Define the Journey 91
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 market-
ing talent and build new capabilities. Comstock was brought
on as the first CMO in decades. GE marketers established
a marketing-led innovation portfolio and process across
GE that creates between $2 and $3 billion a year in new
revenue. Through this effort, GE defined marketing inno-
vation as a necessary partner for technical and product
Comstock delivered the presentation featured on the next
few pages 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 cred-
ible and transparent. She once even shared how previous
innovation. Marketers were a critical part of the team that
drove 8 to 10 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 compa-
nies 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.
GE CEO Jack Welch called her only to hang up the phone
midsentence. 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.
Comstock is a natural at communicating contrast. The setup
of her presentation is below. The content has been edited on
the following pages into a “move from,” “move to,” “benefit,”
and “personalized story” matrix so you can see the brilliant,
underlying structure she inherently used.
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