Linda Boff, cmo, ge
MASTERY OF STORYTELLING
Nadine: 00:00 Hi everyone, welcome to CMO Moves today. We're here with Linda Boff, who's the CMO of GE. Linda, thanks so much for joining me.
Linda: 00:08 It's so great to be on. Thanks, Nadine.
Nadine: 00:12 Yeah, you know actually, I owe this podcast pretty much all to you, because I remember us chatting a few months ago, especially as we were putting together the ANA CMO Talent Challenge Playbook, and you said, “Well we really need to do a podcast here,” and voila, here we go.
Linda: 00:29 Here we go. So I guess I better make this one a pretty good while I'm here, otherwise, I'm not going to live up to my own expectations of what this could be, but you know, I love podcasts. I mean, you and I had talked about this. I've done an internal podcast here at GE, for marketers, and gotten a really good response. There's something about podcasting I think that's casual, and intimate, and fun. So I'm really glad I ran around with the idea.
Nadine: 00:54 Well, yes, absolutely. Thanks for that. It's been a ton of fun getting this going, and I'm so happy you could be on the show. So tell me, what was the focus of the podcast that you did? I'm just curious.
Linda: 01:08 Yeah, sure. So when I became CMO at GE, about two and a half years ago, and you know, I think what I was looking to do was to bring both internal voices and external voices to the greater marketing community here, and I decided to sort of embrace a real eclectic nature, so I had entrepreneurs that GE works with, I had thought leaders, people who were looking at marketing from a data point of view, or creative point of view, or fellow CMOs. Kristin Lemkau was on, at one point, on people talking about voice technology and then I sort of interchanged that with people within GE that we're just doing great work that I thought others should know about. So I used it as, I guess I would say storytelling around different topics for different shows, and a wide diversity of people, points of view, and backgrounds. I think I, yeah, I think it's suited to the world we live in today.
Nadine: 02:16 Absolutely. And is that an available to people outside of GE, or is that for the GE employee base?
Linda: 02:22 You know, it's a great question. I push some of them on SoundCloud and if it's helpful, I can send you a link, and maybe this podcast can link out to that if you will. So for, I'd say, maybe thirty percent of them, they were available on SoundCloud.
Nadine: 02:39 Oh that's great. Yeah, I'd love to listen to them, because I know that when we were putting together your case study for that playbook, you'd mentioned how you do a lot of thought leadership and partnership sharing to really bring in new thinking. And it sounds like that is a common theme for you, to how to bring great people together to get some new innovative thinking.
Linda: 03:01 Oh thanks, like to think so. I mean, I wouldn't be in the role I'm in today without the, kind of, the ability to connect dots externally and internally. I've been really fortunate in the people that I've met, inside and outside the company, and been able to bring in. So, you know, this goes back to four or five years ago, maybe even six or seven years ago, starting a Digital Advisory Board here at GE to bring points of view on that we would not necessarily be exposed to. It's funny how we want a big company, and we're a big company, you know, nearly three hundred thousand people, with lots of different views. Sometimes you can forget the outside views. So, in starting the Digital Advisory Board, my hope was to just bring the kinds of voices of people who would not necessarily come to work at a place like GE, but do have a lot of love and passion for what we were doing. So, you know, perhaps it has been a bit of a theme is just pulling those outside voices.
Nadine: 04:05 And, when you were thinking about your career early on, did you look to the outside for influence where there are people who shaped your thinking that led you to be a CMO, or did that just sort of happen organically?
Linda: 04:18 You know, I'd have to say it was more organic. I mean, look, I have always had people who I admire, sometimes even obsess a little bit about, that I have tried to, I don't know if I would say, Nadine, model my career on them, but I've tried to channel their thinking and it's, it's been such a, such a wide range, you know, I mean, Scott Heiferman who started Meetup I think, is, has had great wisdom. Seth Godin, you know, tremendous wisdom. So, you know, there are people that I've watched how they've built what they do, and I guess I don't think of it so much as a, as career building is thought building, and I think that's been incredibly influential and helpful to me. But I have to confess, early on in my career, if somebody had said, you know, “What do you want to be when you grow up?” I think I would've just said, “Hey, I want to do what I'm doing really well, and then I want to take on the next challenge,” versus, you know, “Here's the end goal.” And to this day, I don't think of it that way in terms of “Okay,” you know, “I'm doing this now in order to do what's next.” I just want to do this as well, if not better, than anybody else can.
Nadine: 05:43 That's great. And when you first started in your career, were you in marketing, or did you somehow get there because you developed a love for something?
Linda: 05:53 Yeah, so I don't know that I could spell marketing the first day of my career. I'm in college. I was a radio disc jockey of a teeny little college station. It's probably why I love podcasting, and it goes all the way back to my radio days. I did a bunch of internships on radio. I went to work. My very first job was at on ABC Radio Networks, so I loved this medium. I'm going to call it desk because I really think podcasting is obviously, you know, so, so related in terms of voice and intimacy and, you know, communicating through audio, but I was really interested in, sort of, the, I guess I'd call it the bigger discipline, if you will, of just how behavior and marketing communications connects. I was a psychology major, and I've always been interested in what we'll call marketing now, but from the point of view of what people are doing and how to influence them, and I don't know at the time, in my early, early career days started in radio, then went to a communications agency, ultimately an advertising agency, publishing, and then more into the corporate side, financial services, and then GE. I don't know that I would have articulated it is as marketing. I was just fascinated in how you influence people's behavior.
Nadine: 07:28 Wow. So, you know, we've had a lot of discussions about the quote role of marketing and what a CMO actually does, and it has changed a lot. It varies by, I would say, industry to industry, but company to company. How would you define your role today? What are the key things that you think you are responsible for as Chief Marketing Officer of GE?
Linda: 07:52 Yeah, I'm going to make it really simple. I think it is making sure that our great brand, GE, comes to life in ways that are contextual, relevant, contemporary to the audiences that matter to us, and that we take an end-market, a customer-backed approach to marketing. And that we are creating as seamless and delightful and experience for our customers as we possibly can.
Nadine: 08:31 That's wonderful. And I am so impressed with how much you have invested in not just your customer, but your employee base. I think you said you spend about a billion dollars a year in training at GE.
Linda: 08:46 So yeah, look, this is a big GE commitment. This goes well, well beyond marketing. So GE has, for decades, perhaps its whole history, but certainly for decades, really focused on leadership and culture, and I think it's paid off on in the sense that, you know, we train people, not in an academic sense, so perhaps you could think of it that way, but we've got a tremendous learning center, literally a physical location north of New York City where people take, you know, day-long, week-long, three-week long classes. I'm a beneficiary of having been sort of at every level of that, including, you know, maybe four years ago, my last class, which was a three-week class around the world to study a customer centricity. So, we're big believers in learning, and sometimes that's digital, sometimes that's bringing people together, and I think it's kind of a hallmark of being a leader at GE, which is thinking hard about where you are on your leadership journey, how much are you listening. I think as you get further along as a leader, you know, hopefully you're listening and empowering a lot more than telling and doing. You're creating the, the bandwidth, the runway, for your teams to be able to be successful, and setting a vision, but not, you know, and it's hard for me. I like to get my hands dirty, very much, but you also have to know when to get out of the way.
Nadine: 10:30 Yeah. And you know, my passion is definitely around the culture, especially in the inside culture, because it comes back to what you're talking about, which is influence, and providing opportunity, and helping people connect emotionally to what they're doing. And so I know you're a big champion of that, as well. Yeah. How do you think about the brand as it relates to how you can help all of your employees around the world better connect to the brand?
Linda: 11:04 You know, it's a really good question. You know, our brand, for 125 years, has stood for invention, engagement, figuring out what the world needs, and literally inventing it, as Thomas Edison said famously long, long ago, and I'd say in the last fifteen years, our brand has become more global, much, much more global, more focused on technology, software, and hardware. So to answer your question, like how do we connect that back, you know, I think a lot of it is being a brand that is human and accessible, frankly in defiance, a little bit of being a very big company. Some would call us a conglomerate. And I, the, think the anecdote to that is being human is being a, a, a brand that people can actually relate to, you know, we often say that GE has, is to love us. So as a brand, we try to always reveal the people here, what they're working on, and what they're working on is usually remarkably fascinating. It might be 3D printing a jet engine part. It might be assembling a heavy duty gas turbine. It might be helping to cure cancer through our life sciences group. So, we try to reveal who we are. That's number one. I'd say the second thing is, you know, we were founded by an inventor, Edison, and so we've got this DNA of experimentation as part of who we are, and we tried, I think, to bring that to life in our marketing, experimenting on different platforms. I'm experimenting with different forms of storytelling, and in a lot of ways, the way we go to market is as much about who our brand is as what we say.
Nadine: 13:03 And I love what you said in the case study that we wrote together even, it's in the title, it's turning the impossible unimpossible. And if you think about some of the things that you've done along the way in your career, what are maybe one or two examples, uh, where you said, wow, if I wouldn't have tried that or taken that risk, I never would have gotten this reward. I think, you know, the bold moves that you've made to get to where you are today.
Linda: 13:34 Yeah. You know, it's funny, because I'm going to give you some examples, and I don't know that they're going to sound like the giant, bold moves that I think they laid the groundwork for. But I think what happens is when you experiment, and you give people runway, and you give yourself permission, it snowballs. So, you know, for me, it's things as simple as, you know, allowing one or two of our, of our agency folks to go wild, completely unfettered, really with almost no brief, to visit our facilities, get to know our people, climb wind turbines, hang out, and have a beer at night with some of the people that worked at GE, and chronicle their adventures on a blog called GE Adventure Series. I don't know, you know, Nadine, in the beginning, maybe two people read it. But what it turned into was this little story telling treasure trove that I think gave us the courage to say, “Wow, there are stories right under our nose, and we've got to be brave enough to tell them, and we've got to find our voice.” And I think as a brand, you know, particularly a venerable brand, you know, how do you make what's reverent and turn it into what's relevant. And for us, that was truly a journey into finding our voice, giving ourselves permission to embrace our own interestingness, and not, you know, get caught up as to whether what we are doing is cool or not, because it was so inherently interesting to us. So, I'd say, you know, that's one small story. Another is just knowing when to say yes to things, you know, whether it's saying yes when somebody six years ago had an idea and said, wouldn't it be great if GE had amazing big ass machines on Instagram, and being smart enough to say yes, that somebody had an idea to do that, or saying yes when twitter launched vine. And we went up that day with a six second science experiments and kind of let people generate their own content. So to me, sometimes the greatest thing I can do is have the courage to say yes when people I trust have an idea, and there isn't yet a pathway forward. But knowing that we have the courage of our brand, and the courage of knowing or trusting our people, trusting my people.
Nadine: 16:26 And that's a fantastic couple of examples, and all about embracing this gray. Everybody's using that term right now. Let's embrace the gray. And it's really that time. I mean, it is wonderful to see people taking risks and moving forward in directions, even if they don't know where they're going yet, because eventually, it should work itself out. As you go through this process, you've touched so many different parts of the entire marketing engine, if you will, everything from the way it works, to the storytelling, to the partners. What do you think is next for marketers?
Linda: 17:05 So, I'd say, it's a couple of times, you know, we've, I feel so good about the work GE has done in terms of storytelling, and there's no past tense there, because that will continue. And I really believe that if you want to sell, you have to serve. And to do that, you have to be great storytellers. People fall in love with the brand, and the brand opens the door and then they buy. All that being said, as marketeers, we must be more data-lead, more insight-led. There's no longer a reason or excuse not to know everything that is knowable out there. So, we're spending more time, and every marketer I talk to is spending more time on how we can reach the people that we want to reach, one by one, how we can use media, not necessarily programmatically, but at least for us, in a very targeted way. So, you know, data-informed storytelling, data-informed campaigns. Not necessarily a data-lead entirely, but certainly data-informed. So, I'd say, that's one that we all need to be paying just way, way more attention to, and what insights can we demand, and, you know, I almost think, we're looking at some audience data last night. You get audience data, and to me, at least, it just makes me hungry for more. So we know this about a certain group of business decision makers that buy jet engines. What else can we know? So, I think kind of continuing to unpack that data journey is one, for sure. The other, I'd say this is fairly tactical, but that appropriate for a podcast, is, I think, voice is going to change a lot for marketers. I think it's going to change search behavior, hence buying behavior, hence content discovery behavior. So I'm fairly focused on what voice can do for us as a company and a brand.
Nadine: 19:27 Those are really interesting to think about. So many implications there. I am going to resist the temptation to keep drilling down to that because, you know, I'm a total geek.
Linda: 19:27 Oh, I know you are. I know you are.
Nadine: 19:40 I'm going to switch gears entirely on you, though. Let's talk about you. What is your favorite part of the day?
Linda: 19:48 Oh, that's easy. The morning on the total morning person; I’m usually in the office before anybody else. Almost always, I love the the time to think, reflect, organize be sort of on my time. And honestly, I mean, I don't get up as early Saturday, Sunday, but I do the same thing Saturday, Sunday. I just absolutely love that time of the morning where everything's possible.
Nadine: 20:21 Oh, I love that. You just gave me goosebumps. Ties directly back to what we talked about before. And what inspires you?
Linda: 20:30 So many things. So I'm sort of a culture junkie, if you will. I go to a lot of movies. I Love art, I love theater, I love fiction. I'm often listening to a book on audible. So, I'm quite inspired by things that, seemingly, are not necessarily in our business world but remarkably always have parallels. And so, I have sort of a rich cultural world similar with sports, I’m a big big sports fan, particularly football, and I think there are a lot of leadership lessons from sports. Unfortunately, some of them aren't good, but, but many of them are, you know, you'd see people you see people both rising and falling to the occasion. And I'm inspired by people I spend time with. I try really hard, and most weeks succeed, in going out to breakfast three or four times a week with either people who I know are just going to feed my mind, or people I've never met before that I want to spend time with and I sort of goes, I guess with what I said about the morning before, but it's almost always breakfast. I don't like going out to lunch. I did test going out to dinner, but breakfast is my time.
Nadine: 21:54 Oh, mine too. I love what you said once before when we were doing the playbook. You said don't be too prideful to learn from new hires and rising stars, and I think that's such a wonderful and humble and smart thing to say. Well, what other tips would you give for those rising CMOs out there, or even your colleagues for that matter? What's the two or three things that they should always remember to do?
Linda: 22:19 I just have to say this, because I know you've interviewed so many CMOs, and more to come. I am so proud of my CMO colleagues. I'm just incredibly inspired by the people leading marketing at JP Morgan, Chase, and Verizon, and AT&T. I mean, I just, I feel really inspired by all of them all the time. Leslie Berland at twitter, I mean, just so many good people out there. So what advice would I give? I don't know. I think some of it's just the basic stuff. I mean, as I've gotten more senior in my career, listening has become more important. Empathy has become more important. I’m conscious, always, that my voice probably has an oversized importance in many meetings I’m in, and therefore, I try hard to think twice before I speak. That doesn't sound like very hard to do. But I'm in classic extrovert, I think out loud. So I find myself sometimes caveating and saying, hey look, this is just an idea. You know, you don't have to go do this. So I think being conscious of the role you play as a leader, because people look to you and you have to take that seriously. I'm in all ways would be something I would say, you know, hiring people that are way, way, way smarter then than I am in particular areas, you know, there's a point where you just, you have to pick where you're going to be an expert and you have to pick where you need help, and be conscious of that. And then maybe the last thing I'd say, kind of along those lines, is get out of your comfort zones, you know, brand is a comfort zone for me. I love it. I'm decent at it, so I have to force myself to be in places that are where I didn't grow up as much, whether that's marketing, analytics, or segmentation, or pricing, or what have you, because that's the only way you grow.
Nadine: 24:35 Yeah, absolutely. And it's interesting to use the words “get uncomfortable”. That's one of Shelley Zalis’s favorite things to say, and she's absolutely right. But when you think about inspiring your teams so that they can be on this journey with you, and together you can achieve some amazing things. What are the most important things for you to watch for as a leader and to help develop and shepherd along the way?
Linda: 25:06 So a couple things I'd say. One is I mentioned I'm an extrovert, which doesn't mean that I like parties; I actually don't like parties, but it out loud and that I like a team environment, and I will speak up in meetings. So I've become very conscious of the fact that there are people who are on the opposite who are thinking something through carefully before they speak and that isn't always me, and so I become very conscious of different styles, different approaches, and it's important to draw out people who are different than you are. Diversity of thought and approach are so important. So I think that's one that I'm conscious of, which is, you know, the loudest voices can't always rule the day, you know, you have to give people room. So I would say that's one, making sure that I listen to people that have a very different view. And so I like to get to, yes, I'm a ridiculous optimist. I can sort of make good out of almost any situation, and so I'm careful that I balance that out with people who tell me things I don't want to hear who are going to take much more of a risk assessors view, because I know that I will ignore triggers if I don't have people around me who are going to think about things from a much more critical perspective. So those are a couple of things I think about.
Linda: 27:08 Those are great and very helpful. So, we are almost out of time here, Linda, and you've given us so much to think about a truly appreciate it. I have one more question for you. If you were not a CMO, what would you be?
Linda: 27:31 So such a good question. What would I be? I think I’d love to run a museum. I think that would be great. I've been involved in museums in the past, and, you know, to me, there's something amazing about that, so that jumps to mind on, but I don't know. I don't know. I guess it's something I should probably give some thought to it at some point, you know, probably as well something where some of the components that I love about being a CMO , trying to figure out what it is people want and then come up with an interesting, creative, hopefully disruptive way to better serve them, so I think it would be elements of that.
Nadine: 28:31 That's great. You know, it's so funny because it's good thing that this hasn't aired yet because nobody knows I'm going to ask them that question at the end and a so far. Everyone's pretty surprised when I asked that question. So thanks for playing along.
Linda: 28:42 It's a stumper but it shouldn't be a stumper. I mean, I'm not going to go to my grave as CMO, but I don't know, you know, lately I, I'm on the, I've been really fortunate to be on the Dunkin Donuts board as an outside director, and I'm absolutely fascinated with retail. I'm not saying I'm going to go own a franchise, but it's just, you know, I think when you, when you realize how much goes into a retail experience, I find that really fascinating. So who knows, who knows where I'll wind up.
Nadine: 29:18 Oh, well, I'll be watching. I think that half the world will be watching to wherever you go; you'll bring amazing insight and innovation.
Linda: 29:27 That's so sweet. Well, this is great. It's so much fun to talk to you.
Nadine: 29:32 Yeah, likewise. And thank you so much for taking time out of your day to join, and I can't wait to see where you go next.
Linda: 29:38 Thank you my dear. Thanks. Have a great day. [You too. Thanks.] Bye Nadine.