Building Better CMOs
Podcast Transcript - Building Better CMOs

GE Global CMO Linda Boff, Page 2

Linda Boff, the global CMO of GE, talks with MMA Global CEO Greg Stuart about leading marketing at a "capital-P Purpose" company, how to punch above your weight with a smaller team, why B2B businesses don't have to be boring, and more.

The Nuances of Business Talk

Greg Stuart: This is Building Better CMOs. Let's get back to my conversation with Linda Boff, the global chief marketing and communications officer at GE.
Connecting it to the business, talk to me a little bit about that. How does that work for you? How does it work for GE? Because this is the underlying issue, right? Marketers are not always great at talking in business talk. We talk marketing talk. We don't talk business talk.

Linda Boff: Oh my god, I love this question.

GS: Okay, go. Go, go, go.

LB: So when I got back to GE from iVillage, I thought that my job was to help our business leaders get the digital religion. I thought if I stood up enough times and talked about the value of two-way communications and the opportunities that digital had opened up, and how, as a company that sold to business executives, we needed to be discoverable and we needed to be available on search, I was blowing in the wind. I was blowing in the wind.

GS: Why?

LB: Because it was too early. I wasn't talking in business terms.

GS: Oh, okay, okay.

LB: I wasn't using business language, and it was a mistake. And it took getting up there, oh gosh, too many times. Three, four, five times pounding my fist on the table until I realized I was speaking French and they were speaking English, and we weren't going to connect. And it was not their job to understand me. It was my job to put it in business terms. And I think as marketers, if we ever, ever veer away from the language of our business, our C-suite, our shareowners, our customers, do it at your own peril.

GS: Yeah, I totally agree with you. I think it's a real mistake. The most interesting project that the board asked me to do, about a year and a half ago in a board meeting, they said, "Greg, we want you to help CMOs know how to speak to CFOs." My inside voice at the time at the board meeting, which I didn't verbalize for obvious reasons. I said, "What do you mean you don't know how to talk to the CFO? I'm not really sure what to do with that information." And by the way, the person who said it was a Wharton MBA, so I was like, "Hmm, I'm not sure I'm really tracking."

What they really wanted, though, which didn't make a lot of sense to me, is that one, there is a nuance of talking business talk. And so there was an element of that that we've now brought to the table. What they really wanted, they wanted all of us marketers to talk the same language to all CFOs, that there was a consistency. There's a pattern recognition in how we do that. I do think that makes an awful lot of sense. If a doctor's having a problem, we don't need every doctor to explain the problem with the patient differently if it's the same damn problem. We need to have a common language around things. We need to have a standardized approach.

LB: I think I think that's right.

GS: Go ahead. You can disagree.

LB: Yeah, I don't know. Let me talk it for a moment and let me get there.

GS: Go.

LB: I have had the blessing to be part of every earnings preparation for many years.

GS: Okay, got it.

LB: I sit on all the prep calls. I help with the script, the press release, the talking points, the messaging. I am in the room with our IR teams, our CFO, obviously our CEO, general counsel, et cetera. I cannot do a CFO's job. No mistake.

GS: Got it. Understood.

LB: Nor do I covet that. As much as all the rest of the C-suite believes they can do marketing's job, I know I cannot—

GS: The rest of them are all doing marketing as a side hustle. I know it. Yeah, I got it.

LB: Yeah, yeah, yeah, exactly. But I value what I've learned in terms of being able to understand and speak the language of finance. And I guess I wonder, I do think it's largely transferable. Now I'm coming around to your point. I mean, every company may talk about free cash flow differently or may talk about EBITDA differently or top line, bottom line, but I think it's the language of business. It's the language of Wall Street. You have to know that. You certainly have to know it in a public company.

GS: You would certainly be better off to know that, I think, at a real substantive level, yes.

LB: Yeah, I'd be very uncomfortable if I didn't.

B2B Doesn't Have to Be Boring

GS: I totally think so. Okay, so let me do this, though. Let me go back. So listen, it's very hard in a B2B company... It's hard in a consumer business when you have lots of data and multi-touch attribution and all sorts of measurement systems and so on. But it's really hard in a B2B, especially as you mentioned. The purchase cycles are long, there are enterprise sales, there's multi-party blah, blah, blah. What is the state of connecting the B2B marketing to actual, I don't know, can I go as far as sales performance or business growth? What is the state of that for you? It sounds like you've really thought about these and your team has.

LB: Well, I'm going to take umbrage at B2B and B2C because I have always firmly believed, Greg, that if we don't approach our customers as just regular humans, B2H, we are making a mistake. We might do really shitty marketing if we said to ourselves, "God, what would an airline executive want that's different than what somebody who likes and absorbs what is interesting wants?" So I have always taken that line.

GS: I hear the point, but enterprise sales are called multiple decision makers. That's different than often consumer versus the household. The cycles are sooner.

LB: It's four hops.

GS: Yeah, exactly.

LB: Let's agree on that one. I think that there are a couple of things. One is we have tried always to be conscious about connecting air war, ground war. We have plenty of product marketers across GE, and when we have a campaign of sorts out there, if we are doing that without connectivity to the people who are issuing lead gen forms and gathering marketing sales leads and converting marketing qualified leads into sales qualified leads, again, we're losing opportunity. So I think we've done a good job, and I think for marketers, similar to me, in similar spaces with longer cycle, I think thinking about high value tasks, really important.

One that I think is incredibly important, and we don't talk about it enough as an industry, is strong middle funnel content. I think we go to the top, brand awareness. I think we go to the bottom and what's your CAC and what's driving last click and all the rest of it. I think for great marketers, thinking about how to connect the emotion and passion of the top with the action of the bottom, I think that's a space that we could all get better at.

GS: That's really interesting. I've not heard anybody say that, and yet it's kind of an obvious point. Can you give an example of how you all do that, think about that? Or is there something very practical?

LB: Yeah, I mean, I can, and I think we're getting better at it. I don't think we've cracked the code, but I think we've done some smart things. For instance, our GE Vernova business did a podcast not as popular as yours called Cutting Carbon, which was all about, as the name indicates, how do you cut carbon? And I think we're on season five of this. Getting that content right for an audience who really cares about that is super important. So I think it's finding what content matters to a group of stakeholders who are going to pay attention to that. I think I mentioned earlier, I worked for a wonderful, wonderful woman, Beth Comstock.

GS: Oh, yeah. We all know Beth, she's the best.

LB: A deserved legend. And Beth used to say, "B2B doesn't mean that you have to be boring." And I think that's the mistake that can be made, which is the content can be dreary and dull.

GS: So is the middle funnel then a matter of extolling... I mean, I would tend to think of that as, if there's brand awareness, then in the middle there's... Oh, why am I forgetting? There's the elements of it, the brand.

LB: I think it has the brand attributes, but it's also has...

GS: The brand attributes, thank you.

LB: times product specificity.

GS: But brand attributes and angles and precisions, and then maybe even some additional personal connection to it. But you know that they're maybe not ready to buy, but you're keeping them warm or moved along.

LB: Yeah, you're moving them down the funnel. You're nurturing them along, but you're doing it in super interesting ways.

GS: Yeah, I like that as an idea. I think you're right. I don't think we break that down and think that through.

LB: I don't think so. And I don't think we're as creative in terms of omni-channel in the middle as we can be.

GS: Yes. No, not at all, not at all. Very interesting. You said that marketing can sometimes be siloed or siloed by others, you said. Or by ourselves even. You want to talk about that point again?

LB: Yeah, yeah, no, I would love to. I think you can be the best marketer in the entire world, but if the conversations that you're having are simply amongst yourselves, your team, your fellow marketers, and they're not bridging across the C-suite. They're not with your CIO, they're not with folks in finance, they're not with folks in legal, HR, etc., A) I think you're forcing yourself away from the table. Saying, "Marketing plays a different role. We are somehow a different species," versus "We are here with you helping figure out what do we need to do today to grow the business." And I think that silo is an unfortunate one. I think sometimes it can be seen as a little bit of, well, marketers don't get their hands dirty. Marketers have a language, as you and I talked about, that's all their own. They can be dilettantes.

GS: Some.

LB: They can be a little bit precious, some. So I think it can feel as though marketers aren't there to do the heavy lifting. And of course, marketing needs to do heavy lifting.

Pattern Recognition

GS: Yes. I'm going to shift angles here a little bit. You ready?

LB: Yeah.

GS: What's the best advice that anybody's ever given you? And if you can, who was it? Do you remember the points in your career where people have said things to you that you went, "Oh my god, they're so right." Maybe it's a mentor, maybe it's just somebody else. Often it'd be somebody in a leadership position. Maybe it could be a partner at your level, but what's the best advice you were ever given?

LB: There's a woman who wrote a book called Fast Forward. Her name is Lisa McCarthy, and she's coached any number of different teams. And she gave me a piece of advice in one of these workshops that I have given to countless others, and that is to separate in your head the stories from the facts.

GS: What's that mean?

LB: And I think as leaders, we are often leading teams, big teams, and you can get in your head something that is not based at all in reality. It can be a remark somebody made in a meeting. It can be a feeling that you get that you are not bringing your best work or self, and it's not based at all in fact. And I think as marketers, we do deal in stories.

GS: We do, we do.

LB: Sometimes. In fact, I love those stories that we deal in. But I think when you're a leader, and frankly, this can be true, Greg, if you're an independent producer, sometimes your confidence doesn't hold up as well because you're telling yourself something that others believe and it has no basis in reality.

GS: You don't, by chance, have an example of that, do you? Where that came up with you from Lisa? Was there something happening at the moment? Do you remember?

LB: Let me think back to where I was then. It was early days of being a CMO. And I had come after this legend, and I remember thinking, "God, how am I going to do this? Am I ever going to be good enough?"

GS: Totally, totally. We're all plagued with that voice.

LB: I think we all are. And I think a decade later, do I ever feel that way? My god, of course I do. But I've had the privilege of working on so many different projects, doing so many different campaigns, working for three CEOs, leading teams, and I have more facts than I do stories. And that helps.

GS: So it's your experience, maybe somewhat, your pattern recognition of situations. If I could say, I sometimes feel like today, I feel like I see the whole game board. I see the whole thing. I see the world in a way different than I did when I was younger, when I was affected by doubt. I feel like it just makes sense. I get it. I get the bank shots. I understand the angles. I don't know. It's very funny being this age and seeing the world that clear to me most of the time.

LB: I love the way you just said that. I think it's pattern recognition. I think it's reps. I've had a lot of reps.

GS: Totally.

LB: I've seen what good looks like. I've seen what really crummy looks like. I know how to be a better client. I know how to be a better leader. I think I know when to listen and when to talk.

GS: I know how to ask better questions than ever. I'm astonished at the questions sometimes I feel like I can ask. I remember as a young professional not having the clarity of where I was going or what I was trying to accomplish or what I needed to get to understand the situation. This might be different than the point you made.

LB: I think there's a lot that's related there. I think when you have the experience, the repetitions, the pattern recognition, you've scraped your knee—

GS: Oh, so many times fall down. Yes.

LB: You can scrape your knee once. You can scrape your knee twice. But hopefully by the third or fourth time, when that game board looks similar, you know it and you're able to lead through. And I think the facts present themselves differently.

GS: I love that, too. I tell my team often. I say, "Let's figure out what right looks like. Then we decide if we think we can do it." I get really bugged sometimes when people come to me and they'll say, "Oh, well we can do this." I'm going, "No. Let's go check this out. What are the facts? What would be the best thing to do? What would be the ultimate thing? What's the best solution to this? Whether we can do it or not." Now we can put in this govern that's like, "Okay, we can't do that now. Okay, we can't do that. Okay, what's our fallback position? What's next?" Because I think if you start sometimes with what you can do, you end up in the wrong place all the time.

Disagree and Commit

LB: You reminded me of something I really love, which is this idea of interrogating the problem, not interrogating each other.

GS: Totally, yeah. Be hard on the problem, not on the people. I'm not sure I do the best job of that, but yeah.

LB: It's an area I've gotten a lot better at because the clarity is just there. If something's wrong, you try to get underneath it. As we say here at GE, try to get to root cause, but root cause is about what's causing the problem. It's rarely each other. This was something I saw on one of the walls at Amazon years ago... What was it? "Debate-

GS: It's "Debate and decide. And once you decide, there's no going back."

LB: Exactly.

GS: I don't know if that's the actual phrase, but I know exactly what you're talking about. I love that. Let's debate it. And by the way, you know where that came up? I think at least where I've seen that popularized is that Bezos really disagreed with them getting into the ad business. He did not want to do it. He rejected it. Lisa Utzschneider was there as the first person on the ground to do that. And they debated it, and then they decided to do it. But once you decide, there's no going back.

LB: Disagree and commit.

GS: Disagree and commit. Is that what it is?

LB: That's it.

GS: There we go. I love it. That's what it is, yes. I love that. I love that. Let's go.

LB: And I think the more you can do that, the faster you can move.

GS: Totally, totally because once you're all in, then we're not going to have this chitter chatter of people going around your back and saying, "Oh no." I think you'd get in real trouble for that if you start back talking the thing once everybody's committed.

LB: I do, too.

GS: I think that's what they do. Very smart. And by the way, I don't know any inside information, but my understanding it's a $47 billion business, and it might be what's delivering all that shit free for you. So listen, it worked out pretty well for them.

Falling in Love with GE

GS: Listen, Linda, this is exactly what I like to have on Building Better CMOs. This is exactly it.

I don't know, maybe it's the older I get, the more I have the respect of people who have really thought about their business and where they're going and what they're doing, and have stayed in a place for a while. I used to jump around a lot when I was a kid, younger in my profession. I always got new shiny objects. There was something new and fun. I was a smart enough guy. I could figure stuff out. But I have a lot of value for sticking. I've been here 12 years. You've been there for 21. There's a lot of value to that pattern recognition. There's a lot to be said for that. You just get a sense of clarity about how the world works. That's what I feel like I just heard from you today.

LB: I am so glad I stayed at GE. I really am. I mean, there were moments for sure, it would've been easier to leave than to stay, but here we are 21 years later, three separate companies. I am so proud of the teams. I'm so proud of, honestly, Greg, the value that we've delivered to our customers and our shareholders. It is a goose bumpy feeling. And my favorite part by far is I think along the way, the team and I helped people fall in love with the company, and it's a company that we fell in love with. So it's such a privilege to be able to bring others to see the GE we saw.

GS: Oh my god, I can't think of a better way to close it. And that commitment to what you're doing and the way that you're working with the team, really, it is inspiring. Linda, I told you it wasn't about CMO worship. I realized I just dipped into that.

LB: A little.

GS: You converted me. You converted me. See, I started and I said, "What are the problems?" And we ended up with, "Oh my god, it's so great." So there we go.

LB: Maybe you fell in love a little with GE. So there you go. I'll take it. It's not about me, it's about GE.

GS: It's like leprechauns. You have a magic spell of some kind. I don't know how that just happened. Listen, this was too much fun. We will definitely have to do it again. We'll have to find some big projects you're working on someday, and we'll go over it. I don't know. We'll come up with something. So Linda, thank you.

LB: I love everything you've done with MMA and Possible and the podcast, and it truly is my pleasure to get to chat a little bit.

GS: Thanks again to Linda Boff from GE for coming on Building Better CMOs. Check the description of this episode for links to connect with Linda. And if you want to know more about MMA's work to unlock the power of marketing, visit Or you can attend any one of the 41 conferences in 16 countries where MMA operates or really, write me, Now thank you so much for listening. Tap the link in the description to leave us a review, and if you're new to show, please follow or subscribe on Apple, Spotify, Amazon Music, iHeart, or wherever you get your podcasts. You can find links to all those places and more at Our producer and podcast consultant is Eric Johnson from Our project manager is Lili Mahoney. Artwork is by Jason Chase. This is Greg Stuart. I'll see you in two weeks.

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