It may be day 253 of Beth Comstock’s unemployment, but her only concession to that state is a pair of fuzzy slippers. She’s been up writing down everything from dreams to possible LinkedIn posts since 5 a.m. Before the clock hits eight, she calls an Uber, changes into Ugg sneakers, throws various bags over her shoulder, and heads out the door to start a packed day.
Comstock is a legend in female corporate lore. Almost everyone knows that she began her career in public relations at NBC, then scaled her way to the top of giant GE, NBC’s onetime parent company, where she made history as GE’s first female vice-chair. Over nearly three decades, she became an industry powerhouse known for embracing new projects and ideas—Today’s outdoor music studio or NBC’s investment in Hulu or GE’s “Ecomagination” program, a sustainability strategy that redefined the industrial giant as forward-thinking.
Then in late 2017, when a new CEO replaced Jeff Immelt, Comstock’s mentor at GE, she was unceremoniously pushed out, and the thousands of professional women who looked up to Comstock let out a collective gasp.
The portfolio she ran included marketing, sales, a Silicon Valley–based innovation group, and lighting. Her job was so powerful that it came with a chief of staff, her reputation so established that she gave speeches and hosted panels everywhere from Davos to SXSW, her schedule so packed that she’d hold 6:30 a.m. meetings in her car. Until the day when Comstock, all of a sudden, didn’t have anywhere to go, anything to do, or anyone, it seemed, to be.
“I thought change was my thing,” she says. “Then, boom, I don’t work at GE. Suddenly, who am I? What am I doing?”
On top of that, Comstock was writing a book—Imagine It Forward was published in September 2018—that mixed corporate memoir with advice from her time at GE, meaning she’d soon have to do publicity for a book based on a job from which she’d been dismissed.
How did it happen? The new CEO called Comstock in October 2017. “He said, ‘I’m gonna move forward and you’re not gonna be here.’ On one hand, I wasn’t surprised at all; on the other, like, really?” She laughs. “Really?” The decision hadn’t been publicized yet, so Comstock held it together as she left her Manhattan office and walked to nearby Bryant Park. “I sat on a bench. I called my husband, and I said, ‘Can you believe this? This is really, finally happening.’ And then I just sat there and I cried. That’s what I did. Because it was the end: I was finally here. It was over.” Her last official day at GE was December 31, 2017. (No severance, but she did get her retirement package.)
Last January, a jobless Comstock woke up, went to her serene purple-and-gray office in her West Village townhouse, and tried to stave off panic. At GE, she was at work by 7:30 a.m. and came home late, after back-to-back meetings with employees, vendors, or clients. Now, she had no idea how to fill her days. For instance, her husband called out her tendency to create elaborate, beautifully designed, seemingly important to-do lists … with items like “Tuesday: Arrange desk.”
Her original plan was to spend a “gap year” figuring out her next step. She enrolled in a collage class but found she couldn’t get corporate precision out of her system. “The professor was like, ‘You’ve got to mess it up,’ ” she said. She dropped out. Other approaches to clearing her mind worked better: a Joshua Tree hiking trip, a live-sketching class, reading Montaigne and Mary Shelley.
Soon, though, she began chafing at the life of leisurely unemployment and itched to work again. Her book was the obvious target: She’d written it already and wanted to hatch a marketing plan. How hard could selling a book be after she’d overseen billions in sales? Comstock hired marketing agencies that had worked on GE projects but found she wasn’t a priority. At GE, “I would say, ‘Let’s get this done,’ and people would move mountains,” she says. Without GE, “you’re what they do at the end of their day.”
She noticed social changes too. “People who were your friends, certainly your work friends, they vanish,” she says. “That’s sad, right? They only liked me because they thought I was going to get them business or that I could get them here or there.” Logically, she says, that made some sense to her—“Time is short,” she explains—but emotionally, “some of the people did surprise me because I thought we had a different kind of relationship.”
However, Comstock had long been fighting her natural introversion in order to become a fierce networker, and many of her acquaintances helped her as she found her footing, she says. “No matter where you are in your career, try to make sure you’re developing your own story,” she says. “I was the face and voice of GE for so long, yet I had to work to establish my personal network. It served me well, post-GE, that people knew me in a broader context.”
After weathering some adjustments, Comstock began to feel that her new position—or non-position—was freeing. When she attended a cocktail party with a friend, he paused before going in. “He’s like, ‘How do I introduce you? I can’t just say, Here’s Beth Comstock.’” But I am Beth Comstock, she thought to herself. She now makes a point of not discussing work roles with new acquaintances.
Still, Comstock can’t seem to resist hard work and high standards. By six in the evening on the day we meet, she has crammed in hours of meetings and events. And after the book promotion quiets down? Comstock will take a break. This time, she says, she’ll actually do it.
Throughout her career, she’s counseled people leaving jobs not to jump into the next opportunity and instead “stop and ask, ‘What did I learn? Where do I really want to take this?’” Comstock realized she wasn’t following her own advice. So, post–book tour, she is forcing herself to dabble, to rest, to think, before committing to anything long-term. She’s set up internships (not the getting-coffee kind, but the sit-in-on-big-meetings-and-see-how-a-company-works kind) at creative companies like design firm Ideo and is advising entrepreneurs and young companies on strategy. When headhunters call dangling corporate jobs, she gives them a firm “No, thanks.” When friends press her on her next career move, she tells them, “I’m just me. Maybe I’m a beginner. I’m starting over again.”
In an office lobby that evening, Comstock leans against a wall, looking tired but not ready to quit; she still has a two-hour women’s-leadership event to attend. She changes from heels to her city-friendly Uggs, steps outside, and is quickly absorbed into a stream of commuters navigating through the rain.
This article originally appears in the February 2019 issue of Marie Claire.
Stephanie Clifford is an award-winning journalist writing about criminal justice and business, and author of the bestselling novel Everybody Rise.
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