Welcome to Influencers!
Today, we have with us Linda. For those of you who were listening last episode, there were several hints to suggest who Linda is. She grew up in Northern New Jersey. She would love Sigourney Weaver to play her in a movie. And as a hint, think about a 125-year-old startup.
Then, the second interview is anonymous. If you can figure out who it is before we reveal it in the following podcast, you could win a coveted invitation to the Influencer Salon.
Listen To The Podcast Here:
Marketing Should Start With The User with Linda Boff
Welcome back, listeners. I am super, super excited to have today’s guest on. As you know, I’m an incredible geek who loves anything and everything that’s science-related that has an impact on our society. Few people are more at the center of this than our guest today. Linda, will you please introduce yourself.
It’s so great to be on, Jon. Thank you for having me. I’m a big fan of yours and what you’ve done. Linda Boff, GE, CMO. I love a great geek because this is the company for you. GE is a 125-year-old startup. We’ve been inventing, iterating, reinventing literally for a century and quarter. Our birthday is this year. We’re a company that’s about hard work, things that matter in the world. That could be healthcare in remote places. It could be electricity for the billion people in the world that still don’t have it. It’s thinking about how industry can be more efficient and productive by adding a digital layer. We are a company that is all about solving tough problems, finding new ways to do it and continuing to look and say as Thomas Edison, our founder, once said, “What does the world need? We’ll look at how to solve that.” That’s who we are. On the marketing side, which literally I have I think, Jon, the best job in the world. I’m so thrilled to lead. What we try to do is be as inventive as we can on the marketing side to remind people of the DNA of the company and bring the stories of GE to life in all kinds of different ways, all kinds of different platforms.
I have so many questions for you. You have one of the most interesting jobs in marketing. First of all, GE’s assets are in the 100 and something billion, right?
You guys are literally in everything. If I’m getting a medical procedure, you guys are there. If I’m powering my laptop, you guys are there. If I’m getting on a plane, it’s because of you guys. The ability to express that and then express the innovation in a way that the public understands is just like an awesome task. I think it’s fascinating. When people hear about your position, what’s the most common question they have?
It’s a couple of things. One is people will ask about how a company that is in industry communicates to everybody in ways that are maybe thought of as B2C, as consumer tactics and why we do that. I always find this to be a funny question so I want to take it head on and maybe do bunk it a little bit. In that today, everybody is online. Everybody is a consumer. The experience that we all want to have is an experience as frictionless as possible. We all want to find ways to tell our great stories and that can be true if you’re a bar of soap or you’re an automobile or you manufacture jet engines. Interestingly, Jon, we got the homerun, the straight flush in poker or what have you. Our stories are inherently so interesting, so fascinating that it’s a question of being accessible, of being very human in how we approach the things that GE does and do it in a way that’s unexpected. You can talk about a jet engine a lot of different ways. We always try to do it in a way that is as inherently interesting as possible, that might be using Instagram, that might be on Twitter, that might be through drone technology.
We tried to marry the great technology, the things that we do with a lens that allows people to see and experience what we do. Somebody once said to me, “Everybody love science, they just don’t know they love it.” We take that to heart. How do we bring people in? People who love trains, they’re called foamers, I guess it’s because they foam at the mouth, and people who don’t necessarily understand what it is that the industry is all about and find ways to bring that to life.
You were sharing a little bit about one of your projects that I thought was just the coolest idea. Will you tell me a little bit about these shoes that you made?
Yes, of course. We at GE, Materials Science is an incredibly important topic. We have metallurgists, we have all kinds of engineers that look at how we can use materials to withstand great heat, how we can use great materials on our jet engines, etc. As we thought about how to talk about our super materials, the team had a fantastic idea, which was once upon a time, GE was part of the original moon landing with Buzz Aldrin and Neil Armstrong. The anniversary of the moon landing was coming up, 45th anniversary. We took that cultural moment and combined it with literally creating a physical pair of sneakers, of modern day moon boots with GE materials, kinds of materials that we’d use on a jet engine. We put these moon boots on sale on the anniversary of the moon landing. Symbolically, the time of day when the astronauts landed and they sold out in seven minutes. It was just a fabulous way to remind people of GE’s role in the past and at the same time, I think this is a great challenge and opportunity for a brand that’s a 125 years young, the role that we’re going to play going forward. One step in the past just a reminder and then all about the future. Also, intersecting with pop culture in a way that was relevant, that was interesting and it was fun.
For people who are looking to get into marketing and really understand how to represent a company well, what are three tips you’d give them?
I’d say start with the user. I majored in Psychology and Political Science, so I’m always thinking about behavior. As marketers, there are so many things that we can do but if you ever forget that there’s somebody at the other end of this, you’re making a mistake. I’d say start with the audience, start with the user and work back. Technology enables us to do things, there are all kinds of platforms but begin with your user and what it is you want them to do.
I’d say second, and I don’t think this is true, Jon, just for marketing, but I’d say curiosity and resourcefulness are incredibly important traits. I truly believe we can do anything as marketers, as people for that matter. To be curious, to be resilient, to understand how the world comes together and figure out a way to get there is insanely important. I would also say and I’ve tried really hard to practice this, marketing the time that we’re at. Unfortunately, the textbooks, in all due respect, it’s not enough to read about a good marketing or business plan. Case studies are terrific, great to learn from the past but every single day, there are new ways and opportunities to reach audiences. Whether that’s voice and what that’s opening up or new ways to use commerce and data to target our audiences, be a student of today and tomorrow. I think that’s incredibly important to live in the present.
Tell me a little bit about the pitfalls. If you have a story about something, that would be really wonderful.
Sometimes, and maybe this is exuberance love of what I do, I have gotten caught up at times in what is happening in such a way that I have not been a good translator to why marketing or what’s going on and say digital actually matters from a business point of view. I learned that lesson the hard way, if you will. I felt like for years, it was probably less than that. I would get up and talk to our senior leaders about the importance of digitally being present where our audiences increasingly were spending their time and now very much are spending their time. I think I was using digital marketing language and I wasn’t being a good business translator. In the end, what matters about what I do is the growth of the company, what matters are the results that we deliver, what matters are our share owners, our employees, our customers. I’ve always known that but sometimes I try to get there in a way that just didn’t necessarily appeal. It’s funny because as a marketer, it’s all about knowing your audience, all about understanding what matters to them. To have forgotten that, I look back and say I was just too caught up in my own world. We can all do that. No matter where we are, you can be in the bubble.
As a result, one of the things I’ve learned is not just be a good translator but also get outside the bubble. I’ve tried hard with my team. The people that I’ve been fortunate enough to hire come from all different vantage points, different perspectives, different backgrounds, different DNA. I tried really hard to spend time with people who just have a different lens, do different work. Maybe they’re in the startup community, maybe they’re in the arts, read different things. I think getting out of that bubble is also maybe a part of that. Be a good translator and get outside of your world and get outside of your head.
What’s something completely unexpected about reaching this level of success?
It’s how literally people take what I say. I try hard because I love to collaborate, love teams. It’s something that comes really naturally to me, to make sure that I’m clear about what it is that is of true ask and what is just spitballing and brainstorming. You become conscious how literally people take you, at least I do. That’s number one. I’d say the other is the tremendous importance of shutting my mouth and listening. Because I love to collaborate, because I have an extrovert personality, I think out loud, I’m very comfortable of being that voice in a room. As you grow in your career, remembering you have two ears and one mouth becomes incredibly important.
I know that just because my background is in the sciences, I will often say stuff and I have to say nobody has done the research around this but my hunch is X. It’s dangerous because people will literally think, “Okay, that’s true.” I’m like, “No, it’s just a hunch. It’s just an idea. It’s my inclination but nobody has done the research.” My feeling is that when you’re at the top of such a big company, it’s easy to confuse conjecture with absolutes and I think that’s a problem.
You’re raising such a good point. Everybody needs people who are truth-tellers. There are colleagues I have both in our group and outside our group where I’ll just go and say, “Be my detractor. Am I too far over my skis?” which I can get out of enthusiasm or to your point about a hypothesis. Having people who tell you the truth is really important. You also have to balance that with what’s right for now and what’s right for the brand in the future and balance that. There are times where we need to go where there are no roads. There are times where you need to do something because it’s right for the moment. You have to balance both of those.
Let’s talk a little bit about what inspires you. Is there a certain quote that really meant a lot to you or a book that influenced you the most?
I read all the time. I read a lot of fiction. I know I should read more non-fiction and I do sometimes, and I like it. Because I think, Jon, I love culture so much: theater, arts, books, I love the escape of fiction. I love that it puts me in another world. To relate it back to marketing in this topic, I believe it was Keith Yamashita of Stone Yamashita Partners who I first heard that phrase, “Zoom in, zoom out.” Sometimes you need to pull back in order to come in with a fresh point of view. I read all the time.
In terms of quotes, there’s something I can’t remember who said it. I always credit our Chairman, Jeff Immelt who is just a tremendous person and has led our company for the last sixteen years. We have a wonderful new Chairman and CEO starting in the next couple of weeks, John Flannery. One of the things Jeff said, or at least I credit him for saying is, “You’re never as good as you are on your best day or as bad as you are on your worst day.” The reason I like that so much is its context. As I said before, I can be hard on myself, I can also be proud. I think just having that context is super valuable.
That really speaks to me because I could spend hours beating myself up for a stupid thing I said in a meeting. The fact is most of the time people don’t notice or don’t really care. They’re too busy staring at their phones anyway that it’s not such a big deal.
It’s so true. Again, I’m not going to remember where I read this. There is a book that I’ve read recently that is non-fiction, Radical Candor by Kim Scott that I love. I don’t remember if it came from that or something else but this idea that never confuse your inner voice with other people’s outer voices, i.e. what your inner voice is telling you versus what you’re seeing on somebody else’s Facebook page or Instagram feed. It’s so unfair. We beat ourselves up pretty good over things that maybe only we know. At the same time, it’s that part of what motivates you, me, others. I like that I have a high bar. I bet you do, too.
When I was doing research for The 2 AM Principle, my book, I came across a study where college students were asked to come into a group building exercise or something like that. That was a group activity. They had one of the students come in and have them put on an embarrassing t-shirt. The title of the study, The Most Embarrassing Character They Could Think of was Barry Manilow. They’re all going to the activity and this one student is wearing a Barry Manilow t-shirt and he’s super embarrassed. They do exit interviews as the activity ends and they asked him, “How many people do you think noticed this embarrassing t-shirt?” He says, “I bet like 50% of people noticed.” They actually polled everybody and only 25% of people even noticed it and probably even less cared. They did it again with a cool t-shirt. At that time, it was Notorious B.I.G and Seinfeld. Once again, just nobody cared. We’re almost identical. You’re never as bad as your worst day or as good as your best day. Nobody paid any attention.
It’s funny it brings us full circle in some ways to what you’ve created, which is this forum. Having joined you where you’re about who you are and getting to know who you really are before you get to know what somebody’s title is and what they do. There’s somehow to me a connection there. This idea of who are you really. When I am tough on myself, I also remember the principles that make me “me.” On a good day, that’s comforting.
Who’s your hero?
I have lots of heroes. My kids are my heroes. I have a 24 and 22-year-olds who are just outstanding people. I admire the hell out of both of them.
Do they say, “My mom works at GE.”?
They do. It’s really great. My daughter is honest and knows herself better at 24 than sometimes I feel like I do decades later. My son is interested in public service and in today’s world, I just admire that so much. I admire my kids. Admire the woman I work for, Beth Comstock, our Vice Chair, just is somebody who motivates me every single day; a tremendous leader, collaborator. We’ve worked together for a long time. I am super proud of the work we’ve done together. I admire the fearlessness of Michelle Obama. I think we all want to be Michelle. We all want to be that brave and that fearless and that bold. Just a couple of people.
As somebody who knows Beth, I would very much agree. She’s just an incredible person.
There is only one Beth. She’s amazing.
Imagine a complete stranger messages you and asks you for coffee. What’s in that message that has you accept?
In a situation like this, we all want to say yes way more than we can, you and me both and many others. Yet, I remember even though it was long time ago what it was like when I was starting off in my career. I have a dad who was a physician and a mom who was a librarian. Neither of them knew anything about business or could give me advice or anything along those lines. I was constantly networking, constantly writing emails. A few people stopped and were nice to me and a few people said yes. What I tried to do is, not as often as I would like to but certainly several times a year, I try to say yes. I think what gets through is probably somebody who reminds me of myself, who has that kind of eagerness, passion, probably innocence. I’ll probably say yes to young women more than I do anybody else and someone from a background that I think, or at least as much as you can sense, that may not have some of the breaks that I did.
This is our last section of the interview. I have four questions for you. This is really focused more on human touch. What are you passionate about or committed to? Is there a non-profit, an organization?
Yes, there actually is. I’m a very proud Board member of Partnership with Children. It’s a New York-based organization that puts social workers in schools in the five Boroughs to work one on one with kids. I am extremely passionate about it. It means the world to me. The organization is literally nearly 100 years old and they do amazing works. The vice president there help a lot particularly on the development side, which when you’re a small organization, fundraising really matters. That’s an important one to me.
Is that the resource that you guys are looking for most right now, additional funds?
It tends to be. You want to do more but in a way, the currency is getting more social workers in schools because every person we put in has a direct impact. It’s often tied to funding and visibility. Just literally, Jon, being able to talk about it here with you is big help. Thank you for that opportunity.
What’s a really human secret you’d feel comfortable sharing on the podcast? Some people have shared that they have anxiety, they’re really shy and actually introverted. You’re clearly not introverted, but what’s something you’d feel comfortable sharing?
For me, it goes back a little bit to this idea of inner voice. There are certainly days where as terrific as I think the work I’ve done and our team has done, I feel like an impostor. It doesn’t really matter what the outside world says. There are days where I feel, “Holy cow, somebody is going to find out that I shouldn’t be CMO. I don’t know enough. I’m not smart enough. I’m not thoughtful enough. I’m not strategic enough.” It goes back to I really care so much. I want to do my best work for myself, for the team, for the company. I suspect people listening, others have felt this way too. I sometimes used to chalk this up to women but I suspect others feel it, men and women.
This impostor syndrome is a pretty well-known issue. I still feel like a 20-year-old college student half the time wondering why I’m hanging out with these big ones.
I trust my gut frequently. Not always. You want that combination of art and science. Data, of course, is incredibly important but I believe in my gut. Every now and then I’ll say, “Holy cow. I’m CMO of GE, it’s got to be enough sometimes.” Of course, it isn’t always enough. At the same time, you have to trust yourself. Yes, impostor syndrome is a good way to say it.
If you could be any comic book hero, who would it be?
I recently was watching one of the Superman movies. There’s 800 of them and my poor husband was trying to explain to me how many versions of Superman movies there have been and why each one is particular important. I admired Superman’s X-ray vision. I thought that was pretty great to be able to see through things. I don’t know if that’s the superhero but it’s definitely a superpower that I thought was pretty cool.
If you could have dinner with any three living people that you don’t currently know, who would they be and why?
I would say Mark Zuckerberg because I think what we see from him is a fraction of what’s in his mind. Beyoncé because I think she is just ‘The Queen’ and I love what she has done and how she has influenced people. I’m trying to think of an author. There are so many authors that I really, really love. is one that I just worship how she writes about characters and people. Maybe those are my three.
Linda, this has been an absolute treat for me. Thank you so much for coming on. Thank you for everything that you and GE do because I literally wouldn’t be able to function as a human being without all the technologies that you guys have worked.
Thank you. I love what you do and it’s such a treat. You’ve created something special. I think you see influence in a way that few people do, so it’s really my honor to be a part of it. Thank you.
If people want to find our more, are their certain websites, Twitter, Instagram, Facebook?
Yes, I’m fairly social. Twitter and Instagram are my favorites. People can certainly please follow me but DM me on Twitter @LindaBoff, follow me on Instagram. I unfortunately look at all my emails, fortunately or unfortunately at linda.boff@GE.com. I’m pretty accessible.
Linda, thank you so much. Listeners, stay tuned for the anonymous interview.
About Linda Boff
I am lucky to work with an amazing group of innovative leaders at GE. And at a company that is transforming what it means to be a digital industrial company. I’m passionate about all things digital, and the future of media, specifically new digital media and concepts that fuse content,design and technology. I focus on embedding meaningful marketing strategy, and marrying the art & science of marketing while instigating change throughout GE: A global leader for 130 years, with the energy of a Silicon Valley start-up.
Previously, I was Executive Director, Global Brand Marketing at GE, CMO of iVillage Properties, part of the NBC Universal and had senior roles at Citigroup, the American Museum of Natural History and Porter Novelli.
Anonymous Guest Interview
Today, we are joined by Indrani. For those of you who can figure out who she is or might even know who she is, you know she’s an absolute legend in her industry. I think she has done work that has been seen by millions and that inspires artists and creatives on a daily basis. Indrani, thank you so much for coming on.
Thank you, Jon. It’s an honor to be here.
Let’s dive right into things. Where did you grow up?
I grew up in Calcutta, India, then I moved to Toronto and finally to New York.
You had a very different upbringing than most people do, at least in my world. You had a wild living situation. What was it?
I was born in my family home, which is 300 years old. It’s a very large, about 400-room palace that is crumbling in many parts, so it’s got trees growing out of it. Nature has reclaimed large chunks of it. I got to have a wonderful sense of the passage of time and the life cycle in the place that I was living in. My mom was a volunteer with Mother Teresa, so I also accompanied her and got to see some really very intense but wonderful scenarios of what life can be for many people.
Was there a certain experience that inspired you to go into your field?
When I left India at the age of six, I left behind my family of 300 family members and friends. I miss them terribly when I lived in London and Toronto. The only thing that connected me to them was the photos that we had. Photography became really important for me. I became very passionate about capturing emotions and people and ideas. That was a really formative experience.
What is it that you’re most proud of that you’ve accomplished in your career?
I’ve photographed and filmed with all kinds of celebrities. I’ve had the pleasure of being part of a lot of pop culture moments. I helped to launch Beyoncé’s solo career creating the cover of her album Dangerously in Love. I had wonderful experiences collaborating with people like David Bowie and Iman and Kate Winslet and Anne Hathaway, wonderful human beings who happened to be extremely well-known. Getting to work with them intimately to create their image was really a wonderful feeling. The most exciting thing for me has been creating a school in India with my dad. That by far, exceeds anything else that I’ve been able to do in my life.
If there was a movie of your life, who would play you?
If there was a movie of my life, I would have to find a complete unknown character to play the role because it would be complicated and needs someone who is willing to go to a lot of different extremes.
I remember you telling me of how you would sleep on the tables of tea houses as you were traveling and the rats would be running around on the ground. Even when you grew up in this palace, there were 300 people in this crumbling building and you just go to any mother that was nearby rather than your own. It’s more like a communal experience of being raised.
Absolutely. It’s the traditional Indian joint family. You have this great sense that everyone is your mother, everyone is your father. Yeah, my travels around India were some of the most amazing experiences when I was a teenager and I returned there. I spent six months traveling around with a backpack and a map and $300 in my pocket and I was on top of the world.
It’s funny because you’re not that old but nobody travels with a map anymore. It’s only in the past seven years that you could even get away with something like that. What’s something wild that you did that really led to your success, something unexpected?
As a teenager, I loved photography. At the age of fourteen, I went to a photo studio and I asked if I could intern with them. They laughed at me and said that I was too small to carry heavy things and what could I really do of use except for I could sit there and they could photograph me. I became a model just so that I could learn from the great artists of those times. I got to travel around the world and have amazing experiences as a model/actress. That really led to me learning from the inside how to be a filmmaker and photographer.
It’s amazing that you also took in those lessons because I know a lot of people who have that career path don’t necessarily internalize that information and that knowledge and that experience. I think it’s a real testament to who you are that you have this obsessive nature to you when it comes to being creative. I say that in the most wonderful, complimentary way possible.
It’s definitely true.
Last question, what hint or riddle would you give people to figure out who you are? I think you’ve given a lot but if there’s any last piece that you want to add?
Some of my images are at the National Portrait Gallery in Washington DC. My works have been published in 25 books and 30 exhibitions. I had a TV show that was about my work.
Listeners, you have plenty to go on and if you can figure out who Indrani is between now and when we release the next episode, you could win an invitation to me or The Salon by Influencers. Good luck.