At 5.20am on a Monday morning, GE’s CMO is already awake. Linda Boff, who’s been in the position since September, has always been an early riser. “I’m a total morning person. To me it’s one of the best times of the day to gather your thoughts – sort of think through what you want to accomplish throughout the day.”
She says it comes perhaps from wanting to spend time with her father when she was growing up. A physician, he was also an early riser. “He would go in very early and I think it’s sort of a quiet time of the day. I was one of four kids. You were always fighting for a bit for attention so I got an extra three minutes of his time.”
For Linda, it is important to start the day well. And that means plugging into the news and the world. “There’s so many things to read, there’s so many things to take in. And I like beginning the day with knowing what the world is looking like a little bit.”
Her Twitter feed is a must. “I check my Twitter feed really almost first thing. It’s fairly curated so my feed is all about business, innovation, marketing, news, a little bit of art, a little bit of culture.”
On her 40-minute train ride to the office in Manhattan she catches up further, reading the likes of the Wall Street Journal, Business Insider and “a whole bunch of blogs”. She likes to start the day with a macro-sense of what’s going on in the world. And then there is her to-do list.
“Yeah I’m an organisation, punch-list kind of person, so I like knowing, ‘Here’s what I want to get through today. Here are the things that I want to try to accomplish.’ I have to have it written down – otherwise how am I going to check them off? That would be no fun!”
Linda steps into the office at 7am. Ahead of her is a day full of little tasks and big meetings, all to drive GE’s innovative content marketing strategy.
Since she stepped into the role in September she has already led the marketing department as they produced hit sci-fi podcast The Message, created a VR film and distributed cardboard VR headsets to New York Times readers, and released the TV series Breakthrough.
But before she gets stuck into the exciting part of the job, she has to tackle her inbox.
Linda Boff in conversation with The Guardian’s Jemima Kiss at our sister event Collision
Ticking off somebody else’s to do list
When you’re the CMO of the 8th-ranked Fortune 500 company, you wake up to a lot of emails. They’re largely, in Linda’s words, “somebody else’s to do list,” so she finds it best to get them out of the way early in the day. If the emails are piled too high, Linda admits to feeling antsy until she’s well rid.
Once a dent is made in her inbox, she wants to do the thing that makes a difference. What’s one tough task she can work on before the calendar, calls and meetings take over? “As the day goes on it becomes less of a day I control,” she says. “I try to do something that is a must-do to get started.”
The head of the content factory
Everyone’s heard of GE; they’ve had 124 years to build their brand. Linda’s role is less about general brand awareness and more about causing people to give GE a second look. The company they’re becoming is vastly different to what they were in the past. In fact, speaking to Linda you might think you’re speaking to a Silicon Valley startup founder. “The work we do here is all about iteration, failing fast, pivoting, cutting through bureaucracy, being more agile,” she says. This startup-like way of thinking was brought about by their internal programme FastWorks, which is based on work of Eric Ries, the author who coined the phrase “lean startup”, and David Kidder, author of The Startup Playbook.
Since Linda joined GE in 2003, she’s helped transform the company into a “content factory”. Linda’s known in the industry for her marketing prowess, being named B2B Magazine’s Digital Marketer of Year in 2012 and Mashable’s Individual Digital Marketing Innovator of the Year 2015. This year she was awarded the prestigious Matrix Award – one that recognises the outstanding achievements of women in communications.
For Linda, the Matrix Award was special. The luncheon where the awards are given out is a chance for women to tell stories about their journey and inspire the next generation of communications and marketing leaders in the room. “You’re looking up and you’re seeing either a future version of yourself or an earlier version of yourself. It’s really moving,” she says.
Putting the real world into perspective
No matter your level within a company, no matter how huge that company may be, everyone needs an escape. For Linda it’s the arts and theatre. As a child she was dragged to art galleries by her parents. Now she’s the one doing the dragging – her husband and grown-up children are the ones who usually get roped in. Her most recent art outing was to see the minimalist painter Frank Stella’s exhibition at the Whitney in NYC. “To me, art is like a story,” she says. “I love seeing how different artists approach this story.”
“I lose myself,” she says of theatre. “It inspires me in ways that put the real world into perspective,” Linda says.
Linda’s love of storytelling has influenced her work at GE. Take The Message, GE’s podcast that reached number one on the iTunes chart. Rather than promoting GE’s investment in sonic-health treatments, The Message tells the story of Nicky Tomalin, who is covering the decoding of a message from outer space received 70 years ago. It’s The Blair Witch Project meets Serial. It’s also a nod to GE’s marketing of the past – GE Theater was a popular series that told weekly stories with its host Ronald Reagan.
A further example was the industry first of partnering with the New York Times to give every reader an opportunity to experience virtual reality with a set of GE-branded cardboard glasses. And then a series of virtual reality films, including one from GE.
“Efforts like that are incredibly important because they put us in a different light. Everybody knows GE but they cause people to give GE a second look. And they can understand the company that we’re becoming, which is a very different company from the company we’ve been,” says Linda.
Staying grounded when you’re at the top
The end of the day is about family and, often, dinner. “The whole time when the kids were growing up we would try to have dinner together. My husband’s a good cook; he would make dinner. And even though it was a little bit on the later side, seven o’clock or so, we would have dinner together.
“And that to me is a super important ritual. Super important. And if I don’t have a business obligation, I’ve tried to protect our family time – it’s something that makes me happy,” she says.
Asked if there is an adage that she tries to live by, Linda emphasises how important it is to keep things in perspective, to stay grounded even when you are the CMO of one of most important companies on the planet.
“There’s one that I always throw out because I find that it’s one that is both comforting and grounding at the same time. The idea that you’re never as good as you think you are on your best day and never as bad as you think you are on your worst day,” she says.
“I think that kind of evens stuff out. It evens out the bad days. Nobody really walks on water, even when you’re feeling great.”