Learn more about creating persuasive presentations in the multimedia version of Resonate by Nancy Duarte.

Showing the Benefit of Change

As one of the largest corporations in the world, General Electric views innovation as a prize commodity. It is in a constant state of flux due to the tension that arises between what is and what could be, as employees seek to solve the problems of today while imagining the innovations that will shape tomorrow. One aspect of this process is that old innovations are often destroyed to make room for new ones.

Communicating within this atmosphere of innovative tension isn’t always easy. Chief Marketing Officer, Beth Comstock, has led a team that has navigated this territory effectively. Many of Comstock’s presentations address the contrast of what is versus what could be.

Comstock delivered presentations to persuade her sales and marketing team that “growth in a downturn” is possible (notice the contrast even in her title). She wanted to move her team from the defeatist mindset of a downturn (what is) to believing they could innovate in a downturn (what could be). It’s common for her presentations to address the theme of navigating through the tension of innovation.

Comstock sprinkles her communication with personal stories of risk, frailty, and victories, which makes her credible and transparent. She once even shared how previous GE CEO, Jack Welch, called her only to hang up the phone mid- sentence. When Comstock called his assistant, she was told, “He’s teaching you a lesson—that’s how you come across sometimes.” It was a stark lesson about leading and coaching with humor.

Growth in a Downturn?

Jeff Immelt took over as CEO of GE in 2001 with a strategy to grow the company from within, while investing more in technology/innovation, global expansion, and customer relationships. To make this happen, GE needed a stronger marketing organization to sit beside technology, sales, and the regional business leaders. For decades, GE was so confident in its products that it believed the products could practically market themselves. Then, a collective awakening occurred: seasoned marketers could push GE to go more places, organize technologies to accomplish new feats, and help point the company in the direction of even more sales.

GE set an aggressive course in 2003 to double its marketing talent and build new capabilities. Comstock was the first CMO in decades. GE marketers established a marketing-led innovation portfolio and process across GE that creates between $2 and $3 billion dollars a year in new revenue. Through this effort, GE defined marketing innovation as a necessary partner for technical and product innovation. Marketers were a critical part of the team that drove eight to ten percent organic growth, more than double the historic rate.

But by 2008, a global economic crisis was wreaking havoc on growth rates and changing customer behavior. What happens when growth stalls? Was it time for GE to cut marketing? The decision was just the opposite. Marketing needed to be valued as a function for all seasons.

Comstock was inspired by research conducted by Harvard Business School’s Ranjay Gulati. Gulati observed that companies that relentlessly focus on the customer and invest more in the pipeline in a downturn can expect to stay ahead for up to five years after recovery. Now, that gets your attention!

GE’s goal in 2008 was to stay focused on growth, no matter how tough the environment. GE needed to plant seeds so it would be poised when recovery happened. That meant investing in new opportunities and encouraging new ideas.

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