GE's Beth Comstock On How Women Can Thrive In The 'Emergent Era'

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“The emergent era impacts the future of work because you are already seeing the rise of the gig economy and hiring a person for a task. You will be able to tap into a global brain and intellect. You can start to think about hiring people based on a specific challenge. In many ways that is fantastic for gender diversity because it is so blind,” says Beth Comstock, Vice Chair of General Electric.

Comstock is the first female to hold the position of Vice Chair at General Electric and oversees Business Innovations. She says organizations are entering an 'emergent era', where rapid changes in technology, information and systems provide unique opportunities for women to excel.

In this interview, Comstock shares how jobs are changing and why women need to embrace uncertainty in order to succeed.

Michelle King: Can you share what the 'emergent era' is and how this is changing the world of work?  

 

Beth Comstock: Everywhere I go I hear people saying, ‘Wow things are changing so fast.’ We are looking at technology globalization. My colleagues often say that when this is over we can focus, but the reality is it is never going to be over. Change has always been a part of who we are but now it is much faster. Our leaders are used to the constant state of flux but now it is about making sense of that change because it is not going to get any better.

King: How will this change the way we work? 

Comstock: Technology is more distributed so we can get out of the office and work. Organizations, the ones that have had the command and control processes, well they are gone or going. It is about how you then organize around more distributed packets of information. Or more distributed capabilities. 

If you are leading a team unless you are doing something with a very sophisticated piece of equipment, more than likely you are not going to have a checklist. Jobs will allow people to figure it out. The need for creativity, critical thinking and ethics are starting to rise as we see more machine learning and more artificial intelligence.

King: How is this changing inclusive workplace practices?

Comstock: With the pace of change and so many new things emerging you are going to need people who have exceptional capabilities. Teams that have only the same capabilities, like just a team of lawyers or engineers are not going to do that well. It is about bringing in different people in with different kinds of capabilities.

 

There is a lot of talk these days about neurodiversity and looking at just how people’s brains are wired in different ways. You see companies like Microsoft hiring people with autism or who are on the autism spectrum because they bring new capabilities to the workforce. We are going to have to adapt our systems to people (not the other way around).

King: How is this going to impact men and women differently?

Comstock: In some ways, these global challenges will allow anyone from anywhere to compete, which means you are going to have to be really good. We need to make sure we fill a pipeline of the right diverse skills so that people who have those skills get to build an algorithm or solve the challenge.  I do think in a more networked age; women are wired slightly differently and have had to juggle things in a different way. Our skills are more attuned to networking in a more distributed way and I think that is going to benefit us in the coming age.

King: You have said that to ‘survive and thrive’ we must get comfortable with uncertainty. What is your advice for millennial women as to how to do this?

Comstock: I think some people do like uncertainty, or are ok with not knowing the answers. If you are in an organization and are comfortable with that then raise your hand. Take on an assignment that is not well developed. I think those are the opportunities for the most growth.

I would encourage young women to take on those assignments that no one else sees as an opportunity. Define them and show value out of them. If you are a person that likes a lot of instruction then force yourself to get out of your comfort zone. Challenge yourself to feel uncomfortable.

King: You have mentioned on social media the importance of not trying to be perfect and rather just being yourself. Is this really about embracing uncertainty?

Comstock: It is about putting yourself out to the market rather than knowing the answer. It is about saying this is where I think it is going and then asking for input so that you can make it better. I think that is what the future is about. It is collaborating with more people to get there faster and realizing you don’t have all the answers.

King: What is your advice for how millennial women can position themselves to take full advantage of these changes?

Comstock: Most people relate to people who are trying to get better. I think when you put yourself out there as not fully formed, you are inviting people to help you get there. So ask for help.

I am also a big believer in this idea of job crafting. No one has the perfect job despite what they put in LinkedIn. You have to be very entrepreneurial no matter what. Jobs that often look like they are not going to be interesting, trust your gut if you have a passion for it - start to create and shape it. You have to be entrepreneurial to make it.