No Bullsh*t Leadership featuring Beth Comstock

By Charmaine Niewerth // 29 October 2020

On 6th October Founders Forum, in collaboration with Havas Creative and Intelligence Squared, hosted an exclusive FF Live podcast recording on No Bullsh*t Leadership. Hosted by Chris Hirst, Global CEO of Havas Creative, each episode features headline-hitting figures and cuts through the bullsh*t to get to the heart of modern leadership.

For this episode, we were delighted to welcome the formidable Beth Comstock in a free flowing conversation on leadership and being a female leader in a male dominated industry. Beth spent three decades at General Electric as Chief Marketing Officer and then Vice Chair of Innovation, where she led efforts to accelerate new growth, develop digital and clean-energy futures, seed new businesses and enhance brand value. Today, Beth sits on the board of Nike Inc and is the author of Imagine it Forward, a book about courage and creativity in the face of change.

A special thank you to our partners Havas Creative.

Introverts v extroverts

“Business is this extrovert arena, so it does tend to favour outgoing people… While I’m not naturally extroverted, there were times when I had to step outside of what was comfortable to me and play in that arena” – Beth Comstock

Introverts make great leaders because they listen, but are often missed out due to the dominating nature of extroverts in business. To overcome this: 

  • Prep introverts so they have a chance to speak in meetings. “Say to introverts – heads up, I’m going to ask you about X, Y and Z in this meeting (to help include them)”
  • After the meeting, say to them “hey, perhaps you didn’t get to speak here but I’d love to hear your thoughts, maybe you want to send me a note?” – introverts are good observers and will often pick up on missed points 
  • If you’re an introvert, go into every meeting having done your homework. What are two or three points you want to note/ questions you want to ask, so if the team manager calls on you, you don’t say “I don’t have anything” and miss an opportunity.

An Era Defining Tragedy

“Look at this as one of those defining moments of a leader’s history that you can point to…  how did they come out of Covid? It’s defining their story and their strategy in that reaction” – Beth Comstock

Covid-19 is an era defining tragedy, but it has also given us practice in thinking through alternate scenarios:

  • See this period as an opportunity – we have been forced to imagine a world previously unimaginable and this broadens our minds to new possibilities
  • Right now is time to mourn for a lost world, but also prepare for a new one; too often leaders think “we’ll just get through this and then we’ll go back to what we were doing”, but this is no longer possible
  • This crisis has accelerated change across all industries: “you have to adapt and embrace change as the momentum you need to navigate change”

Storytelling as a key part of leadership

“[Telling] a story is part of your job, it is what a good leader knows and does… You have to make a story relevant, you’re trying to connect… A story is best when other people can be a part of it” – Beth Comstock

All CEOs and leaders should be good storytellers, but many don’t give it the time or the attention it deserves:

  • Appreciate that telling stories is part of your job, it’s what a good leader knows and does implicitly
  • Think about stories you’re passionate about, practice with your family, seek out coaches or individuals who will hone your ability to tell a story
  • A story is a narrative built around key points: where have you been and where are you going? Help us understand how you’re going to get there. Why are you leading this?
  • Stories can serve as an aspiration: “I’m trying to be …. And here’s how I’m trying to do that”. Ask people to help you reach your goal – a story is best when other people can be a part of it

Leadership & Vulnerability

“It takes a very humble leader to say ‘I don’t know the answer'” – Beth Comstock

Vulnerability is a vital characteristic for modern leaders and all professionals:

  • There is an opportunity for honesty with teams and colleagues – a leader doesn’t always have to have all the answers
  • It should be easy for a Politician to say “I don’t know for sure. Here’s a hypothesis, we’ll go down this path and if we’re proven wrong then we’ll pivot”, but few do due to a lack of vulnerability
  • There are times as a leader you can withhold some key information to keep the team going, but at the same time realise there are enough data points out there to keep you going
  • Being afraid to say “I don’t understand” gets in the way of good business. If you don’t know what a word, phrase or concept means, ask whoever is speaking to define it – often many other people won’t know what it means either

You can find the full podcast recording on Spotify or wherever you enjoy your podcasts. The No Bullsh*t Leadership series is produced by Intelligence Squared, the leading forum for live, agenda-setting debates and discussions around the world. With 20,000 podcast listeners each month, their aim is to promote a global conversation that enables people to make informed decisions about the issues that matter, in the company of the world’s greatest minds and orators.