Adam Bryant conducts interviews of senior-level executives that appear in his “Corner Office” column each week in the SundayBusiness section of The New York Times. Here are a few insights provided during an interview of Beth Comstock, vice chairwoman of General Electric. She is convinced, “Leadership is about navigating tension. Tension is actually good.” To read the complete interview, check out other articles, and obtain subscription information, please click here
Photo credit: Todd Heisler/The New York Times
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What were your early years like?
I grew up in Winchester, Va., which is a small town in the Shenandoah Valley. My father was a local dentist, and my mother was a teacher. So community was a big part of our upbringing. I mostly just hung around the neighborhood and did imaginative play with the kids. It was like a big team.
My mother was always called the unofficial mayor of Winchester because she’s very outgoing, and everybody in town knows her, and she knows everybody. So it was the kind of upbringing where everybody looks out for everybody else. And that was good and bad. If you did something you weren’t supposed to be doing, your parents usually knew about it before you even finished it.
How have your parents influenced your leadership style?
My parents are very different. My father is very reserved, very creative, a quiet person. By nature, I’m probably more that way. My mother is very outgoing. If you sit next to my mother on a plane, she’ll know your life story. Whenever we wanted to know something, we went to my mother to do the reconnaissance.
So I feel more comfortable in the more introverted, reserved kinds of roles, but I also saw the ease with which my mother could make friends. I could not do that early in my career, but I see both of those things in myself now. I identify more as an introverted person, and I’ve had to really work through my career to not let that hold me back. And I’ve grown much more comfortable with that influence of my mother, of just really liking people and delighting in hearing their stories.
How do you feel being introverted was potentially holding you back?
There were times in a work setting that I wasn’t being heard. I’d leave a meeting, and I’d be thinking, ugh, I didn’t speak up. So I’d start to feel like I wasn’t able to contribute like I wanted, and I had to force myself out of it.
What were some early leadership lessons for you?
Early on, I wasn’t confident, and I’m sure that showed. I probably asked a lot of questions that started with, “Would you …? Could you …? Might you think about …?”
There was probably a tentativeness about me. But I also remember being very impatient about wanting things to go faster in my career, and wanting people to move faster.
I’ve also had to learn to ask for help, rather than waiting until everything is perfectly done. Sometimes you feel like you can’t put an idea out there until you’ve looked at it from every angle, as opposed to saying, “Here’s a seed of an idea, help me make it better.” In those early days, I was afraid to put something out there if it wasn’t totally baked and perfect.
Being part of collaborative teams, I’ve come to appreciate the power of them a lot more than I did early on. When you get the teamwork right, it’s like magic because everybody has a role. You’re different, but you come together and you have a mission.
Those are the things I really love about work. When it hasn’t worked, it’s because the team hasn’t been right. The dynamics aren’t right.
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To read the complete interview as well as Bryant’s interviews of other executives, please click here.
Adam Bryant, deputy national editor of The New York Times, oversees coverage of education issues, military affairs, law, and works with reporters in many of the Times’ domestic bureaus. He also conducts interviews with CEOs and other leaders for Corner Office, a weekly feature in the SundayBusiness section and on nytimes.com that he started in March 2009. In his book, The Corner Office: Indispensable and Unexpected Lessons from CEOs on How to Lead and Succeed, (Times Books), he analyzes the broader lessons that emerge from his interviews of hundreds of business leaders. To read an excerpt, please click here. To contact him, please click here.