knowable. You could have seen that pattern.
That's what I'm talking about. You just have to open yourself up, go to where things are different are weird and understand what you can start to learn. I think that's a critical element of a practice that you build. I do that. I have at least 10% of my time on any given week where I'm out discovering something new.
[0:15:58.6] MB: There's a great quote that touches on that, which is that the future is here, but it's just not evenly distributed yet.
[0:16:03.8] BC: Exactly. I love that quote. Exactly. You have to put yourself out there. I use a quote in the book from Joi Ito, who's the head of the Media Lab at MIT, a great future thinker. He calls it mushroom hunting. You're just out there. Often when you're out in the world, you're just looking at the patterns and you start to after a while, get good pattern recognition that you're able to see the mushrooms from the leaves. You have to do it a while to get good at that.
Another phrase I like along those is this idea of get outside the jar. Imagine you're in a pickle jar and you can't see the label because you're on the inside. If you get outside, you can see a whole new perspective. That's what I'm talking about. That's one thing anyone can do easily and I think everyone must.
[0:16:50.7] MB: I love even this simple idea of picking up a magazine or reading some content that's radically new or radically different from the ideas that you're typically exposed to.
[0:17:00.2] BC: I think you have to do that. I think in especially in the world now with just the political nature and people tending to choose their filters based on their tribe, if you will, I think it's even more important to understand what other people are reading, seeing, doing, so you're not surprised by it. I think there's also humanity and political reasons to be thinking about doing that as well.
[0:17:26.1] MB: I want to come back to some of the other themes or ideas from the reinvention segment of the book. One of them that I found really interesting was this notion of social courage. Tell me a little bit more about that.
[0:17:38.4] BC: Yeah. I love this idea. For me, it was a critical part of my early career especially. This notion, I guess in its purest sense, social courage is just that courage you have to have to connect with others to open yourself up to make genuine connections and to put yourself out there. For me, it was a particular challenge because I'm a reserved person, I'm shy and I'm also introverted. In building a career or just showing up in life, I'm never the life of the party. You're never going to go, “Oh, my gosh. She's so hysterical. She closed the party down.”
I would often, especially in the course of work, I would hold myself back. I wouldn't ask questions. I wouldn't suggest ideas, even though I had them. I was shy or felt quiet about it. This notion of social courage was something I had to learn to put myself out there to connect with people. As awkward as it was and sometimes still is. I had to get out of my head. I mean, it's real behavior change, small steps forward. That's what I did.
I had one incident I talk about in the book, where I was 30, I was working as a communications leader, manager level at Turner Broadcasting, the birthplace of CNN. Ted Turner was the founder. I worked there a year doing communications, including for him. I worked there a year and he didn't know my name. I realize it was holding me back once sitting with – an event where he was getting an award and I said, “Okay, I've got to change this. I'm going to introduce myself to him again.”
I did it very awkwardly. He went to the men's room. I was waiting for him when he came out of the men's room. I go to shake his hand. His hand was really wet. He's looking at me like, “What do you got?” I lost my nerve. He walked away. He never knew my name, but I was incredibly proud of myself as awkward as it was, because I did it. Rather than just standing against the wall and going, “Uh, he doesn't know my name.”
That was a good example for me of that as awkward as it was. It could have been a fail. Okay, he never knew my name. That was the spirit with which I undertook these small challenges and changes. I'm not good at parties, at networking events. I would go into them and stand by the chip ball or something and then go home. I had to change my tune. Again similar thing, I'm going to give myself a challenge. I'm going to go and I'm just going to meet one person, have a conversation as long as it lasts and then I'm going to go home. Next time, it would be two. Or I'm going to go to this meeting and today I'm going to ask – I’m going to do my homework and I’m going to ask a question.
Those are the behavior changes I had to make to get social courage. Because if I didn't do it, I was missing opportunities, I wasn't making connections. I look over the course of my career. I think what I'm – one of the things I'm most proud of is that I did open myself up. I did find little ways to put little tiny pockets of confidence and courage in my pocket when I needed them in those situations.
It’s the thing that to other people it sounds silly. “What? You're embarrassed to go introduce yourself to that person? Are you crazy?” To you, it's important. It takes a lot of courage sometimes to do those things, when other people may find them easy. There are a couple of messages in that, but I'm proud of myself that I overcame that. I still feel that way at times and I'm really proud that I opened myself up and I think I helped open up my company at GE to different, to things that were new, next, in a much earlier way. Social courage applies to companies too. It's not just the individuals.
[0:21:20.6] MB: I love this idea of a power of small challenges and how they can help you build up skills, especially social skills. we've had a number of past interviews that talk about this, and the idea of rejection therapy, which I don't know if you're familiar with or not, but the notion of –
[0:21:34.1] BC: No. Say a little more about it. Yeah.
[0:21:36.1] MB: Basically, the idea is you go and try to get rejected every day for X number of days. It can be as something as simple as asking for a free cup of coffee, or asking for a discount on something you're buying, or asking a stranger for 10 bucks or whatever it is. You keep doing these challenges to build up the tolerance of being uncomfortable in social situations. It's a great skill set.
[0:21:56.7] BC: That’s a good one. It makes me think of a career as an actor too where you're constantly being rejected, but it's different. You're talking about really that social engagement. You're building up your immunity a bit, is that right?
[0:22:08.5] MB: Exactly. Yeah, you're building up your immunity to discomfort, to embarrassment, to rejection, to all of these social things –
[0:22:16.0] BC: It’s interesting. Yeah.
[0:22:17.4] MB: - that it’s so easy to build up in your head.
[0:22:18.7] BC: For me, it was that curiosity that was the antidote for me, or the medicine, if you will. Because what I found happened to me, because I live in my head. I think many people do comes with that awkwardness of being shy, I think. I'm just always sussing out in my head what the other person is thinking and I'm thinking, “I'm sure there's no way they're ever going to want to talk to me, or they're going to think this question is stupid.”
I'm in my head and I'm not even listening to them. I had to once say stop, like that voice just drown, stop, but then did summon the curiosity, say it's not about what they think of me. What can I learn from them? Not just say, “What do you do? How are you? But what's interesting to you these days? What surprised you lately? What's your story?”
I mean, you have a certain amount of confidence to ask those questions, but you have much better conversations. Where did you grow up? Why'd you choose that? What's the best thing you've learned this year? Those were ways I got more of that courage and then confident, social confidence I think, because I just turned it out of my head and I wanted to learn. It was more what can I learn from them, as opposed to what am I saying about me.
[0:23:36.6] MB: In many ways, this this makes me think of another really interesting theme from the reinvention segment of the book, which is the idea of no is not yet. Tell me about that.
[0:23:45.8] BC: It's really setting this notion that I feel like I've encountered my whole career as somebody who's driven to find, make, champion change and innovate for new ways. There's gatekeepers and gatekeepers exist everywhere. By gatekeeper, I mean someone who protects the gate so you cannot get in here. They don't let you go through. You cannot pass, go. Who are gatekeepers? They exist everywhere. They exist in our own mind. This notion that I don't want a better way. I feel threatened by a better way, or imaginative thinking, or I have control. I'm just going to hang on to the control and the answer is no, you cannot do that.
I just started to realize that one, a lot of fear makes people act that way, or feeling of need of control. I also started realizing I had more power in those situations than I thought. I shared a story of I had a gatekeeper boss and he was a classic gatekeeper and I left my company, because I just thought he couldn't get around them. Over time, I developed this no is not yet resiliency when I realized – a story I was working at NBC and I went back and forth to NBC a couple of times, but I'd pitched this idea for the NBC experience store. I thought it was just fantastic. I pitched my boss and we did all our homework and he said, “No.”
Anyway, long story short, I pitched it three times. By the third time, he said yes. He looked at me and he said, “I wanted to say no, but you made it so darn hard, I have to say yes.” One, we made the idea better. That first time, that idea wasn't as good. He actually made us do our work. We made the idea better. Two, he was testing me and the team. Were we passionate enough about this to see it through? It wasn't the world's best idea, but were we committed to make it the best idea? He was testing us. I just can't tell you how many times I've seen that in the course of innovation work, where I see someone come in and pitch an idea. It could be C-suite of a company to somebody just starting out. They get told no and they go away and you never hear from them again.
You're like, “I thought you liked that idea? What happened?” Because they got no. To me, no is not yet. Keep testing it. Keep coming back. Okay, can't come back exactly the same way. Go do your homework. Get feedback. Come back. If you really believe it, keep pursuing it. That being said, you also have to have a strategy. If I was pitching NBC ice cream at the time, instead of the NBC experience store, that idea would not have been sound. NBC was never going to get in the ice cream business. Hopefully, I would have gotten feedback that said, “We're never going into the ice cream business.” There's also a bit of realism. Maybe if I wanted to create ice cream, I would I had to go somewhere else and I would have kept pushing it.
My point is a couple of things. My points are a couple things. One, is no really no. It usually isn't the first time. Test that if you're passionate about it. Don't wait for someone else's permission to act on your imagination. I mean, that's what I'm trying to say. In fact, I talk in the book and I use this with teams I worked with and even myself, this notion of give yourself a permission slip. It sounds so silly, but it's one of these little behavior hacks that I found works. You may recall from high school if you forged your mother's signature to get out of gym or chemistry or something, it's like that. I'm going to give myself permission to go back and try another – try it again. I'm going to give myself permission to go meet this person.
Just a little mental hack that says, “I'm committing to do this.” That's what you're doing, this notion of no is not yet. You're building up a resiliency. It may be that rejection therapy that you were talking about. It was my DIY way of getting to – overcoming rejection for the positive.
[0:27:38.8] MB: Yeah, I think they're very interrelated and connected in many ways. I thought the notion of the 3X rule was a really succinct way to think about it and realize that just because someone said no one time, doesn't necessarily mean you should give up. In fact, some of the richest, most exciting or interesting opportunities might come after several nos.
[0:27:59.7] BC: Yeah. I mean, to me, I supposed to work for one boss and I knew it would take me at least three times. One time, it took me about six years to get something launched. I remember once this colleague of mine, she looked at me and she's like, “You just don't give up, do you?” I don't think she meant it so positively, but I took it as a compliment. It was like, “I'm still here. I'm still believing in this.”
It's such as you on your own. Hopefully at that point six years later, or annoyingly later, you built people who also see that possibility. They've made it better. They've contributed. You've opened it up. You've built some momentum. That's a sign that you're onto something. If it's still just you out there on your own, it's a much harder way to build that resiliency and test those limits.
[0:28:46.0] MB: I think either way, the simple idea that just because you hear no one time doesn't mean you should give up is a very powerful notion.
[0:28:53.4] BC: Yeah, exactly. I think it's important for all of us, but it's hard to be told no. Do you believe it? To me, no is not yet. I hear it as an invitation. “No? Okay, I hear you. You're just saying not yet. Huh, okay, now how can I come back again in a way that they'll find it more – I can sell it better? Give me feedback. Let me go talk to somebody else. Let me do some more homework.” No, it's just not yet. Or the time could be wrong. I mean, how many times have we seen where you have a great idea, you're too early, or it's just the wrong time. I think some of those also requires you to be reflective and open to feedback and recognizing the fallacies of some of those things, so there's a humility in that as well.
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[0:31:04.6] MB: Let's change gears a little bit. I want to step into some of the other themes and ideas. Tell me about the notion of building bridges and not walls.
[0:31:13.2] BC: Yeah, well this is a hard one for me, because I think most people, when you fight for an idea or a different way, you get can be very tribal in your organizations. It's my marketing team against the product team, or it’s my town against your town, or whatever.
I didn't know this at the time but in looking back, I feel a way I built my career was as this outsider inside. I came from media into from NBC and to GE media, into this multi-industry company and industrial. I was a natural outsider. I came as a marketer in a tech company that had little appreciation, or even cared about what marketing did. I was a woman in a largely male engineering-oriented company. I was a creative person in this largely financing and engineering company. I had a lot of things that made me different.
I loved exploring outside and finding the trends and insights. I began to realize my role was as this outsider inside, the one who could bring the outside in and translate it in a way that the inside could understand, in language they could understand, then to build the bridges to that. What often happens when you're championing the new and I learned this very painfully is you become – you're trying to be the cool kid, the trendy one, the one who sees it first. People don't know what you're talking about. They feel excluded. It's your way versus their way, as opposed to trying to create the opportunity for joint discovery and learning together trying to solve a problem.
It's just me. It’s the backbone of what I learned in my career is somebody trying to push for new and different ways that be the cool kid is really a bad answer. Just because people need to change doesn't mean that they're bad, or that they have bad ideas and that they don't get it. Often, they have real criticisms that you need to understand. I found overtime and experience and confidence that really, my best success came from building those bridges, as opposed to building up the wall and saying, “You just don't get it, do you? I'm going to go do it on my own,” because it usually was never as good if the team and I did it on our own.
[0:33:40.1] MB: What were some of the strategies you use to get buy-in and to build those bridges as opposed to creating barriers?
[0:33:47.5] BC: Well, I'll use an example of what didn't work to get to what did work. In the book, I talk about agitated inquiry of a lot of the conflict that happens in organizations and anytime you're trying to go from the old to the new. I was at NBC at the arrival of digital media. This is when YouTube just came on the scenes. I was there. I came back from GE to lead digital media and it was very disruptive. People were afraid. I mean, they were cats playing the piano on YouTube. “Oh, my gosh. At one hand, that's cute. Hahaha.” “The other, it was really scary. We don't know how to do that.” People were very afraid.
I hired a lot of people from outside who had digital expertise. I was a marketer. I don't know digital technology. I depended on their expertise. Honestly, we set ourselves up as the cool kids. We knew the future. If you don't get it, you're just going to be left behind. Who wants to work with people like that? I think what we did a little bit but I could have done a lot more was create teams.
We ended up creating different streaming video services. One ended up being Hulu that was created out of the partnership outside of NBC, but we seeded it. I think what we could have done more of early in that is just found ways to build teams with the team forging the new and the team who have been doing it the traditional way. One, come together and say, “What problem are we trying to solve?” We're all trying to solve the same problem. Video streaming is coming. How are we going to do that successfully?
We could have shared resources better. Often in a case like that, you're fighting over who gets more budget to do what and you having to fund the new and yet the old thing makes more money for the company. Can we set up a special fund, a budget that is shared, so people don't feel they have to give something up to get something? Could we just spend time getting to know one another? I mean, these often sound goofy and work context of the bonding things you do, but it's important. Rather than fighting people about my idea or yours, or marketing versus sales.
Hey, they're real people. They have problems. I remember I talked about one leader I had real issues with. I lost sight of the fact he was a person even. We were just at war. It was his team against my team. I once was a friend of his and he was a great dad and he had been a cancer survivor. I lost the sense of humanity, even something as simple as like, “I could have taken him out for coffee,” as opposed to fighting in his office. What about instead saying, “Hey, this is dumb. Let's just go grab a cup of coffee. Let's cool off. I want to hear what's up with you.” You get caught up in the moment. You need to build those bridges.
Then the last thing I'd say that I found very effective in building those bridges were bringing in outsiders to provoke those conversations, so I didn't have to do it all the time, or so my team didn't have to do it, because they weren’t going to believe me anyway. Bring in an outsider with some expertise. I don't know, blockchain, Bitcoin is a good one in business right now. Are they going to listen to me who grew up in the company, or are they going to listen to somebody who's been investing or creating blockchain for a while and have them challenge him? That brings the team together. It's us against that. You're shifting your focus to the team together to that outside threat or disruption. Those would be a few of the things that I found helpful. I didn't do them all. I'm telling you, I learned them painfully. It's not like I know all those answers.
[0:37:12.5] MB: Really good strategies. It's so important to get buy-in from those around you. Oftentimes, the approach of direct confrontation is not the best strategy to do that.
[0:37:23.2] BC: It's not. I subscribe to this invite your critics in notion. It's really hard. I don't mean invite in just the total downers who hate everything. I mean, they're not helpful. The people who are critics, well they're smart, they're colleagues, why not ask them? Often, they just want to be heard. They have a different way. I found that they can become your best advocates. They can contribute the best ideas. One, they've been heard and they're just looking at it from a different perspective.
Again, in the heat of that, “Oh, God. I'm going to do it my way,” you lose that perspective. I think a lot of what I'm talking about this imagine it forward framework is just open up your aperture, open your imagination and let other perspectives in.
[0:38:11.9] MB: I want to dig into more into this idea of agitated inquiry that you touched on earlier and how to invite critics in the right way to beat up your ideas.
[0:38:22.4] BC: Well, I think one, you just have to say I need help. Hey, I find this a lot where I've done it, where you have a great idea you think, but you don't want to share it yet because you're afraid if you share it that somebody's going to steal it. Or maybe you're not going to get credit. If you do, you're not going to get credit for it. You hoard things.
I got feedback. One of the more formative feedback sessions I ever had was this exact point where people – my colleagues said in a 360 evaluation, they said good things about me, but I only really cared about the negative things. It was this. It was like, “Hey, you don't ask for help. You go at it alone.” You have to have everything perfect. They were right. I felt really stressed about having to have all the answers. When you start to realize that you got to invite in feedback the good and the bad, that criticism really stung.
I remember the HR coach who I had. It was an HR person at my company who gave me the feedback. He said, “Look, you got to get in there with your team. You got to say to them, feedback and criticism heard and accepted. I'm going to work to do better, but I need your help.” Although it was the hardest thing I ever had to do, but it worked. I feel it unlocked such a new path for me in my career in my life. I think that's part of that agitated inquiry is you're inviting feedback.
One of the hardest questions I adopted and I ended up liking in the course of business was tell me something I don't want to hear, and that's what happened at that 360. Tell me something I don't want to hear. Because usually I need to hear it and I probably know it's true, but I'm just avoiding it. I think that really harsh feedback in business it's important. Maybe your competitors are already doing it. Maybe your idea is just not that good.
I also think agitated inquiry of the inquiry part is about asking questions. It's that what we said earlier, it's not just saying questions to prove how right you are, it's questions to learn. What problem are we trying to solve? I found that was a great way to bring dueling, feuding teams back together. Are we even talking about the same problem at this point? Let's go back and reframe the problem. Are we agreed on that? Let's name it. Maybe we even name it something really silly, so we can all laugh at it and have fun with it. Again, you're just forcing a different perspective and refreshing the framework a bit. Those are things that I've found helpful to open yourself up to the agitation and the inquiry.
[0:41:00.9] MB: It's so important, because oftentimes we try to protect ourselves, we try to protect our ideas, even our own egos. By trying to hide from negative feedback or things that we disagree with, we're harming ourselves, we’re harming the quest for the best ideas and the best solutions.
[0:41:18.2] BC: Well, you said an important word there, Matt. I think the ego thing is a big part of it. If you really believe the idea, if you really believe in a better way, it's because you're trying to solve a problem. You see a need. You see something better. Ask yourself, “Is it really because it's my idea I want credit, or I want this to happen?” I had to learn that. Even still, we all want credit. We all want people think we're brilliant and smart and we come up with the good ideas.
Over the course of my career, I started to realize that the best ideas are shared because they really are. It's not just about getting the credit. Do you really want that to happen? The credit usually follows. People know if you were the instigator, the collaborator, the convener. If you do it enough times, people know. They start to come to you. “Hey, you’re always contributing to an idea. You always make an idea better. You always ask me for help. I'm going to come and ask you for help, so we can do this together.” I guarantee, it is a more successful path, even though at times you work with people, you’re friends with people who take all the credit you think, “Ah.” That’s not to say don't toot your own horn when you've done something well. I'm not trying to say that, but I think that word ego and my idea is something to really interrogate if you feel that in yourself.
[0:42:39.3] MB: This idea dovetails in many ways with another key point that you wrote about, which is the notion of acknowledging reality.
[0:42:46.6] BC: Yeah. I mean, I talk about it in a sense of magical thinking. Boy, I subscribe to it. I think organizations and work situations, you just start believing a version of the truth that you want it to be. You're not being truthful about maybe your competitive position, about what your strengths really are, about what your weaknesses are really holding you back. That's why that agitated inquiry you’re – tell me something I don't want to know, I don't want to hear.
You got to sometimes. Doesn't mean you have to always accept it, because maybe it's not right for your strategy, but that reality check, I've seen so many teams – you’re just almost like a superstition that takes over of if we change the way we're doing it, we'll never be successful. I saw this a lot with sales teams I work with; the lucky sales sweater. Or I worked with somebody who always wear yellow socks on the day of the big deal.
On one hand, that was great, because it gave them a sense of confidence and an optimism they felt needed. Okay, fine. It also can sometimes prevent people from trying things differently, or trying a different way to say maybe just because I was wearing the yellow socks, I'm still not effective, right? Anyway, I think you have to again, interrogate that and understand where it's coming from. I'm not wearing yellow socks.
[0:44:13.1] MB: You raise a great point, which is this notion of we often delude ourselves into thinking things, or the way that we want them to be, or the way that they “should be,” instead of the way that they truly are. That's often a dangerous place to be.
[0:44:28.0] BC: It is. I'm speaking too, as a marketer. To me, marketing is about making the market, living in the market. It's often shaping a market in business. Meaning, here's a vision, so we did with clean tech. Here's a vision, a cleaner future for industry. Now we have to shape, make it, shape it.
There is a part of that magical thinking, that exuberant optimism that's required to create things that don't exist. You have to see it before it's real. I think again, it's critical thinking to say, “Am I seeing things that are opportunities that can actually I can shape, or am I hanging on to something that's a superstition, or just a comfortable way of viewing it and it's preventing me from going forward?” I want to be clear. I think I think there are shades of similar thinking, but one's a more successful path forward than the other obviously.
[0:45:23.5] MB: That makes me think of another interesting idea that you wrote about, which is this notion of going boldly into the unknown. Tell me more about that.
[0:45:32.7] BC: I open the book with me talking about my divorce, which is not the way one would expect you to open a business book. Probably, I’m the only one who has ever opened a business book that way and it's really a very different book because of that. I'm very personal in it. I'm sharing my own stories. I talk about being in my mid-20s, my career just started and I was married and it just had a young daughter. I felt I was living a story that wasn't the story that I wanted my life to be. It wasn't what I was imagining the future would – how the future would unfold.
I got a divorce and decided to move forward as a young single mother just as my career was taking off. I had no idea what I was getting into. I mean, in some respects now I’m much older with that looking back, I would have probably advised me not to do it. I had to. I had to take hold of my own story. I had to create my path. I had to. I didn't have a roadmap. There wasn't a checklist someone gave me. I used that, because to me that was one of the defining moments of my life and explain it. It influenced me in business in the sense of I've been here before.
You have to make it work in some semblance of work. I had to make a life at work. I had responsibilities. I had to find a work path that would work for me and my daughter. You don’t have all the answers. If you're waiting for the perfect time, you're waiting for the perfect situation, it's not going to happen.
I was recently on a flight and the flight got delayed as most of us can commiserate with. The pilot came out and he said, “Okay, some bad news and some good news. The good news is we’re cleared to fly. The bad news is our autopilot went out. I am assertive. I'm certified to fly without autopilot. I'm one of the few pilots left in this airline who can do that. I'm so excited. I love flying this plane. I'm going to get you home well, but I'm really excited about this.”
I think that's it, right? I mean one, we felt comforted because he had experience, but are you on autopilot, or are you going to get out there and figure it out? This bold could be very relative. It could be very small or very big depending on your tolerance. Usually, there is no checklist. There is no rulebook. There is no this step, that step when you're navigating change. Take off the autopilot and just go for it. That is what I'm trying to say.
[0:48:00.7] MB: Another idea that I really liked was this notion of constraints being necessary for creativity. Tell me a little bit about that.
[0:48:08.2] BC: Well, back to that no is not yet, I also encountered and for myself as well just people all of us who feel like, “Uh, I don't have enough time, budget, staff, team, I don't have help, so I can't do that.” I've often found the most creativity comes from very tight constraints. If you grow a business, you need more money clearly. This notion of just constraints; I like the idea of freedom within a framework. You're very clear about here's the framework of our strategy of what we're trying to do. But within that, got to town. Be creative.
Often, you probably don't need as much money as you think. Let's say you're dreaming of building a business and you think you have to go Silicon Valley. You don't. If you live in Nashville, Boston, Austin, Portland, Maine or Oregon, often you can just start where you are. You don't have to wait for this, “I need funding. I need a VC to give me money.” Whatever it is, just start. Just start. See if you can get some traction. I guarantee you, you can just start some things. Now it's not to say at some point you don't, but it's a challenge to just say, “What if I don't need as much time as I think I do? What if actually I control the time and I can give myself more time? Who am I waiting to tell me it's okay?”
Again, it's just a simple concept of is it a constraint really, or are you just afraid to challenge it? Is it an artificial alibi if you know to hold you back? It is a real constraint, then challenge yourself to say how am I going to creatively solve this? I guarantee it's a good way to test your creative problem-solving.
[0:49:48.9] MB: For listeners who are listening to this interview and want to concretely implement or execute on one of the ideas that we've talked about today, what would be one action step or piece of homework that you would give them to implement some of the things we've discussed?
[0:50:03.2] BC: I'm going to give you two, because I think one is just ask yourself what's one thing you want to move forward on? It can be very small; you want to meet somebody, you want to test an idea, you want to write a poem, I don't know. Ask yourself what's holding you back? Give yourself – seriously get out that permissions slip, just write, “I Matt Bodnar, give myself permission to write this poem. As crappy, horrible, messy as it's going to be. I'm going to do it.” Just do it. It's just that simple.
You're not asking yourself to be Maya Angelou. You're just saying, “I'm going to go do this.” That would be my challenge. What are you going to give yourself permission to take a risk on a small step? It could be significant only to you. That would get it, how behavior change starts, one small step, one small piece of courage that you're putting in your pocket for later and remember, “Hey, I did that. I did that.” Next time, you're going to pull out of your pocket and do it again. That's what it takes. Just start.
[0:51:07.5] MB: For listeners who want to find you and your work online, what's the best place for them to do that?
[0:51:13.1] BC: I do quite a bit on social media, so you can find me in any of the social platform, especially I do a lot of back-and-forth engagement on LinkedIn. I'm on all of them; Twitter, LinkedIn, Instagram, Facebook. I think that's probably the best place to go, it's @BethComstock is the best way to do the search.
[0:51:29.6] MB: Well Beth, thank you so much for coming on the show for sharing all these insights and all this wisdom with our audience.
[0:51:35.9] BC: Well, thanks for having me. I really appreciate the focus of what you're trying to do with your podcast. Thanks for having me as part of it. It really is – we have the power. We have the agency to make some of this change and it's exciting to hear that you're trying to drive that awareness.
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